The Biblical allusion in the film’s title creates an immediate connection between Judas and the Black Messiah and Christianity. One of the central themes of the film is fighting for justice, which is also a Christian value. However, as the narrative of Judas and the Black Messiah unfolds, with ruthless violence being perpetrated by both the FBI and the Black Panthers, it becomes clear that the film is missing a crucial theme: mercy and forgiveness. In the cruel world Judas and the Black Messiah presents, there is no way to be merciful and pursue justice. Yet, as Christians, we are called both to do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8). How do we fight for justice without leaving mercy behind, and how do we practice mercy while pursuing justice?
Justice without Forgiveness
Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panther Party, believed that if people of color were going to escape racism and injustice, they could not do it by “making peace” with the white-controlled government of the United States. Justice would come only through revolution. In Judas and the Black Messiah, he passionately declares, “We don’t fight fire with fire, we fight fire with water. We don’t fight capitalism with capitalism, we fight capitalism with socialism!” Despite his impassioned declaration, Hampton and the Black Panthers did “fight fire with fire,” fighting hate with hate. As portrayed in Judas and the Black Messiah, in their headlong pursuit of justice for people of color, the Black Panthers poured out their hate for white people and the FBI poured out hate right back. It seems as if justice and forgiveness are incompatible. In the real world, do we have any hope for justice with forgiveness?
To answer this difficult question, we turn to Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf. Volf is part of a people group that was on the receiving end of unimaginably violent ethnic cleansings in the 1990s, during the Yugoslav Wars. As a Croatian, Volf has as much reason as anyone to desire justice, and even vengeance, against those who brutalized his people group. Yet, as a Christian, Volf recognizes the need for mercy and forgiveness even in the midst of injustice.
Central to Volf’s theology of forgiveness is the recognition that every person is in some sense the same. In our sin, we have the tendency to label groups of people as “not like us” and therefore see them as less human. When we cannot recognize our shared humanity, we cannot forgive. Volf writes, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”1 There is no room for forgiveness when we see anyone as “not like we are” and see ourselves as “not as bad as they are.”
Who is My Neighbor?
Volf’s theology of forgiveness is an echo of Jesus’s teaching when he is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a parable that implies that every person is your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). Volf’s reply is the same: everyone is your neighbor, even your persecutor. As Christians, we are meant to extend mercy and forgiveness to everyone, even our persecutors or those who differ from us (Matthew 5:44).
Yet for those who have suffered deep injustice, such as the injustice the Black Panthers are rebelling against in Judas and the Black Messiah, it is difficult to identify yourself with your persecutors, making it nearly impossible to love them. Volf suggests that when we suffer injustice, we become blind to the injustice we cause in return. He writes, “The fiercer the struggle against the injustice you suffer, the blinder you will be to the injustice you inflict. We tend to translate the presumed wrongness of our enemies into an unfaltering conviction of our own rightness.”1 Without forgiveness, injustice creates a self-perpetuating cycle. Victims become victimizers, and everyone becomes convinced that their actions are justified and their enemies’ actions are wrong. Only forgiveness can break this destructive cycle.
In all this talk of forgiveness, we must not forget about justice. We must not pursue forgiveness at the expense of justice. It may seem as if forgiveness and justice are incompatible, but for Christians, they are not. Volf put it this way: “To be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That’s what the forgiving God does.” Forgiveness includes justice because it condemns the wrongdoing, but forgiveness does not condemn the wrongdoer. Forgiveness recognizes that we are all the same: both victims and oppressors. We are all at fault, desperately needing both to forgive and to be forgiven.
Judas and the Black Messiah portrays a world in which justice and mercy cannot co-exist. Apart from the reconciliation all people can find in Jesus Christ, this picture of the world would be accurate. Only in Jesus Christ does it make sense to pursue both forgiveness and justice. It takes a miracle of forgiveness to break the destructive cycle of injustice. As Volf puts it, “Whatever the reasons, when forgiveness happens it is always a miracle of grace.”1
Apart from Jesus, both the violent rebellion of the Black Panthers as a solution to injustice and the brutal quelling of that rebellion by the FBI make sense. Without Christ, the only way to fight injustice is with injustice and hate with hate. This approach makes sense to the world, but in light of the reconciling power of Jesus, Christians do not have the option to fight hate with hate. We instead have the far more difficult yet blessed option of fighting hate with love. We cannot settle for a passive forgiveness that accepts injustice, nor can we embrace a violent justice that refuses to forgive. Instead, we seek to bring justice and forgiveness together in harmony, looking to Christ as our model who, as he died on the cross to satisfy God’s demand for perfect justice, spoke the words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
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