[This is the first in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]
In our present time in the United States, being a self-identified Christian makes a person more likely than a non-Christian to support warfare, punitive criminal justice practices including the death penalty, and corporal punishment of children. It seems likely that one reason American Christians are more pro-violence is because of their acceptance of a theology that understands salvation in terms of God’s retributive justice.
The logic of retribution
This salvation theology is based on a certain view of the “atonement”: The atonement is seen to be how Christ accomplished our justification (i.e., being found righteous before God) through his sacrifice on the cross. Implied in this understanding of atonement is that God’s ability to provide salvation is constrained pending the offering of an appropriate sacrifice. It seems inevitable that violence play a role in satisfying the demands of God’s character—and that violence is part of God’s response when the satisfaction is not forthcoming.
As a rule, to act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides our normal tendency not to be violent. Most socially accepted uses of violence (such as war, capital punishment, and corporal punishment) follow a fairly self-conscious logic. At the core of this logic usually rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution; using violence is justified as the appropriate response to wrongdoing. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (usually defined as repayment of wrongdoing with violent punishment, pain for pain).
We may call this the “logic of retribution.” In this logic, people understand God in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. They see God’s law as the unchanging standard by which sin is measured, and believe God responds to violation of God’s law with justifiable violence. Most violence is justified as being in some sense an expression of this deserved punishment.
In this view, when human beings violate God’s holiness, God must (due to God’s holiness) punish them. Violated holiness must be satisfied. According to the logic of retribution, then, God (in effect) is governed by inflexible holiness and human beings inevitably violate that holiness. Because of the fundamental nature of this holiness, God is not free to act with unconditional mercy and compassion toward rebellious human beings. Simply to forgive would violate God’s holiness. Compassion without satisfaction is not possible with God. For God to ignore sin without requiring a payment would destroy the very moral fiber of the universe.
So, for such theology, due to the extremity of the offenses by human beings against God’s law, the only way God can relate to human beings is if there is a death on the human side to restore the balance. The only way this can happen is through the enormity of the death of God’s own son, whose own holiness is so powerful that it can balance out the unholiness of all of humanity. Salvation happens only because God’s holiness or honor is satisfied through the ultimate act of violence—the sacrificial death of Jesus. In light of this understanding of the nature of God and of the fundamental nature of the universe, the logic of retribution indeed leads to acceptance of “justifiable violence.” Violence is seen as the best response to wrongdoing.
The violence of “criminal justice”
The issue of punishment has to do with how human beings understand the world in which we live and the values by which we shape our lives. Beliefs about God, about God’s character, and about the nature of ultimate reality shape our concept of retribution or punishment as justice.
In the retributive model of justice, crime has come to be defined as against the state, justice has become a monopoly of the state, punishment has become normative, and victims have been disregarded. Our modern paradigm of retributive justice might be characterized like this: (1) Crime is understood primarily as a violation of the (unchanging, impersonal) law, and the state is the victim. (2) Offenders must get what they deserve. The aim of justice is to establish blame and administer pain in order to satisfy the demands of the moral balance in which the violation is countered by the punishment. (3) The process of justice finds expression as a conflict between adversaries in which the offender is pitted against state rules, and intentions outweigh outcomes and one side wins while the other side loses.
This paradigm is a recipe for alienation. By making the “satisfaction” of impersonal justice (or, “God’s holiness”) the focus of society’s response to criminal activity, the personal human beings involved—victims, offenders, community members—rarely find wholeness. Moreover, the larger community’s suffering only increases. Instead of healing the brokenness cause by the offense, we usually increase the spiral of brokenness. Many victims of violence speak of being victimized again by the impersonal criminal justice system. Offenders, often alienated people already, become more deeply alienated by the punitive practices and person-destroying experiences of prisons.
When we look through the “magnifying glass” of the United States prison system, we see a society focused on trying to control violence through violence, a society that willingly inflicts incredible suffering on an ever-increasing number of desperate people.
The logic of retribution is not actually an answer to the problem of violence; it is one of the central causes. Nothing stimulates crime as powerfully and effectively as punishment. Punishment is a form of violence in its own right, but it is also a cause of violence. It makes people more violent.
One response to the problem of retributive justice that might help is to re-examine Christianity’s founding documents, the writings of the Bible, and look for bases for a different understanding of justice, ultimate reality, and God. We may call this new understanding “restorative” (as opposed to “retributive”) justice.
In the posts that follow (expanded upon much more extensively in my book, Instead of Atonement), I outline a biblical and theological rationale for rejecting the logic of retribution in favor of a logic of mercy, a rationale to replace “bad news” theology with “good news” theology. I focus on one specific theological theme—salvation.
We may see at the heart of the retributive paradigm an understanding of God’s holiness and justice that bases salvation on sacrificial violence. In such a world, we find inevitable links between the belief that God requires violence in response to violence with the justification of human beings being the agents of such required violence against other human beings.
I argue that the Bible portrays the means of salvation as free from sacred violence. We may appropriately affirm that God’s will does not ever include violence. Our affirmation of God’s rejection of violence takes the ground out from the logic of retribution. We may, in God’s name, actively seek alternatives to the various ways of justifying violence as the appropriate response to wrongdoing.