Judge Dredd and the powerlessness of God

On Tuesday I went with friends to see the reboot of the Judge Dredd film franchise, ‘Dredd.’ I wouldn’t recommend it for its poorly unimportant and uninteresting narrative, poorly developed characters and horrendously excessive violence – it’s a boring film, I’d tell you not to bother seeing it but who knows, you may like it.

However, Dredd is a relatively interesting character. He is a man charged with dispensing justice and judgment, as the law of ‘Megacity 1’ requires.

“I am the law” and this is justice

Law in Megacity 1 is formulated so that it is that it is universal, unilateral, univocal and unequivocal. Justice takes on its meaning in the light of the law. It is primarily retributive and punitive, containing no exceptions and brokers no argument. Dredd does his rounds of the city, dishing out judgments – most of which involve locking someone up or adjudicating that someone must die. It is often said as well that “the law is blind.” The idea being that law, in administering justice, should be objective and applied the same way in all situations, regardless of mitigating circumstances – this is perhaps why Dredd never takes of his helmet, what more could the city ask for?

This is justice in Megacity 1. It is personified in Dredd, who says “I am the law.”

The one ray of hope in the film is when the supporting character, Judge Anderson, let’s a coerced helper to the film’s ‘Big Bad’ go. Dredd had stated that the law, and as such justice, required that this character and anyone else guilty of and complicit in helping the Big Bad were sentenced to death. Anderson judged otherwise, discerning that this character had been manipulated into assisting the Big Bad and thus decided ‘the law’ was not applicable in this situation because for Anderson, unlike Dredd, with the eyes of one who has just started and ants to make a difference, knows that justice is situational and therefore contains and demands grace.

Justice and law do not operate as Dredd conceives of them, we know this. Justice is rarely unambiguous, uni-directional, the property of one person or group, nor applicable in all situations. Justice is fluid and appreciative of context.

Megacity 1 and “social” justice

This makes sense in the wider social situation of Dredd. Megacities, in the film, house the majority of the population of what was the US. Cities with total populations of 800 million, with 75,000 crimes taking place per day and endemic poverty affecting huge sectors of society.

The answer to these ever escalating problems, for Megacity 1, is to put criminals away, to lock them up. Justice, as the law demands, is served in punishing “crime.” This is expressed most bizarrely when Dredd threatens and decides to arrest a homeless man for being homeless!

However, justice must also ask questions like, why is this crime taking place? Why is poverty present at such endemic and systemic levels? Could the two be connected? Could justice be established if society’s intrinsic disparities were unearthed, addressing the underlying problems in the fabric of society that lead to crime? Justice might mean equity, education and restoration, not just retribution and punishment. Justice is multifaceted, it is not simply an abstract idea or proposition it is a real, social possibility. For that to happen, of course, the law would have to revised and that wouldn’t suit Dredd.

Let’s theologise some on God and Dredd

Another interesting element, aside from the issues pertaining to the Dredd franchise’s conception of justice and society, is that in many ways I think it possible that Dredd reflects how many people understand God.

God is characterised as one who operates universally, univocally and unilaterally because God has all of the power (omnipotence), right?

And of course, when God judges it must be punitive and retributive, operating with absolute, blind universal, objectivity. God reigns supreme and makes sure we get what we deserve because our sin (or lawlessness) is offensive to God, and no one crosses God because God is a judge to be feared. Unless you are on ‘Team Jesus’ there are/is
no exceptions/no grace/no forgiveness because God says, “I am the
law.” Am I getting it right?

I think this is a mistake, I think is entirely in error. John D. Caputo notes,

The dangerous memory of the crucified body of Jesus poses a threat to a world organised around the disastrous concept of power, something that is reflected today in the widespread critique of the concept of “sovereignty…” The crucified body of Jesus proposes that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as a power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty.

This is well attested to throughout the OT and NT.

The “God of Israel” is a God who operates in particularity not universality because this God deals in and with the contingency, provisionality and conditionality of events and circumstances that pervade God’s interaction with this people descended from Abraham through whom God intends to bless the world.

The God of Abraham, Moses, prophets and kings makes room to work bilaterally and in tandem with those who formulate law and administer justice, as God negotiates with them to participate in the Abrahamic covenant.

This God does not have all the of the power. This God doesn’t get its way. This God has its agenda blocked and put in need of adaptation. This God makes space for negotiation and readjustment of aims and purposes because this is the risk of rejecting universality, unilaterality and univocality for particularity, multivocality, mutuality and open-ended discussion.

This God is weak because this God always makes space for ‘the other,’ and it is precisely in that weakness that we are solicited by justice, grace and forgiveness that the Dredd-God knows not.

Why? Because this God sees and is not blind to the plight of the oppressed and is concerned for the refugee and the homeless. This God does not wear a helmet that aids objective and blind decisions but looks to the injustice, not the unjust criminal alone.

This God hears the cry of those who suffer unjustly and is mobilised on their behalf by the sound, not by the sound of a comm. unit notifying the need for crime to be punished, regardless of the victims.

This God’s heart breaks with compassion and desires justice and peace for those who seek it (as well as those who deny it). Embodied most clearly in the homeless, cross-dead failed Jewish Messiah and God-man, who lived with such as the above.

This God forgives, and is gracious toward, the unjust and the oppressors (these acts their own kind of of protest and condemnation that refuse the binary of violence). This God does not dish out punishment like a vending machine – this justice is restorative and aware of context and the situational nature of events, and thus the need for understanding.

All this is exemplified in and solicited by the cross – here we see demonstrated fully that the power of this God is powerlessness, the strength of this God is weakness. Yet this weakness calls us to a radically new and irrevocable way of being founded in this weakness, providing a new paradigm in which to envisage law and justice. Again, Caputo writes,

The icon of God we find in Jesus on the cross is not an icon of power but of powerlessness, or at most of a power of powerlessness… What rises up in majesty from the cross is not a show of might but rather forgiveness, not power but a protest against the unjust execution of a just man, a great prophetic “no” to injustice and persecution, a prophetic death rather than a sacrificial exchange that buys a celestial reward. Something  unconditional lays claim to us in that weakness – something unconditional but without exercise of force. He is tried, convicted, tortured, and paraded through the streets in shame on the way to a particularly gruesome public execution… But the weakness of God has nothing to do with a timid and fearful man and everything to do with the courage of prophetic impatience. The God of forgiveness, mercy and compassion shines like a white light on the hypocrisy of those who, under the cover of God, oppress the most defenseless people in society.

Dredd would not likely die for the unjust, for the lawbreakers, his law and justice would mean he would have to go down fighting. Dredd only knows how to kill.

The God of Israel and Jesus is not like Dredd.

God is seen fully in dying precisely for those who are the unjust and lawless. God only knows how to die for others and it is here we see the paradigm for how justice flows.

For the God of Israel and Jesus is a God who is neither blind nor deaf, neither aloof nor impersonal – this God knows justice is situational and cannot be administered based on a totalising law.

This God, like Anderson, knows when grace is warranted in the pursuit of justice and the application of law – and whenever we reflect on this weak, powerless, cross-dead God, we see that grace abounds because this God does not judge saying, “I am the law” but instead declares “I am love.” And love we know makes exceptions, is full of grace and overflows with forgiveness. This is the paradigm for justice that the God of Jesus has established, and the law will have to struggle to keep up because, as Albert North Whitehead once remarked,

Love is a little oblivious to morals.