NOTE: This post was written by one of our guest bloggers, Nathaniel Grimes. For more from Nathaniel, be sure to check out his page.
For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. -2 Cor. 5:19
Inside the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado, inmates spend 23 hours each day in solitary confinement. Mark Binelli in the NY Times described how one inmate slowly lost his mind, carrying out gruesome acts of self disfigurement and self harm in response to the conditions. A former warden said “this place is not designed for humanity.” He thought that most of the prisoners could be given more freedom, but “the public might not like it.”
Over the past two weeks, the Equal Justice Initiative has announced exonerations #151 and #152, two people set free from death row. These instances are in addition to the news of the prosecutor in Shreveport who has apologized for his role in sending an innocent Glenn Ford to death row decades ago.
Punishment is the order of the day, and it’s getting worse. Marie Gottschalk’s work on the growth of the carceral state in the past few decades shows how far we have moved past the time when “a “life” sentence typically meant on average spending about 14 or 15 years in prison” and points out that “countries that have weaker welfare states tend to have higher incarceration rates and higher crime rates.”
We can tinker around the edges, maybe make a few tweaks to ensure less collateral damage in the form of “innocent” people being punished, but on the whole, there is no altering the framework. Justice means someone has to pay.
It was this kind of retributive system Jesus was addressing when he brought up the“lex talionis” in Matthew 5:38. Israel’s law had included safeguards to ensure that “punishments fit the crime,” but as Scot Mcknight points out, the message was clear: “show no pity… what a person has done wrong needs to be undone by doing that same wrong back to them.” Jesus was not simply reforming this principle, but introducing its opposite: “show mercy and unravel the system of retribution that pervades our society.”
I’ll never forget the day I was reading the Lord’s Prayer and stopped at “forgive us our debts,” as if I was reading it for the first time. How does the idea of debts being forgiven work with the idea I had grown up with, that my debts had been paid? I had always imagined that the mercy God showed on the cross was His shifting my punishment to Jesus. Of course God had a system of justice like ours, that needed to be satisfied by punishment. I started to wonder – what if God was truly in Christ on the cross, and was serious about no longer counting people’s sins against them?
Justice in our world would mean the unremorseful crucifiers get the exact punishment they deserved – a death for a death. God raising up Jesus through the power of the Spirit, with unconditional forgiveness to the guilty, is injustice in this construction. How often has it been remarked in high profile murder cases that “vengeance won’t bring the victim back?” God claimed the right of vengeance for Himself, but with this right He extended forgiveness, and brought the victim back.
Our current situation questions God’s wisdom in forgiving the crucifiers. How will they ever be made to see the errors of their ways? How can society be protected from the dangers they present? If we go soft now, what’s to stop anyone from joining them?
We ask these questions because they provide clear boundaries between us and the guilty ones, as if the whole of humanity was not implicated in the murder of God. The divine response to this sin was not new punishment, but new life. The public may not like it, but the ones that the Son sets free are free indeed. The story of Easter is justice being reconfigured as restoration instead of retribution, resurrection without revenge.
Art by Daniel Bonnell