Category Archives: Restorative justice

Salvation in the Bible—Violent or Nonviolent?

One of the big debates in Christian theology these days concerns how we understand salvation, atonement, reconciliation with God–and how this understanding relates to God’s and humans’ approaches to wrongdoing and justice that may or may not accept or even advocate violence.

I am developing an argument for an understanding of salvation that draws directly on the Bible and advocates for consistent nonviolence.  On September 12, 2009, I presented a set of five lectures at the London Mennonite Centre on theme, “Mercy Not Sacrifice: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness.”  I have posted those lectures here.

I start by looking at some ways salvation theology tends to underwrite human violence, focusing most extensively on our criminal justice system.  I then discuss how the Old Testament can actually be read as presented a peace-oriented salvation theology, reiterated and deepened in Jesus’ teaching and with his death and resurrection. I conclude by suggesting that Romans and Revelation also present salvation in peaceable ways.

Responses are welcome!

Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline

Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline. Herald Press, 2008.

I like the basic argument of this book very well. A Canadian Mennonite peace educator and practitioner has taken on a tremendously important topic: how do we respond to harm-doing without adding to the cycle of harm? And he states a clear point of view, that punishment (by definition a form of violence) is never appropriate. And he seeks to follow the logic of this point of view wherever it takes him–challenging the use of on corporal punishment on children, the use of retributive approaches to criminal justice, and the justification of international violence (i.e., warfare).

On the positive side, Redekop draws the insights of the restorative justice movement to articulate concrete alternatives to dealing with harm-doing in ways that do indeed promise to bring about genuine healing. His proposals may seem utopian, but they are based on actual human experience and are carefully thought through. Given the dead end road we are on with our dynamics of punishment and spirals of violence, he presents us with bases for hope that change may be possible.

I am delighted to see such a thoughtful and internally consistent presentation of this perspective. Though Redekop does not engage theology very seriously (and this is a problem), he frames his argument from within the Christian peace church tradition and its interpretation of the Bible. Sadly, Redekop’s Mennonite tradition with its generations long profound and lived-out opposition to state violence has nonetheless not been very self-aware about the damaging punitive practices toward its own children that have undermined its witness. Redekop alludes briefly to his own punishment-drenched up-bringing in a Mennonite family. And it’s great that he makes these connections–an exercise in self-awareness still pretty rare among the Mennonites I know and know of.

I do wish Redekop had been able to engage theology more deeply, but he at least gives theologians some impetus to test and expand his argument.

I do have one stronger criticism. I am sorry to say that I found the writing style to be uninspiring. The book has an exciting story to tell, but does not tell it in an engaging way. I had to plow on through most of the book. So my recommendation will be qualified. I fear people who are not already disposed to appreciate Redekop’s thinking here may find the book fairly tedious going and may lose patience. I hope not, though, because there is much wisdom and new thinking here.

Andrew Skotnicki. Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church

Andrew Skotnicki. Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Andrew Skotnicki sets out a Catholic theory of criminal justice that is humane and redemptive. He argues that the fundamental issue underlying criminal justice practices is whether or not Christ is seen in the criminal.  If he is not, abuses are inevitable.  If he is, we have hope that the criminal justice process may be redemptive.

Catholic approaches to criminal justice need to be grounded in a Catholic anthropology that understands each human being to be of inestimable value—value that is not diminished even by criminal behavior. Punishment has traditionally been justified on two grounds that stand in tension with each other: (1) “that punishment by lawful authority is both just and necessary for those who have freely chosen to disrupt the harmony established within and intended by God for creation” and (2) “that punishment does not achieve its true meaning until it arises from within and is willed by the offender, that is, until it becomes self-punishment” (p. 35).  One way to characterize Skotnicki’s agenda in the book is a whole is that he seeks to hold these two points together.

In the fourth and longest chapter, “Prison as the Normative Means and Punishment,” Skotnicki tells the fascinating story of the origins of long-term imprisonment as a form of punishment in monastic prisons.  The justification for the monastic prisons was confidence in the redemptive possibilities of penance.  To reflect on one’s sins while spending time in isolation provided the path to acknowledgment of the sins, repentance, and reconciliation with God and the community.

Skotnicki concludes with an outline of what he calls “A Catholic Theory of Criminal Justice.”  Here he catches up his historical analysis, his theological commitments, and his (brief) critique of present practices in our society.  The goal of criminal justice should center on wholeness—for society, for victims, and for offenders.  Imprisonment plays in important role in this quest for wholeness, both by honoring justice and order and by playing a crucial role in “atonement” (the reconciling of the offender with God and with the human community).  Perhaps the most distinctive element of Skotnicki’s theory lies in his strong emphasis on the efficacy of confinement as a means of bringing about repentance.

Skotnicki’s reminder that when offenders are not treated as full human beings “all hell breaks loose” continues to be timely and needed. Some questions remain, though.

(1) Despite the seriousness of this topic and Skotnicki’s obviously deep concern that our society’s criminal justice practices turn away from the abyss of unrestrained and dehumanizing retribution, the book’s tone reflects a surprising lack of urgency.  Skotnicki doesn’t engage in any detail the absolute crisis in our criminal justice system where the “cure” of an utterly heartless lock-’em-up without mercy approach to crime has greatly deepened the “disease” of violence and alienation in our society.  His theory, attractive as it may be, would gain in credibility and relevance were it formulated with more overt attention to our social context.

(2) I appreciate Skotnicki’s attempt to hold together the emphases on seeing Christ in the prisoner and the validity of autonomous retributive justice.  By insisting on the Christ-presence (and with it, the absolute value of reconciliation and healing of offenders), Skotnicki offers an important challenge to punitive practices that rely only on the goods of protecting order and the moral universe’s balance of justice.

However, might this attempt still not be doomed to an inevitable instability?  The two sides of this tension come from dramatically different (and perhaps irreconcilable) sources.  Jesus’ approach to “justice” and human wellbeing seems to reject the idea of autonomous justice.  For Jesus, all justice must serve healing—not stand as an independent principle.  When love and justice are separated, “justice” easily becomes co-opted, as in our current crisis.

(3) Skotnicki’s account of the origins of the practice of long-term imprisonment and the isolation of prisoners in monastic practices is fascinating and important.  This story certainly underwrites his commitment to the on-going possibility that confinement may (should) serve the healing of the offender.  However, his case is not strengthened by his failure to consider how the practice of seeking repentance through isolation has evolved to become perhaps the most effective means of punishment and torture.  As the colonial-era Quakers who led prison reform in the United States with an emphasis on isolation of the prisoner discovered to their horror, such isolation’s main effect is not to lead to repentance but to insanity.

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Healing Justice: Restoration, not Retribution

Here is my recent sermon that critiques the death penalty and our American culture’s retributive mindset–arguing for a biblically-oriented approach that seeks healing for victim and offender. The sermon was presented at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA, January 11, 2009.

Millard Lind. The Sound of Sheer Silence and the Killing State

Millard Lind. The Sound of Sheer Silence and the Killing State: The Death Penalty and the Bible. Cascadia Publishing House, 2004.

This book is a fitting conclusion to the career of Mennonite Old Testament scholar Millard Lind. Lind has written several important books on the Old Testament and ethical issues such as war and peace and the use of the law. This book on the death penalty, published when Lind was 86 years old, is a nice capstone.

Focusing on three biblical prophets–Moses, Elijah, and Jesus–Lind presents a strong case for see covenant love, not retribution, as the heart of Torah. As with his other writings, especially Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament, Lind’s strength here lies in his careful reading of the texts. He asks penetrating questions that allow him to see the peace-oriented message in the challenging parts of the Bible that is too often missed in conventional interpretations.

This book does not present a wide-ranging argument directly engaging contemporary issues (two helpful books by the late lay biblical scholar Gardner Hanks [Against the Death Penalty and Capital Punishment and the Bible] are more socially engaged). Lind’s focus is more narrow and its achievement more modest. But we should be most grateful that Lind was moved to produce this final testament. For Christians wrestling with their response to the death penalty, this book will be a useful resource.

Christopher D. Marshall. Crowned with Glory and Honor

Christopher D. Marshall. Crowned With Glory and Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition. Cascadia Publishing House, 2001.

This is a splendid little book. Marshall, a New Testament scholar who teaches in New Zealand, provides a concise but thorough account how the Bible and biblically-based theology may strongly affirm a commitment to human rights. In doing so, he shows conclusively that modern notions of human rights such as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fully compatible with Christian thought.

Along the way, Marshall does critique Enlightenment-based notions of human rights, but his intent is to build bridges more than pit Christian theological language against human rights language as is lamentably done by some Christians. Marshall’s strengths include a thorough understanding of the biblical message that allows him to provide an outline for a general biblical theology (Old and New Testaments) that serves as the basis for his affirmation of human rights. He helpfully focuses on the big picture in the Bible rather than isolated proof-texts.

Marshall also does a fine job in introducing the general arena of human rights thought as it has emerged in moral philosophy and political realities. In doing so, he gives Christians an excellent primer on the intersection of their theology with the public policy world–and he gives those unfamiliar with theology a good sense of how the Bible can be seen as friendly to their human rights concerns.

Yet another strength is Marshall’s economy of expression. His main text runs slightly less than 100 pages, but he is quite thorough in his discussion (beyond the main text we have 13 pages of informative endnotes and a 9-page bibliography). Certainly he could have said much more (and we could use a large tome on this subject). But what he presents is quite adequate and persuasive–Christians have every business strongly advocating human rights and human rights advocates from outside Christianity have every business welcoming biblical thought as part of their rationale for their advocacy.


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Biblical Bases for Restorative Justice

Over the past 30 years, the United States has increased our prison population ten-fold, from in the neighborhood of 200,000 to over 2 million. This transformation from a bad situation to a terrible situation has been catastrophic for too many in our society and the catastrophe continues to spread. One small response that has been emerging is the restorative justice movement.  Here is a recent lecture I presented on, “Biblical Bases for Restorative Justice.”

This lecture was paired with a lecture from my friend and colleague, Howard Zehr on the historical dynamics that have created our problems.  I  highly recommend Howard’s books in these themes:Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Christian Peace Shelf) and The Little Book of Restorative Justice (The Little Books of Justice & Peacebuilding).

James Logan. Good Punishment?

James Logan. Good Punishment?: Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment. Eerdmans, 2008.

This is an important and timely book.  Logan, a Mennonite who teaches at a Quaker school (Earlham College in Indiana) has provided a clear and devastating critique of the American criminal (in)justice system.  In careful, even understated prose, he details layer upon layer of social devastation–to the convicts who are treated like pieces of trash, to the victims of crime who are shunted aside by the system, and to the broader society that finds more and more resources being poured into a more and more ineffective (even counter-productive) prison-industrial complex.  A strong sense of humanity, grounded in his Christian faith, underlies Logan’s analysis.

By far the strongest part of the book is the first half, where Logan lays out the problems. He is quite persuasive in helping us see the social consequences of our society’s linking the violence of retributive philosophies and practices that takes already damaged people (convicted criminals) and damages them even further through dehumanizing punitive practices together with a powerful trend toward privatizing prisons and making them serve corporations’ lust for profits.

Logan writes this book as a theologian. He seeks to develop a case for what he calls “good punishment” where violations are taken seriously but become an occasion for seeking to heal the damage done rather than an occasion to unleash the forces of vengeance and (now) capitalist extraction of profits from human misery. He draws especially on the work of the pacifist Methodist theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas in this constructive effort.

I greatly appreciate Logan’s attempt to respond to this terrible crisis theologically. Indeed, the churches and the larger society are in dire need of such responses. The Dutch law professor, Herman Bianchi, makes the evocative statement that since the western theological tradition has so much responsibility for the crises we find ourselves in, one important step in a positive direction would be to apply some “homeopathic” therapy where we draw on this same tradition for resources that might heal the damage it has done. Logan’s work is an important effort at such homeopathic therapy.

Nonetheless, I found myself somewhat disappointed with the constructive theological proposals Logan makes. One problem arises from his use of Hauerwas as his main interlocutor. Hauerwas has a disconcerting tendency to take concrete ethical issues and mush them up with opaque theological jargon and abstract and vague thought experiments. So, Logan inevitably moves in the same problematic direction by relying on Hauerwas. He makes some perceptive criticisms of Hauerwas’s tendencies in this direction, but they pale in relation to how he nonetheless lets Hauerwas frame a theological response.

Logan’s main constructive proposal is to develop the notion of what he calls a politics of “ontological intimacy”–an unfortunate term that does not really help very much in providing clear directives for a theological, ethical approach to transforming the retributive and corporatist system we suffering under today.

When I picked up this book, knowing that Logan is a Mennonite and with the title “Good Punishment?”, I expected more engagement with the work of John Howard Yoder.  Yoder wrote a set of essays under the rubric of “good punishment” that have never been published (they were written in 1995 and are available online here [this page has many of Yoder’s unpublished writings, scroll down a ways to find the set of lectures calls “The Case for Punishment”]). I thought Logan might be taking Yoder’s creative work as his jumping off point. He does refer briefly to Yoder; however, by letting Hauerwas set the agenda instead of Yoder, he misses an opportunity to make a more significant theological contribution to these important issues.

It is probably true, as Cornel West says in a blurb for the book, that “Logan’s book is the most sophisticated theological treatment of the prison-industrial complex we have.” And Logan deserves our strong appreciation for producing this “treatment.” In the end, though, I still find myself looking for more.

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Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

One of the Apostle Paul’s central concerns in his letter to the Romans is to confront the tendency of human beings to put their trust in idols rather than in God and God’s way of healing.  I address this theme in a paper I presented to the “Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity” session at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Chicago, November 2, 2008.

This paper, “Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry,” comes out of my interest in Christianity and violence, focused especially on biblical and theological materials that point toward ways of overcoming violence.  The biblical story often portrays violence and injustice having roots in idolatry.  I believe that we find in the biblical critique of idolatry perspectives that are important, even essential for responding to the problems of violence in our world today.

In the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul offers an analysis and critique of idolatry that I believe remains useful today.  Paul takes on two types of idolatry.  First, he criticizes what I will call the idol of lust in the Roman Empire that underwrites violence and injustice.  And, second, he critiques the claims of those (like Paul himself before he met Jesus) who believed that loyalty to the Law requires violence in defense of the covenant community.

Our present-day analogs of the forces Paul critiques—nationalism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism—all gained power with the rise of modernity in the Western world.   The much-heralded turn toward post-modernity may offer a sense of awareness to help us break free from such totalisms that foster so much violence in our world.

Our task of resisting demands for ultimate loyalty unites biblical prophets (including Paul) with present-day Christians seeking to further life in the face of death-dealing violence.  Modernity did not create death-dealing idolatries so much as give them new impetus.  The task of breaking bondage to the idols of injustice that Paul engaged in remains ours today.

The Doctrine of Salvation

What do we mean when we confess Jesus as “savior”?  Should we take our central cues from Jesus’ own portrayal of salvation or from later Christian salvation theologies about Jesus?

My essay, “The Doctrine of Salvation”, argues for an approach that focuses more on the biblical story than doctrinal theology.  When we do so, we see God’s mercy as the driving force in the establishment of the possibility of human salvation–not God’s impersonal holiness or justice that must be satisfied by a violent act of sacrifice.

Such a view of salvation undergirds the Christian ethical vocation of peacemaking and restorative justice.  God seeks to make us whole so that we might be God’s agents for wholeness in the wider world.

This essay is the eighth in a series that examines core Christian doctrines, consistently asking what shape they should take if they are articulated in light of Jesus.