By Ted Grimsrud
We have seen that Christian theology all too often links closely with alienating retributive justice practices. However, theology may also help free us from those practices. I will suggest a fresh reading of our founding document—the Bible—that points toward restorative rather than retributive justice.
First of all, we need to ask about the Bible’s intended message. What does the big picture show us when we look at the Bible as a whole? And does this “big picture” speak to our concerns about justice?
Some interpreters don’t see the Bible giving us a coherent “big picture.” I don’t have space here to justify either my conviction that the Bible does indeed give us such a story or my particular take on this story. What I will do is give a quick summary of what I understand to be the core elements of the Bible’s main storyline and suggest a few ways this broad story speaks to justice—before focusing more closely on several bits of the story in the chapters to follow.
Drawing on my book, God’s Healing Strategy, I offer this quick overview of the biblical story—a story, as we will see, that has major implications for how we think about justice and issues of retribution and reconciliation.
The Need for Healing
Early on, the Bible tells us something has gone wrong. Loving relationships have been broken. Creation has been marred. Salvation is needed. However, God will not simply step in and by coercive force make things right. Love shapes God’s activity; patient, long lasting, persevering love fuels God’s response to wrongdoing.
Genesis one concludes, “everything…was very good.” Then, Genesis three tells of a break in the relationship between human beings and God. Genesis 4–11 tells more of brokenness: Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel. At the end of Genesis eleven, we read of Sarah’s barrenness.
Something new emerges with Genesis twelve. In the face of barrenness, God calls Abraham and Sarah to begin a community—and God makes this new beginning possible, giving Sarah a child. Thus begins God’s strategy for healing as summarized in Genesis 12:3
: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God establishes a community of people who will know God. Through these people living together in peaceable community God will make peace for all the families of the earth. This healing strategy proceeds through the Old Testament and the New, culminating in Revelation 21–22. God’s ultimate response to Adam and Eve’s wrongdoing is not retribution but the restoration of wholeness characterized by the New Jerusalem.
God’s calling of a people included two elements. First, “I will bless you,” God said, “so that [second] you will be a blessing.” The story tells of a God who creates out of love and who responds to human brokenness with continual creativity. At key points throughout, God’s creative involvement serves restorative justice. God seeks to heal, not to punish, wrongdoing.
The story is a winding story. Abraham’s descendants went to Egypt, and in time, were enslaved. Exodus 2:23–5 tells of their plight. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham.”
God’s “remembering” results in
the call of Moses to lead the saving involvement of God with the people. Moses challenges Pharaoh with the words of God, helps the Hebrew slaves coalesce as a coherent community, and leads the people in their escape from Egypt and slavery. The escape culminates with the miraculous flight through the parted Red Sea waters.
The God of the Exodus is not a God of people in power who lord it over others. This is a God of slaves who hears the cries of those being treated like non-persons. God’s human leader, Moses, is not a commander of weapons of war but a weaponless prophet whose authority is based solely on him speaking for God.
The Hebrews do not simply leave Egypt behind, but reject Egypt’s unjust ways. When God gives the Hebrews Torah (the Law) following the exodus, much of Torah was explained in opposition to Egyptian cruelty. Torah comes after liberation as an additional work of God’s grace, a resource for ordering peaceable living in the community of God’s people. Torah serves justice, most profoundly, as a guide to wholeness, not as a prescription for punishment.
After the Israelites settled in the promised
land, they lived as an association of tribes. When Israel has need, “judges” arise and unite the tribes for awhile—Gideon and Deborah were two of the best. However, the system did not always work well. The book of Judges tells mostly of judges who were not that great. It concludes: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25).
Then, under Samuel, a good judge, things get better—for a while. Then, chaos returns (1 Sam 8:1–3). Israel’s elders ask for a warrior-king in the face of a threat from their enemies. “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like the other nations” (1 Sam 8). Samuel insists that Israel’s elders will regret their choice. He tells the elders that, under their king, they will return to Egypt’s injustice: You shall be his slaves. But God grudgingly gives Israel a king.
As it turns out, even the Hebrews’ greatest king, David, tends toward the ways of Pharaoh, as seen in his infamous action with Bathsheba. David becomes infatuated with the beautiful woman, takes her, and has her husband killed. Though the prophet Nathan confronts David and the king repents, great damage had been done.
David’s style of kingship carried over to his son Solomon. If we look at the story from the perspective of the Bible’s message of God’s healing strategy (and from the portrait of valid kingship in Deut 17:14-17), we see Solomon as a power-seeking, merciless leader, who moved ancient Israel toward its tragic ending. Solomon ruthlessly eliminated his opponents, built a standing army, began forced labor, gathered wealth for himself, and entered alliances with other nations and worshiped their Gods. Solomon turns aside from following God. “His wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4).
Prophetic Critique of Communal Injustice
The kings after Solomon tended even more towards injustice. The society moved away from the vision of Torah. In time, a few became quite rich, and many others became very poor. The prophet Amos challenged this unjust society to turn back to God and Torah as their only hope of finding life. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Justice has to do with water, with life. To do justice is to support life.
The prophets also teach, as seen in Hosea eleven, that no matter what, God continues to love God’s people and desire their healing. Hosea draws on Israel’s memory. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my child” (Hos 11:1). The exodus revealed Israel’s identity and Israel’s understanding of God. God did not demand that the children of Israel earn God’s love, but that they would live in light of the care and respect God had shown them. Sadly, Israel did not remain committed to God’s ways. “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hos 11:2).
God, though, speaks of more than punishment following disobedience. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” Can I simply let you go, my child, after all that I have done for you? “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger;…for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hos 11:8–9). This God acts with mercy and compassion because it is part of God’s very nature to do so.
God Remains Committed to Healing
The Hebrews did not heed the prophets and turn from injustice toward justice. The prophesied consequences came to pass. The center of their religious life, the Temple, was destroyed as was the center of their political life, the king’s palace. Many were shipped away to Babylon in exile. The prophet Jeremiah linked Israel’s conformity with the injustices and idolatries of the nations with the end of their nation state. His own life symbolizes Israel’s fate when he travels to Egypt, symbolizing
the return to the pre-exodus dynamics of their society.
However, even with his dark words and profound grief, Jeremiah also provides words pointing forward and indicate that God’s healing strategy continues. Jeremiah’s words helped the Israelites survive as a people. He encouraged them to seek the wellbeing of whatever society they were part of (Jer 29:7) while at the same time maintaining their distinct identity as people of Torah—remembering God’s blessing in order to be a blessing.
In light of Jeremiah’s witness, the entire Old Testament may be read as a cautionary tale. Nation-state-centered, sword-oriented politics failed to be a viable vehicle for sustaining the people of God calling to bless all the families of the earth.
The vocation to spread peace will be fulfilled not through the violence of the nation-state but through the peaceable witness of counter-cultures scattered throughout the world. These countercultures will center their lives on responding to God’s creative love with creative love of their own. The survival of the people did not require the assumed pillars of identity—the king’s palace and the temple. These pillars lay in ruins. But the peoplehood and its call to bless all the families of the earth, remained.
Jesus and the Liberating Kingdom of God
At Jesus’ time, a large empire (now Rome)
again dominates Israel. Economic injustice remains widespread. So, too, does poverty and a large disinherited peasant class. Religion generally supports the status quo, as it had in ancient Israel.
Jesus’ message echoed many prophetic themes. God gives life as a gift and expects that those who know God’s mercy share it with others. Jesus critiqued trust in weapons of war and
the quest for worldly success. He proclaimed God’s healing strategy and formed a community meant to bless all the families of the earth.
In Mark, Jesus starts his ministry with a simple proclamation that summarize Jesus’ mission: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news” (1:15). Salvation comes as God’s gift—a God of restorative not retributive justice.
Jesus combined his teaching with his healing activity. However, Jesus realized that living out his message includes
suffering. He links his with suffering his followers will face. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk 8:34–5).
Jesus realizes that through his willingness to suffer and die, God’s salvation will be made known. Jesus will not fight back, but will rely on God to vindicate him. Jesus taught his followers that they too must take up their crosses and remain committed to love and mercy even when such a commitment leads to suffering.
The religious leaders began to look “for a way to kill Jesus” (Mk 11:18). And, in a few days, in cooperation with the Roman political leaders, they succeed. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, oversaw Jesus’ death by crucifixion. From Pilate’s perspective, Jesus was merely an insignificant irritant. Pilate has no interest in Jesus’ truth. He orders Jesus killed.
But Jesus does not stay dead. With Jesus’ resurrection, God vindicates Jesus’ life as truth and shows that love is stronger than death. Jesus promises that those who trust in him will also live on and need not fear death. Jesus’ resurrection keeps God’s healing strategy going, the possibility of life even in the face of death and despair.
Paul and the Gospel
An early persecutor of Jesus’ followers, Paul became the most important interpreter of Jesus’ way. He first learned about God’s mercy in Jesus through his own desperate need. Paul, a young Pharisee strongly committed to a quite strict understanding of religious faith, found himself in conflict with Jesus and his followers.
He became a leader among the Pharisees, specializing in persecuting Christians and regularly breathed “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Paul’s hostility toward the Christians arose because of his commitment to protecting God’s honor. Later, he wrote: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I violently persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:13–4).
Then, he met Jesus (Acts 9:3-9) and had his life turned completely around. Because Paul did sincerely want to do God’s will, he was able to receive God’s direct revelation to him. This Jesus who you hate in fact truly reveals your God. Paul experienced first hand God’s justice as restorative and not retributive.
One of Paul questions: how could I have been so violent in the name of God? How can I now understand God in a way that will overcome such sacred violence? Paul’s own experience infuses the book of Romans. As an alternative to doing violence in the name of obedience to God, he writes of obedience that comes from faith (1:17) that the “gospel of God” produces.
The “gospel of God” is the good news that more than anything else, God loves us and wants us to be whole. In response to God’s love, we are challenged ourselves to love. This is the most important law or commandment. Paul makes this clear later in Romans. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8).
Paul argues in Romans 1–3 that all people are sinful and need God’s mercy. He asserts: God’s mercy is available, to everyone, without distinction. To God we are all loved people who can, and must, accept God’s mercy and who can, and must, share this mercy with others. “Now, apart from the law, the justice of God has been disclosed in order to justify, by God’s grace as a gift, all who trust in that grace, which God has made known through Jesus” (3:21).
Christian Faith Under Fire
The early Christians continued to face persecution, mostly from the Roman Empire. Who would the people worship—the God of Jesus Christ or the emperor-as-god? A common religion of emperor worship helped unify the various peoples of the empire. Faithful Christians saw worship of the emperor as blatant idolatry. By refusing such worship, they threatened the social unity based on common religious practices.
The book of Revelation encouraged Christians. In its visions, it challenges the hearts of its readers. Follow the way of Jesus. Find your strength in communities of the Lamb, not communities of the Beast (Empire).
Revelation five presents a crucial image. The chapter envisions a scroll with a large meaning. No one can be found to open the scroll. The writer weeps. Then—“Do not weep, one has been found.” Who has the needed power? The Lion of the Tribe of Judah (a military conqueror). But then—the conqueror is…“a Lamb standing as if it had been slain” (Rev 5:6). Jesus Christ, slain but now raised from the dead. The power that truly matters is not the power to kill others, but the power to trust in God, face death faithfully, and trust in God’s vindication.
In chapter thirteen, we meet the terrible Beast with the power of government—“crowns” and “throne.” Revelation 13:4: “The whole earth…worshiped the dragon [meaning Satan], for he had given his authority to the Beast [meaning the Empire], and they worshiped the Beast, saying ‘Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?’”
John says do not share this worship. And, do not fight back with violence (Rev 13:10). Follow Jesus on the path of non-retaliation even in the face of violence. Refusing violent resistance to the conquering attack of the Beast shows how to break the spiral of violence. The first few verses in chapter fourteen show the deeper reality of the Lamb’s victory, with those who follow him. The Beast’s conquering was only temporary. These visions reveal the reality of Revelation’s readers. The persecuting Roman Empire aligns with Satan and must not be worshiped. As Jesus’ followers faithfully follow the Lamb, they will be present with God.
The concluding vision in Revelation 21–22, the New Jerusalem, reveals God’s completed healing strategy. This enlivening hope helps Christians remain strong and faithful. The New Jerusalem will be free of the forces of evil, creation as God intended it.
The final vision promises the healing of the nations. The human enemies of God’s people will not, in the final event, be destroyed. They, too, find life when the Lamb breaks the dragon’s spell. Jesus’ followers do not fight back and join the spiral of violence due to this hope that even the nations might find healing. Persevering love, not brute force, is the method.
Revelation portrays the spiritual forces of evil, symbolized by the dragon and his cohorts, as powerful and as behind the persecutions, injustice, and sufferings that plague people of faith. Chapters 21–22 conclude, though, that this evil will not last forever. The power of everlasting love will win out. God’s healing strategy will conclude with its mission accomplished.
God’s Healing Strategy and Restorative Justice
Reading the Bible as the story of “God’s healing strategy” points clearly toward restorative rather than retributive justice:
(1) The world is all too often infected with brokenness and alienation. God’s has established faith communities, not as a remnant that remains comfortably detached amidst the brokenness, but so that people who know God’s healing love might enter the brokenness of the world, being agents for healing wherever needed.
(2) The community witnesses to a message of peace and healing, not of condemnation and fear. God, in intervening in the world most profoundly through the witness of people shaped by God’s mercy, offers the world a carrot more than a stick. Thus, God calls the community to manifest authentic peace in its common life and to speak of this peace to the wider world, rather than to speak of “justifiable violence” and religiously underwritten conflict and judgmentalism.
(3) The faith community holds a double-sided perspective concerning the wider world. The empires are to be seen as God’s rivals for people’s loyalties. The empires are to be viewed with great suspicion. Yet, at the same time, the Bible promises healing to the nations. The critique of power politics, the formation of counter-cultural faith communities, and the clear awareness of the contrast between Torah and gospel versus the ideologies of empire, should,
for the sake of the nations, foster their genuine healing.
The prophets, like Jesus, modeled this double-sided perspective. They preached God’s justice, formed and cultivated the life of communities countering Empire, engaged the nations to the point even of suffering martyrdom—and trusted in God’s vindication, a vindication that culminates not in human beings being punished but in human beings, even the kings of the earth (Rev 21–22), being transformed and healed.