Saturday, 12 April 2014

Released from retribution

An unstated assumption that underlies a lot of my culture's thinking is that evil deserves to be punished. As of today, I no longer believe it.

That change of heart comes from a long line of influences.
  • I read Butler's Erewhon way back about 1985. It's a humourous saga in the same genre as Gulliver's Travels, in which a lost traveller finds a land where physical sickness is punished but criminals are given medical attention.
  • I started a post-grad degree on the topic of forgiveness in mid 1990's and read Murphy and Hampton's wonderful book Forgiveness and Mercy. In that book and other readings at the time I learnt a lot about the retributive principle behind most modern law but also that there are other approaches to justice, including approaches that focus on restoration rather than punishment.
  • I've read plenty of Gandhi and Tutu and other apologists for non-violence. Come to think of it, I've read the Gospels for years!!! I've never been keen on the idea that people "deserve" anything, neither entitled to blessing nor deserving of punishment: the Bible makes plain that we live under grace rather than getting what we deserve.
  • More recently I have given away the belief that God is angry and vengeful, needing to inflict wrath on someone, if not on us then on Jesus. Reading Rob Bell and Rene Girard have helped along that path. Still reading Darrin Belousek's Atonement, Justice, and Peace to understand Jesus' death from a non-retributive point of view.

So why have I continued to believe, however implicitly, that the proper response, the just response, to wrong-doing is to punish the wrong-doer? The assumption has been so deeply ingrained that I have not been able to question it. It is woven into our legal system, into our understanding of God, into our approach to parenting, international relations, the "war on terror", asylum seekers, slave traffickers.

But it is foreign to the attitude shown by Jesus, and foreign to the image Jesus presents of God.

This fell into place for me when Belousek's book commented on these words of Jesus:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)

How does Jesus respond when betrayed by friends, unjustly treated in a legal system, and treated violently to the point of death? Does he show any signs of revenge? Any sign that the people harming him should fear punishment? Of course not! He says "Father forgive them"!

[I've gotta include an aside here to point out that Jesus was in the habit of forgiving people prior to dying as well. He did not need to die in order to be able to forgive people. Consequently, those who believe that Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God should have no problem understanding that God can forgive without Jesus having to die!]

Jesus tells his followers that the appropriate response to evil is love rather than retribution. But what Belousek showed me for the first time was the reason Jesus gives. Why should followers of Jesus not seek revenge? "That you may be children of your Father in heaven." That is, because God does not seek revenge and neither should God's children! God sends sun and rain equally on all people, not just those who deserve it. When we see someone metaphorically striking God on the cheek, we should never expect or hope that God will smite them, nor that God will swing to hit the "sinner" and clobber Jesus instead. Those who strike God on the cheek can expect God to turn the other cheek.

Perhaps I have found it hard to give up the idea that without retribution, people who commit horrible acts will just "get away with it". To eschew retribution can seem too soft and too tolerant of evils that really should be opposed. That misses the point. Certainly one alternative to retribution is to just accept any behaviour and not judge anything to be "evil". But that's certainly not the alternative Jesus promotes. His life stands in clear opposition to evil, and his death displays the power of love over evil. We can take the horror of real evil seriously and seek with all our heart, mind and strength to prevent, expose, and oppose evil, and to heal its consequences, without needing revenge or retributive punishment.

As I walked the streets of Wahroonga in the rain thinking that through, there was a moment of clarity and peace. Released from the need to support the retributive mind-set, I can all the more earnestly seek the well-being of even the most horrible people.

To my friends who figured this out a long time ago, sorry I have been so slow getting to this position. To my friends who still don't see it, come on guys! Catch up!


Anonymous said...

Disciples of Jesus who love and forgive their enemies show they are true children of their Father, who gives sunshine and rain even to evil people. After these words near the end of Mt. 5, Jesus does add a warning in Mt. 6:14-15, "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Matt said...

Thanks for the comment, though I'm not sure what you imply by referring to that verse. Perhaps it is to suggest that even Jesus believes that God sometimes acts with retribution, since he says that there are times God will not forgive. If so, I can't see the link.

In that verse it is not clear whether (a) in response to us not forgiving, God decides to withhold forgiveness from us or (b) the natural consequence of not being able to forgive others is that we cannot receive forgiveness either (and hence that God is literally unable to forgive us).

In either case, the act of not forgiving is not (or at least is not always) retributive. For it to be retributive, it has to be that you/God withhold forgiveness in order to punish. But you might withhold forgiveness for many other reasons such as being blocked from doing so by unaddressed psychological trauma, or using non-forgiveness as a teaching tool to emphasise the importance of forgiveness being a relational act.

I would suggest that neither Jesus nor God weild non-forgiveness as a tool of power to keep us feeling guilty or as a form of retaliation.


Anonymous said...

We and therefore must be that God in who's image we are made, can forgive those who wrong us though have not repented and do not even know there is a wrong to be corrected / acknowledged / forgiven.