[This sermon was given at the June 28, 2015, Action by Christians Against Torture, USA, annual meeting, at Pleasant Hill Community Church, Pleasant Hill, TN, June 28, 2015]
I am grateful for the invitation to be with you this morning. And I am grateful for your witness for life. I find it truly distressing to live in a nation—admirable in so many ways—where state-sponsored violence remains so common. This violence becomes terribly ironic given the reputation the United States of America has of being a “Christian” nation. And, in fact, survey show that being a self-identified Christian makes it more likely that an American citizen will support war, the death penalty, and torture. What the hell?
So, this is an opportunity. If we oppose war, the death penalty, and torture—and if we identify as Christians—we have some theologizing to do. At least that’s what I think. One area where we might get somewhere is with a biblically grounded theology of justice—of, what I will call restorative justice. Such a theology provides tools for opposing the theology of retributive justice that is so popular in America, the theology that underwrites so much of the violence we decry.
What is justice?
Before I go to work on my theology of justice, though, I would like to start with word associations from you after I read three short Bible passages that speak of justice. As I read, think about what you think of when you think of “justice.”
Psalm 85:8-13: God the Lord will speak peace to God’s people who turn to God in their hearts. Surely salvation is at hand. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and justice will look down from the sky. Justice will go before the Lord, and will make a path for the Lord’s steps.
Amos 5:6-7, 21-24: Seek the Lord and live, you who turn justice to poison. God says this to you: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your sacrifices, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Romans 3:21-24: Now, separate from works of the law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through [the faithfulness of] Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they all are now justified by God’s grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
So, “justice”—what do you associate with justice?…
Let me start with a story—some would say a story of justice, others a story of injustice. Some of you may remember, in July, 1997, the state of Virginia executed Joseph O’Dell. According to Helen Prajean’s book, The Death of Innocents, Joseph O’Dell was almost certainly innocent of the crime for which he was killed.
When O’Dell was on trial, he realized that the court-appointed lawyer had no interest in defending him, so out of desperation he defended himself—though he had no legal training. Plus, being imprisoned he could do little evidence gathering. Even so, his conviction of a capital crime relied on the testimony of a fellow-prisoner. This guy later admitted that he made up his testimony. He thought that that would help him get out of prison (which it did).
So, O’Dell was convicted and was given a death-sentence. Only then did he get help from professionals. This help included a DNA test that undermined the state’s scantly evidence allegedly linking him to the crime. But the Commonwealth of Virginia did not allow this new evidence to be considered. The state and the courts were not interested in determining what actually happened; they wanted an execution—and got it.
Our system rewards prosecutors who gain capital convictions. People in power are impatient with what they see as inefficient delays in the exercise of the machinery of punishment—so they make it harder and harder for those convicted of crimes to gain a new hearing. This is true even as dozens upon dozens of convicted people have been shown to be innocent due to DNA testing in recent years. We now know for sure just how shoddy the process of defending those accused of crime is in so many places.
There is something that undergirds these dynamics of state-sponsored killing. A general sensibility in our society that “justice” requires vengeance, that justice requires punishment, that justice requires pain for pain, that justice requires even death in face of violent crime. People feel an urgency that makes them impatient with anything that delays the “gratification” that comes from the exercise of retribution. This urgency that almost guarantees the kinds of abuse that happened with Joseph O’Dell.
O’Dell’s cause had been taken up before his execution by the city of Palermo in Italy. After his death, the Italians requested that he be buried in Palermo. This is what his gravestone says: “Joseph Roger O’Dell, honorary citizen of Palermo, killed by Virginia, USA, in a brutal and merciless justice system.”
I have become convinced that these words do not actually belong together: “brutal and merciless” with “justice.” Certainly what we call our “criminal justice system” is, to an unconscionable degree, “brutal and merciless.” To the extent this is so, though, we have a system not of genuine justice but rather a “criminal injustice system.”
We need restorative, not retributive, justice. In recent years a movement has emerged that challenges the dynamics of a criminal justice system based on retribution. Despite the exciting work of this “restorative justice” movement, we still have mostly seen an expansion of the destructive dynamics of retribution. Forty years ago, our rate of imprisonment in the U.S. was about 100 prisoners per 100,000 people in the general population—one of the highest in the world, but in the same general ballpark as most other countries in the West. But now, our rate is off the charts in relation to these other countries—over 700 prisoners per 100,000.
Not only has it become good politics to send people to prison, it has also become big, big business. More and more prison systems are being privatized. This provides great incentive to build more prisons, great incentive to send more people to jail, great incentive to make it harder to get out, and great incentive to make the prison experience more and more devastating. When more prisoners mean more profits, why should the prison-industrial complex seek to rehabilitate and restore?
One factor that clearly does help prisoners not return to prison is education. College programs in prison are some of our best investments if we want to help the prisoners break out of the cycle of crime. So what do we see happening? We see these programs cut and eliminated. It’s not good for the prison business to help prisoners find healing—and it is not consistent with the retributive mindset.
Now, this is crazy. We have this incredible public expense of tax monies for the building and sustaining of prisons—and as much of this money as possible is siphoned off to the profits of the private prisons. At the same time, the prison system also profoundly undermines public safety. Even with our ever harsher sentencing, most convicts are released at some point—and most commit crimes again and end up back in prison. Prisons teach violence. Good for business but not good for the health of our society.
Why do we put up with this? Well, there is a lot of public ignorance and a lot of behind the scenes decisions made by people in power. But we also have a retributive mindset in our culture. This mindset makes people want offenders to be convicted of crimes so that those convicts will suffer—and that mindset is played like a fiddle by those who profit from prisons.
The logic of retribution
This retributive mindset has roots in Christian theology, what I call the “logic of retribution.” This is how that logic works: God is understood in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured. According to this framework, God’s response to sin is punitive. Jesus’ death on the cross is seen to be necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful humans to escape our deserved punishment. For this view, punishment is God’s will, reflecting God’s character. The first, and most basic, attribute of God is said to be holiness—the belief that God simply cannot countenance any kind of sin. If God has direct contact with sin, God must destroy it immediately.
Because of this holiness, it is said, 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 for God. As one theologian writes, “For God to remove or ignore the guilt of sin without requiring a payment would in effect destroy the very moral fiber of the universe, the distinction between right and wrong.”
So, justice, in this framework, requires payment for wrong-doing. This payment is made through punishment, pain for pain. Salvation happens only because God’s holiness is satisfied through the ultimate act of violence – the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. In this view, God is no pacifist. In fact, it is part of God’s plan that God’s own Son be violently put to death.
In this understanding of the nature of God, the logic of retribution indeed leads to acceptance of “justifiable violence.” Retributive violence is required in response to wrong-doing. However, I believe this dynamic only reinforces the spiral of violence. The logic of retribution feeds the spiral: violence leading to more violence leading to more violence. The logic of retribution blinds we Americans to how our criminal justice system has become so unjust.
A theological challenge
Here is where restorative justice enters—as a breath of hope and fresh air. It started as a practical exercise, on the ground, trying to find a way to help victims and offenders find a measure of healing. Now it becomes a theological challenge—can we reformulate our understanding of justice (our theology) and free ourselves from the straitjacket of the logic of retribution?
In a word, Yes. And it won’t be that difficult—at least on an intellectual level. We have strong evidence from the Bible itself in favor of a theology of justice that is clearly and strongly restorative. A Dutch legal philosopher, Herman Bianchi, understood this. He called the Western word’s trust in retributive justice a sickness, with terrible consequences for social wellbeing. So, how about some homeopathic medicine? Bianchi, a secular person, suggested that we take some of the pathogen that causes the sickness—theology—and actually use it as therapy for healing. Bianchi recognizes that the Bible actually can counter retributive dynamics.
Let me illustrate by looking briefly at today’s scripture texts. In the western world, we tend to set impersonal justice over against more relational concepts such as love and peace and compassion. However, in biblical Hebrew, you have terms such as shalom (peace, wholeness, harmony, the community functioning in healthy ways) and chesed (steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion) linked together with mispat (justice). When human community works right, it is characterized by peace, compassion and justice, all complementary social attributes.
Our Psalm 85 text expresses this beautifully: God will speak peace to God’s people, to those who are faithful, salvation is at hand, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other” (85:10)—another translation is “justice and peace shall embrace.” This picture of wholeness, of genuine healing, presents justice, love, and peace as being together, different terms for the one reality of salvation. So, our first point about biblical justice is that it complements love, compassion, shalom, forgiveness, salvation.
But what about judgment, justice as retribution? Certainly the Bible (and not only the Old Testament) tells about judgment, about consequences for violating shalom, consequences for injustice. But notice something from Amos. Amos certainly does threaten judgment—but this judgment does not define justice. It is something different.
Justice, in Amos, is the solution; it is what the community should (what the community must) seek. Justice is about life. Let justice roll down like waters, like an ever-flowing stream. Water is the basis for life. Injustice is like wormwood; it is a poison. Justice is like water; it is a life-giving force. Punishing judgment is not “justice”—it is what happens when there is no justice. Justice is about healing; justice is about transformation—not about punishing.
The key to the book of Amos is its final few verses that portray restoration and healing. Many scholars see this vision as something added on to the book later, arguing that it contradicts the earlier message of punitive judgment. Well, I would say actually this final vision tells us what the purpose of justice is—restoration, not punishment. By taking this vision of healing seriously, we can see that the message of the book as a whole is not a punitive message but a message of hope. Even amidst the injustices and poison of the present social order, God’s message of justice remains truthful—turn to justice and find healing. Justice as restoration.
So, the second point is that biblical justice is distinct from biblical punitive judgment—it is the antidote for judgment not the fuel for judgment. Justice seeks restoration not condemnation.
The New Testament reinforces this message. Our Romans 3 verses tell us that justice is linked very closely with salvation—totally consistent with what we have seen in Psalm 85 and Amos 5. The justice of God has been disclosed as the power for salvation for all people. Paul has demonstrated in Romans that all types of people are sinful and need God’s mercy—now he insists that indeed God has shown us this mercy.
God’s justice remains a power for life, a power for salvation, a power for love, a power for shalom. We see that in the most powerful way possible in the life and teaching of Jesus—and if we truly see Jesus, we will be freed from (we will be redeemed from) the powers of injustice, idolatry, and violence that Paul describes earlier in Romans. So a third point about biblical justice—it is the power of healing and salvation. We see saving justice most clearly in the life of Jesus. When we truly trust in and seek to embody God’s justice disclosed in Jesus we will be freed from our sinful practices of injustice (just as those Amos spoke to would be were they to let justice roll down like water).
So, this is biblical justice, restorative justice—it complements love and compassion; it is distinct from punitive judgment; and it is the power of healing and salvation.
Justice as restoring harmony
This paradigm of restorative justice links Christian theology with other faith traditions. Tony Hillerman, in his novel Sacred Clowns, has a Navajo character explain how restorative justice might work in their setting. The main character in the novel is Jim Chee, a traditional Navajo and tribal police officer. Chee debates justice in a discussion with his lawyer friend, Janet Pete.
The issue is a hit-and-run driver. Jim says, Let’s say he’s basically a good person who drinks too much at a birthday celebration. Driving home he hits this pedestrian.…He hears something and backs up. But he’s drunk. He doesn’t see anybody. So he drives away. One day I catch him. What do I do?”
Janet replies: You just think about why you have laws. Society puts a penalty on driving drunk because it kills people. You arrest this guy, present the evidence in court, and the court finds he was guilty. The judge weighs the circumstances and sentences him to maybe a year or two in prison plus probation.
Jim makes the case more complicated. But this guy is taking care of a disabled kid grandchild whose parents have abandoned him.
Janet insists this doesn’t change anything. “Society passes laws to ensure justice. The guy broke the society’s laws. Justice is required.”
Then Jim: Justice. That’s a religious concept, really. I’ve been taught, if you damage somebody, you sit down with their family and figure out how much damage and make good. That way you restore…harmony again between two families. If somebody harms you out of meanness—say you get in a bar fight and he cuts you—then he’s the one who’s out of harmony. You aren’t taught he should be punished. He should be cured. Gotten back in a balance with what’s around him. Made beautiful again. Beautiful on the inside, of course. Back in harmony. There’s no value in punishment, but in curing.
Jim’s does not arrest the hit-and-run driver, but takes steps to help the man heal. A response of restorative justice—healing justice, we could say. Justice that heals—and a step toward healing us of our damaging notions of retributive justice. Navajo justice and biblical justice look a lot alike.