Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A broken justice system as a reflection of bad theology?

I often am surprised that so many so called "Christians" are hell-bent on punishment and retribution, rather than forgiveness and reconciliation.  For example, in the immigration debate, the conservatives feel that even the "Dreamers" (the kids brought over illegally by Mom and Dad) don't deserve a path to citizenship, because that would be "rewarding" them for breaking the law.  Liberals are more likely to want to forgive a transgression for which they bear no responsibility, and see them fully enfranchised as productive citizens.

Similarly, I remember being shocked that then-Texas Governor George W Bush smirkingly denied clemency for a woman convicted of murder and sitting on death row, who had turned her life around into service and faith.  No, "justice must be served" by killing her,rather than recognizing the potential of redemption.

It's a revengeful, elemental view of right and wrong that is willing to put the cross on another's back rather than lift it and share the burden.

An article in Sojourners puts this same divide between those who seek revenge versus reconciliation, and puts it as "bad theology".
For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” (a poor theological understanding that I also feel has led to an evangelical culture of spanking). Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled (perhaps not with each other, but in a general sense). 
Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration. 
And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored . The justice we seek in society today all gets traced back to how we view the justice of the cross.
WHat do you think?


Adam Wood said...

It is not bad "theology of justice" to believe that wrongdoing must be punished.

The theological fault is the notion that a human government is capable or authorized to act on behalf of God as a dispenser of Justice.

JCF said...

Optimistically (as it were), I attribute this kind of theology to child abuse: "Daddy (and/or mommy) beat me, so BigDaddyGod is the same way. FRY THAT BADGUY!!!"

Pessimistically, it may be genetic. A genetic predisposition to violence (perhaps held somewhat in check by fear of getting caught), and a rationalizing of same (BigDaddy again).

James said...

There is, for a certain type of personality, who receive a thrill from the though of someone else being severely punished. This seems to be pandemic among the evangelicals, fed by the misreading of scripture and ignoring the "vengeance is mine" scripture.

I have long referred to that mindset as the "Caligulaites".

Kevin K said...

The distinction is between justice and mercy. There is nothing unjust about punishing those who commit evil acts. This is, I suspect, who so much of popular entertainment focuses on revenge themes in which the wronged hero tracks down and punishes the wrongdoer. Because I would (despite being a conservative) like mercy, I endorse this over justice.

JCF said...

This may be a question of semantics but, contra AdamW and KevinK, I think "punishment" IS Against the Will of God.

"Justice" is about identification, naming, correction [here's the semantics part], and restitution of wrong-doers.

"Punishment", *to me*, is inherently about taking that "pound of flesh" from the wrong-doer. It's about making them SUFFER. Specifically, it's about making them suffer (usually in a physical sense) BEYOND any "pentitential" remorse that may occur w/ the identification, naming, correction and restitution.

Punishment is violence. BigDaddyGod may be all for it; God-in-Christ, not so much.

Kevin K said...

My point is that justice can rationally include punishment and that there can be a theologically consistent position. I believe that Christians who embrace retribuitve justice make a profound mistake. If Jesus embraced retribution, whem he was resurrected he would have punished those who killed him. Instead, he forgave them.

Kevin K said...

Forgive the typos. I am using a new style keyboard. I hate change!