I’ve been thinking lately on Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:38-42:
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
One of the impediments to the call to turn the other cheek, to love our neighbor as ourselves, is our notion of justice. Jesus’ command to “not oppose those who want to hurt you” seems to violate our notions of justice, doesn’t it?
Which brings up a question: What is God’s plan of justice for those who do wrong? Does nonviolence in fact endorse and enable wrongdoing? Can we claim justice has been served if we don’t respond to unjust violence with violence that is commiserate with the offense (i.e. “an eye for an eye”)?
Many of Jesus’ commands, along with other teachings in the New Testament about how to respond to evil and wrongdoing, come into tension with our expectations and sensibilities for justice.
Can we do both retributive AND restorative justice?
Here’s another way to frame this question: Is retributive justice (punishment and vengeance for wrongdoing) a superior notion of justice to restorative justice (amends that seek to return to the wrongdoer the dignity and humanity that evil has taken away).
Many would say, “Why not both?”
In response, we must ask these questions:
- How does punishment restore someone?
- Does violent retribution bring healing and restoration to the offender or the victim?
- What need does retributive punishment satisfy?
I would suggest that violence–the ongoing, retributive, back and forth, never-ending cycle of retribution and punishment–is what Scripture names as evil. Our notions of what “make for justice” are repeatedly shown in Scripture to be what’s wrong with the world.
This is surely true of Genesis 1-6, where we see the expansion of sin in the Garden of Eden primarily through the spread of violence. Cain kills Abel, Cain is worried about others killing him, Lamech brags about retaliatory violence, and finally in Genesis 6 we are told that humanity had become thoroughly evil.
How does God describe that evil? In Genesis 6:13 God names the evil as “filling the earth with violence.”
God withdrew his hand of protection and sustenance, allowing the primordial waters to once again throw the world into chaos, because violence filled the heart of every human. This is the only explicit reason given for the flood.
It seems that God takes human violence seriously.
Why I can’t get past nonviolence
This is one of the main reasons I cannot see how violence and justice can intermingle: Scripture describes violence as what is wrong with humanity; it is the ultimate evil.
How can we then use the ultimate evil unto a good end? I contend we cannot, although we have spent ourselves and our children trying and trying to do so.
So how did we get here? Why have we loved punitive retribution and called that justice? How have we convinced ourselves something God sees as ‘evil’ as something good?
A few thoughts:
1) Violence seems good
Violence is seductive, alluring, and crouching at the door. It is the ancient evil that has, and will continue to, present itself to us as necessary, virtuous, and unavoidable.
2) Western philosophy got us here
Due to nominalism and voluntarism in Western philosophy, we have made two moves that have been devastating:
- We’ve abstracted justice as an “ideal” to which God is beholden, i.e. “God must satisfy his justice,” or “God cannot violate his holy laws and any offense to them must be paid for.” This is nominalism. It makes God in bondage to some greater ideal or attribute that controls and dictates his behavior.
- We’ve separated God’s justice from our own, i.e. “What seems just to us isn’t what is just to God because God is so unlike us that we can’t comprehend the nature of offense to him, or, the heinousness of our wrongs.” This is voluntarism. What it means to us to be “loving” or “just” doesn’t correlate to God; thus, God’s “love” looks unloving to us, God’s “justice” seems arbitrary and unjust. But voluntarism explains this away by saying “Whatever God wills is just and loving; God wills retributive punishment; therefore, retributive punishment is good and just.” This makes words like “love” and “justice” nonsensical; our notions of love and justice do not correlate to God. In fact, we are forced to call actions “loving” and “just” that we would never call loving and just among human relationships.
3) Restorative justice is vulnerable
Restorative justice calls both the victim and the villain into a costly relationship. Retributive justice doesn’t cost the victim anything and doesn’t focus on the real evil of violence: the breakdown of relationship.
4) Scripture seems to give us pictures of retribution
We have images and pictures from Scripture of the final judgment which seem to us to be retributive and vindictive, i.e. God meting out punishment on sinners as an expression of justice. We must take these seriously and not dismiss any of them.
But if what I’m saying above is true, it’s worth looking again at these teachings and images to see if we’ve missed something: maybe we’ve read select texts through our lenses of retribution? What would a fresh reading of these texts look like without assuming retributive justice?
5) Retributive justice feels good
Retributive justice feels good. There’s something satisfying (in a way) about the bad guy/girl getting “what they deserve.”
6) We’ve conflated holiness and justice
We’ve conflated and reduced God’s holiness to his justice. But this isn’t how Scripture speaks of God’s holiness. God’s holiness also involves his mercy, for example.
7) We haven’t taken Jesus seriously
We simply have not taken seriously the repeated teachings of Jesus about enemy love that calls for unmerited favor, grace, mercy, generosity, and redemption for guilty persons as superior to calls for retribution. It is a substantial theme in Jesus’ teaching.
Bringing questions of violence home
I could go on, but at this point the pastoral letter is epically long. 🙂
Do you wrestle with violence? With the need to protect vulnerable people from evil? With how to do that while obeying Jesus command to “not resist an evil person”? Me too. Let’s continue to prayerfully struggle with these difficult ethical questions under the power of the cross, the self-emptying, sacrificial love that redeems and restores all things.
Yours in Christ,