Ted Grimsrud—London, 9/09
We generally associate the term “gospel” with the message of Jesus and the Christian faith. We have strong biblical grounds for doing so. The Gospel of Mark gets right to the point in its very first verse—“the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark makes the basic claim, along with the rest of the New Testament, that the story he tells contains the good news of God’s healing work for humanity that provides our hope for healing.
Jesus enters the scene, in Mark’s account, with a powerful proclamation: The time is fulfilled (the story is reaching its climax). The kingdom of God (the promised time of shalom) is at hand (now present). Repent (turn from your idols and toward God) and believe in (welcome into your hearts) the good news (the announcement that the king’s kingdom is victorious).
The present tense of this proclamation is unmistakable. With Jesus, God is present; the world will never be the same. However, we, 2,000 years later, have many questions. In what sense did this fulfillment actually happen? Are we to understand that Jesus meant what he said in a literal sense? Has the community Jesus established to embody what he announced conveyed truly good news to the world—or has the message been profoundly mixed with bad news?
We can’t deny that the message of Jesus (or at least the message of Christianity) has been used to justify violence. Today, in the world’s foremost so-called Christian nation, the United States of America, according to numerous surveys, people who self-identify as Christians are more likely than secular people or adherents of other faiths to support violence—be it warfare, capital punishment, or the use of corporal punishment on children.
How did we get from Jesus’ good news of peace to today’s bad news where Christians affirm violence? It’s a long story. Let me mention here a few markers. The early theologian, Augustine of Hippo, shaped Christian thought concerning war with his argument that war may actually be a positive good in harmony with Jesus’ love command. Our call to love our neighbor may require violence to protect the neighbor against a wrongdoer. In recent U.S. theological ethics, the late Paul Ramsey championed Augustine’s argument in affirming the justifiability of America’s involvement in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—as expressions of faithfulness to the love command and, hence, as positive goods for Christians.
British theologian Timothy Gorringe has shown how Christian atonement theology, especially as articulated by Anselm of Canterbury, dovetailed with the emergence of more retributive criminal justice practices in Europe to underwrite state-sponsored violence.
According to American theologian Donald Capps, the history of Christianity has witnessed numerous “theological legitimations for the physical and emotional abuse of children” under the rubric of “punishment, tough love, or teaching the child a lesson.” Capps argues that the abuse that has resulted from such treatment of children has been made even worse by the religious justifications given for it.
In what follows, I will present the case for transforming the message of Jesus from bad news to good news. We will go back to the original message of Jesus in its biblical context and see why indeed Jesus’ message was (and remains) good news—and our best antidote against the violence-justifying bad news that has (and does) characterize too much of Christianity.
Most human beings tend to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings. We usually need some overriding reason to go against this tendency. To act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other commitment overrides the tendency not to be violent.
Most accepted uses of violence (warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) follow a certain logic. At the core of this “logic” usually rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution, violence as the appropriate response to wrongdoing, the repayment of wrongdoing with violent punishment. For many Christians, the “logic of retribution” rests on theology. They understand God most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness.
God cannot countenance any kind of sin. If God has direct contact with sin, God must destroy it immediately. Contemporary theologian Millard Erickson echoes such theologians as Augustine, Anselm, Luther, and Calvin: “The nature of God is perfect and complete holiness. This is…the way God is by nature. He has always been absolutely holy….Being contrary to God’s nature, sin is repulsive to him. He is allergic to sin, so to speak. He cannot look upon it.”
When humans sin, we do so by breaking God’s laws—sinning directly against God. When we violate God’s holiness, God must (due to God’s holiness) punish us. Because of the fundamental nature of holiness, God is not free to act with unconditional mercy and compassion toward rebellious human beings. Compassion without satisfaction is not possible. Erickson 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.”
Justice, in this framework, works to sustain the balance of the universe. If the balance is upset, justice requires recompense to restore the balance, payment to satisfy the requirements of the balance. This payment is made through punishment, pain for pain.
In much Christian theology, here is where the doctrine of the atonement enters. Due to the extremity of the offenses of human beings versus God’s law, the only way God can relate to human beings is through the enormity of the death of God’s own son, Jesus, whose own holiness is so powerful that it can balance out the unholiness of all of humanity.
Jonathan Edwards wrote that the crucifixion of Jesus “was willed and ordered by God” as “the most admirable and glorious of all events” because only in this way could human beings be granted salvation. When we confess our helpless sinfulness, we may claim Jesus as savior from God’s righteous anger. Jesus satisfies God’s retributive justice on our behalf. Within the logic of retribution, salvation happens only because the ultimate act of violence—the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ—satisfied God’s holiness. The logic of retribution indeed leads to acceptance of “justifiable violence.” Violence may be the best response to wrongdoing.
Let us look more closely at just one particular expression of retributive violence, the dynamics of criminal justice in the United States (we could also look at the justification of warfare or the use of corporal punishment on children, among other issues). In our criminal justice tradition, we have an overriding justification given for harsh punishments, even to the point of death. It is this: Ultimate reality requires retributive justice when fundamental laws are violated. Such “retributive justice” restores the moral balance.
In the arena of criminal justice, the issue of authorized human beings inflicting punitive pain (including death) on other human beings has theological significance. Such punishment has to do with how human beings understand the world we live in, the values by which we shape our lives. Beliefs about God decisively shape our concept of retribution or punishment as justice.
Retributive theology has infused the social, political, and cultural life of the West in very fundamental ways going back not just to the medieval period but into antiquity. One key impact Greek philosophy had on theology may be seen in emerging notions of God’s impassivity, the growing abstraction of concepts of justice, and the objectifying or “othering” of offenders. The Greek-influenced theology provided a notion of God’s impersonal holiness and retributive response to violations of that holiness. In the early Middle Ages, this theology merged with Roman legal philosophy, which was also centered on impersonal principles. Instead of being based on custom and history, law in this perspective stood alone.
Justice became a matter of applying rules, establishing guilt, and fixing penalties—without reference to finding healing for the victim or the relationship between victim and offender. Crime was a sin, not just against a person but against God, and it was the church’s business to purge the world of this transgression. From this understanding of sin, it was a short step to the assumption that the social order is willed by God, that crime is also a sin against this social order. The church (and later the state) must therefore enforce that order. Increasingly, focus centered on punishment by established authorities as a way of doing justice.
By the end of the 16th century, the cornerstones of state justice were in place in the West, and they drew deeply from the underpinnings of retributive theology. The primary instrument for applying pain came to be the prison. Part of the attraction of prison was terms could be graded according to the offense. Prisons made it possible to calibrate punishments in units of time, providing an appearance of rationality in the application of pain.
The view embedded in the Western criminal justice system through our modern paradigm of retributive justice, might be characterized like this: 1. Crime is understood primarily as a violation of the unchanging, impersonal law, and the state is the victim. 2. Offenders must get what they deserve. Justice aims to establish blame and administer pain in order to satisfy the demands of the moral balance in which the violation is countered by the punishment. 3. The process of justice finds expression as a conflict between adversaries in which the offender is pitted against state rules and one side wins while the other side loses.
The paradigm of retributive justice that dominates Western criminal justice is a recipe for alienation. By making the “satisfaction” of impersonal justice (“God’s holiness”) the focus of our response to criminal activity, the personal human beings involved—victims, offenders, community members—rarely find wholeness.
Moreover, the larger community’s suffering often only increases. Instead of healing the brokenness caused by the offense, we usually find ourselves with an increasing spiral of brokenness. Many victims of violence speak of being victimized again by the impersonal criminal justice system. Offenders, often alienated people already, become more deeply alienated by the punitive practices and person-destroying experiences of prisons.
Present dynamics emphasize the difference between offenders and law-abiding citizens. “Being intrinsically evil or wicked, some offenders are not like us. They are dangerous others who threaten our safety and have no call on our fellow feeling. The appropriate reaction for society is one of social defense: we should defend ourselves against these dangerous enemies rather than concern ourselves with their welfare and prospects for rehabilitation.”
James Gilligan draws on his experience working closely with violent offenders to critique our criminal justice system. “Society’s prisons serve as a key for understanding the larger society as a whole.” When we look through the “magnifying glass” of the prison system, we see a society focused on trying to control violence through violence, a society that willingly inflicts incredible suffering on an ever-increasing number of desperate people.
America’s exploding prison population faces increasingly worsening conditions. Prisons have become “cruel, inhumane, and degrading, with severe overcrowding, frequent rapes and beatings, prolonged and arbitrary use of solitary confinement, grossly unsanitary, disease-inducing living conditions, and deprivation of elementary medical care.”
Underlying our tolerance of these dehumanizing conditions is a “rational self-interest” theory of violence. According to this theory, people decide to use violence based on a rational calculation of costs and benefits. If the costs of wrongdoing are understood to be high enough, that should deter such wrongdoing. At least implicitly, the assumptions that follows from this theory is that allowing our prisons to be hell-holes will serve to prevent violence by deterring would be wrong-doers (similar logic applies to the rationale for the death penalty).
Robert Hughes, in his account of the settling of Australia, illustrates this theory. Britain founded Australia as a penal colony and sought to foster a terrible reputation for Australia and deter crime. However, life in Australia wasn’t so bad, so officials sought to establish a prison within the prison that would indeed be worthy of even the most hardened criminal’s terror.
Australia’s governor established on Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles east of Australia, a prison of last resort in the lowest level of hell. “Although no convict could escape from it, rumor and reputation would and reduce mainland crime by sheer terror.”
The settlement of the island began in 1825. Norfolk Island became “the worst place on earth.” To illustrate: A few prisoners would draw lots, one became the murderer, the second the victim, the rest witnesses. The prison’s chief had no authority to try capital crimes; the murderer and the witnesses had to be sent to Sydney for trial. The prisoners “yearned for the meager relief of getting away from the ‘ocean hell,’ if only to a mainland gallows.” After several years of such “murders,” the government began sending judges to the Island to hang the murderers there.
Alexander Maconichie, a British naval commander, in 1837 investigated the treatment of prisoners in Australia. His report condemned the System, leading amazingly to his appointment as head of Norfolk Island, as he found an advocate in the British government. Maconochie’s initial encounter with the prisoners gave him hope. As he explained that his role was not to be their torturer but to help the men change their lives, the prisoners began to cheer.
Maconachie brought many books to Norfolk Island for the prisoners to read. He sought, as his main form of therapy, to encourage the inmates to make music. He dismantled the gallows and discarded the whips used by floggers. He built two churches, Protestant and Catholic, whereas before there had been none. “He gave every man a plot of rich soil, set up classes in vegetable and fruit gardening…and encouraged them to sell their surplus to the officers.”
Maconochie met with remarkable success in rehabilitation. However, this success did not insure Maconochie’s continued role. A new British government came into power and recalled him after only three years. Crime rate increases in Britain led to more harsh prison practices and increased support for the threat of extreme terror such as Norfolk Island as a crime deterrent.
Norfolk Island, as became clear with the rejection of Maconochie’s fruitful efforts to rehabilitate the prisoners, never had the purpose of reforming offenders or protecting society from the dangers of recidivistic convicts. Rather, Norfolk Island served as the symbol of ultimate terror—regardless of the costs to the actual prisoners who suffered mightily at the hands of the brutal administrators of the Island.
Ironically, it would appear that the effect of treating prisoners with brutality and other dehumanizing tactics actually serves to put the broader society more at risk.
James Gilligan argues, “if the purpose of imprisonment were to socialize men to become as violent as possible—both while they are there and after they return to the community—we could hardly find a more effective way to accomplish it than what we do.” Treating people violently makes them more violent. About nine out of every ten prisoners eventually return to society; treating prisoners violently and thereby making them more violent endangers all of us.
Gilligan states that the strongest predictor for people being violent is their being treated violently, especially as children. “Violence does not occur spontaneously or without a cause, it only occurs when somebody does something that causes it. Therefore, all we need to do to prevent violence is to stop doing what we have been doing to cause it.” The logic of retribution is not an answer to the problem of violence; it is one of the central causes.
Nonetheless, we remain in the grip of that logic in our criminal justice practices—with many negative consequences.
1) Our culture is increasingly characterized by growing social fragmentation, exacerbated by the “othering” of convicted criminals. “To treat them as understandable is to bring criminals into our domain, to humanize them, to see ourselves in them and them in ourselves. The criminology of the other encourages us to be prepared to condemn more and understand less.”
2) We pour an ever-higher percentage of governmental resources into our prison system. Ironically, by reducing public investments in education, job creation, and other ways to heighten the stake citizens have in our society we make crime more attractive for ever more needy people.
3) With the growing privatizing of prisons, we foster a more austere system with fewer resources available to make prison life humane and a means for rehabilitation – plus, we make corruption and profiteering more likely.
4) The combination of the growth of the imprisonment rate with punitive laws that permanently, in many states, disenfranchise convicted criminals, leads to a rapidly growing segment of the population that has no sense of being vested in the wider society. This sense of alienation, ironically fostered in the name of public safety, actually makes all of us less secure.
5) More broadly, beyond literal disenfranchisement, all convicts are given a lifetime stigma few will escape. They will spend the rest of their lives with the identity of “ex-con” living with a “debt to society” they are never allowed to repay.
6) In general, the prison system increasingly serves as a breeding ground for more violence. We may see a direct relationship between the reduction of the role of prisons as a context for education in usable life skills (apparently the best predictor that convicts will not return to prison after release is if they have earned a college degree while in prison) and the increase in the role of prisons as a context for education in violence.
7) Disturbing evidence is growing to show that our present population of long-term prisoners is becoming a ticking time bomb due to high incidents of terrible communicative diseases that are likely to spread to the wider population in time.
Gilligan concludes, ultimately, that nothing stimulates crime as powerfully and effectively as punishment. “Punishment is a form of violence in its own right, but it is also a cause of violence.” Punishment makes people more violent. It humiliates its recipient with the ironic impact of fostering shame in a way that actually reduces a person’s sense of guilt and responsibility. People who feel profound shame are especially prone to acting violently.
Gilligan describes how the dynamic tends to work: “Our greatest pain is the sense of personal insignificance, of being helpless and of no real value as a person. Imprisoned and left without any voice in or control over the things that affect prisoners, their personal desires and feelings regarded with indifference, and treated at best like children and at worst like animals by the prison, prisoners lead lives of acute deprivation and insignificance. The psychological pain involved in such an existence creates an urgent and terrible need for reinforcement of one’s sense of personal worth. Unfortunately, prison deprives those locked within of the normal avenues of pursuing gratification of their needs and leaves them with no instruments but sex, violence, and conquest to validate their sense of individual worth.”
The spiral of violence intensifies—people hurt others, then the state steps in and hurts the violator, setting the violator in a culture of extreme violence that further socializes the violent person to be violent. Eventually, more severely damaged than when entering prison, the violator returns to society primed for more violence.
This spiral must be broken.
The notions of God and ultimate reality that underlie the retributive paradigm outlined above are not set in concrete. The ever-deepening and destructive spiral that results from responding to violence with violence need not be inevitable. In part, the spiral may be resisted, even broken, because its ideological basis has no ontological standing but is simply based on human ideas—ideas that may be challenged and refuted.
Retributive notions are the result of human reflection and human application. If these constructs contribute to brokenness instead of healing, furthering the spiral of violence instead of fostering genuine peace, they need to be deconstructed and replaced.
Ironically enough, given the roots of our predicament in “Christian” theology, if we would return to Christianity’s founding documents, the writings of the Bible, and try to read them afresh, free from the filters of the later retributive paradigm of Christendom, we might well discover the bases for a very different understanding of justice, ultimate reality, and God. This alternative reading of the Bible provides the basis for constructing a new understanding of justice. We may call this new understanding “restorative” justice rather than retributive justice. Restorative justice offers us a different perspective on how we may respond to violence. Perhaps with a new perspective, we may be able to imagine responses to violence that break the cycle, striving for healing rather than punishment of wrongdoers.
To put it another way, the source of our problem might actually provide a way to overcome the problem. Dutch law professor Herman Bianchi has argued that we should apply “homeopathic theory” to our situation. Maybe it will take a dose of what made us sick to cure us. Since an interpretation of theology got us into this “illness” we have outlined above, Bianchi suggests that it may well take a dose of theology to heal us.
In what follows, I will try to provide some resources for the work Bianchi suggests may be necessary—a biblical and theological rationale for rejecting the logic of retribution in favor of a logic of mercy, a rationale to replace “bad news” theology with “good news” theology. I will focus on one specific theological theme—salvation. We may see at the heart of the retributive paradigm an understanding of God’s holiness and justice that bases salvation on sacrificial violence. In this paradigm, God’s ability to save requires violence. In such a world, we find inevitable links between the belief that God requires violence in response to violence and the justification of human beings (acting as God’s agents) being the agents of such required violence against other human beings.
If, as an alternative to a retribution-oriented understanding of salvation, we may construct an understanding of salvation that has no need for violence (ultimately, even, no room for violence) we may be in a better position to create peaceable ways of dealing with wrongdoing.
In what follows, I will seek to provide a reading of biblical salvation that is non-retributive. So, first I will look at what the Old Testament tells us about salvation. Then I will summarize Jesus’ own teaching about salvation before looking at the significance of his death and resurrection. Finally, I will consider two early Christian applications of the biblical salvation story in light of Jesus—the books of Romans and Revelation.
I will argue that the Bible portrays the means of salvation as free from sacred violence. We may appropriately affirm that God’s will does not ever desire violence. Our affirmation of God’s rejection of violence takes the ground out from the logic of retribution. We may, in God’s name, actively seek alternatives to the various ways of justifying violence as the appropriate response to wrongdoing.