01. Violence as a Theological Problem


We generally associate the term “gospel” or “good news” with the message of Jesus and the Christian faith.  We have strong biblical grounds for doing so.  The early Christian document we know as the Gospel of Mark gets right to the point in its very first verse—announcing the agenda for what follows: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The Greek word here that is translated “gospel” (or “Good News” in the NRSV’s preferred rendering) is evangel, the root for “evangelism” and “evangelical.”  Mark makes the basic claim, along with the rest of the New Testament, that the story he tells of the ministry of Jesus contains the good news of God’s healing work for humanity that provides our hope for healing and reconciliation.  This “good news” may be closely linked with the central word in the Old Testament for salvation: shalom, or “peace.”

Mark explicitly connects the good news of Jesus with the story that began with the children of Israel.  Mark’s second verse contains a quote from one of Israel’s greatest prophets, Isaiah, making clear that the story that Isaiah was part of (Abraham, Moses, and their descendents) continues with Jesus, in whom the hopes of Israel are fulfilled.

Jesus enters the scene, in Mark’s account (1:15), with a powerful proclamation: The time is fulfilled (i.e., the story is reaching its climax).  The kingdom of God (i.e., the promised time of shalom, the purpose of the story) is at hand (i.e., is now present).  Repent (i.e., turn from your idols and turn toward God) and believe in (i.e., trust, accept, welcome into your hearts) the good news (i.e., the announcement that the king’s kingdom is victorious).

The present tense of this proclamation is unmistakable.  With Jesus, God is present in a new way and the world will never be the same.  However, for us 2,000 years later, placing the fulfillment of the promises with Jesus raises 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?

All too often the message of Jesus (or at least the message of Christianity) has been used to justify violence.  One expression of this twisting in our current world may be seen in the dynamics in what has often been characterized as the world’s foremost “Christian nation,” the United States of America.  In the U.S. today, 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 has 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.[1]

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.[2] Harry Potter, a British historian, illustrates this dynamic in his history of the move to abolish the death penalty in Great Britain, a process slowed significantly by church leaders who argued theologically in favor of the death penalty long after general public sentiment in Britain supported abolition.[3]

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.”[4] 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, we will be taking a first step as trying to transform our application of the message of Jesus back from bad news to good news.  We will go back to the original message of Jesus in its biblical context in order to get a good handle on his original presentation of the good news of the presence of God’s kingdom.  We will see why indeed Jesus’ message was (and remains) good news—and why Jesus’ message remains our best antidote against the violence-justifying bad news that has (and does) characterize too much of Christian thought and practice.

The Logic of Retribution

Despite the widespread occurrence of inter-human violence throughout most of recorded history, the case may be made that most human beings tend to want to avoid lethal violence toward other human beings.  In human experience we usually need some overriding reason to go against the tendency to avoid lethal violence.  To act violently toward, especially to kill, other human beings, is serious business, undertaken because some other value or commitment overrides the tendency not to be violent.

Almost all violence emerges with some kind of rationale that justifies its use.  Psychiatrist James Gilligan argues, based on his extensive work with extremely violent offenders, that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence usually nonetheless have some justification in the mind of the perpetrator.[5]

Most accepted uses of violence (e.g., warfare, capital punishment, corporal punishment of children) follow a fairly self-conscious logic.  At the core of this “logic” usually rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution; using violence is justified as the appropriate response to wrongdoing.  When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, “justice” requires retribution (defined as repayment of wrongdoing with violent punishment, or pain with pain).

We find deeply ingrained in the religious consciousness of the United States the belief that retribution is God’s will.  I will argue that roots of that belief owe more to extra-biblical influences and are not based on the best reading of the biblical materials.  Yet we cannot deny the close link between Western Christianity as it has come to be and the strong support for retribution (that is, for justifying violence as the appropriate response to wrongdoing).

A theologically grounded “logic of retribution” underlies rationales for using violence.  In “the logic of retribution,” when all is said and done, God is understood most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness.  God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured, and God responds to violations of the law with justifiable violence.

According to this framework, human beings are inherently sinful.  Jesus’ death on the cross offers a sacrifice that provides the only basis for sinful humans to escape deserved punishment.   Most violence is justified as in some sense being an expression of this deserved punishment (“punishment” defined as inflicting pain in response to wrongdoing).  Violence in response to wrongdoing is required by the logic of retribution.

The theological rationale for retributive punishment asserts that appropriate punishment reflects God’s character.  The first, and most basic, attribute of God is holiness—the belief that God simply cannot countenance any kind of sin.  If God has direct contact with sin, God must destroy it immediately.  A contemporary theologian, Millard Erickson, echoes theologians such 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.”[6]

Erickson most directly follows John Calvin in how he articulates this view.  Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness” (II.xvi.3).  Hence, Christ has “to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment” (II.xvi.10).[7]

Human beings have been told what we must avoid doing in order to keep from violating God’s holiness.  When humans sin, we do so by diverging from God’s laws.  Since the laws come from God, we sin against God himself.  Erickson writes, “The law is something of a transcript of the nature of God.  When we relate to it, whether positively or negatively,…it is God himself whom we are obeying or disobeying.  Disobeying the law is serious…because disobeying it is actually an attack upon the very nature of God himself.”[8]

In this view, when human beings violate God’s holiness, God must (due to God’s holiness) punish them.  Violated holiness must be satisfied.  According to the logic of retribution, then, God (in effect) is governed by inflexible holiness and human beings invariably violate that holiness.  Because of the fundamental nature of this holiness, 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.  To quote Erickson: “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.”[9]

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 if there is death on the human side to restore the balance.  The only way this can happen 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.[10] 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 (defined as the restoration of harmony with God) is achieved as the result of violence.  Such a means to salvation is consistent with the view of the basic nature of the moral universe as founded on impersonal holiness.  Salvation happens only because God’s holiness is satisfied through the ultimate act of violence—the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  In light of this understanding of the nature of God and of the fundamental nature of the universe, the logic of retribution indeed leads to acceptance of “justifiable violence.”  Violence may be the best response to wrongdoing.

Retributive Responses to Crime[11]

Let us look more closely at one particular expression of retributive violence, the dynamics of criminal justice in the United States.  Criminal justice is only one issue among many where the logic of retribution exerts a major influence—but it may be the most easily perceived.

Punishment involves the intentional infliction of pain and is, thus, a form of violence.  Punishment by the state, then, requires some justification as it involves the state acting violently, something normally considered morally and socially unacceptable.  Because violence requires a rationale, punishment has given rise to a huge variety of justifications for delivering such pain.

In our criminal justice tradition, the overriding justifications given for harsh punishments, even to the point of death, have and continue to be tied to an understanding of ultimate reality that believes that this reality requires retributive justice when fundamental natural or divine laws are violated.  Such “retributive justice” is seen to restore the moral balance.[12]

This understanding is to a large extent rooted in a particular understanding of God as ultimate reality: retribution is needed to “satisfy” the requirement God has that violations be paid for with pain.  When someone commits a wrong, it is assumed, the central question of justice is “What does she or he deserve?”  The assumed answer is punishment.

So, in the arena of criminal justice, the issue of authorized human beings inflicting punitive pain (including death) on other human beings has theological as well as philosophical and political significance.  In saying that violence is a theological issue, I use “theology” in a broad sense to refer to beliefs about ultimate reality, foundational beliefs about the nature of the universe.  I use “God” as the common human symbol for ultimate reality.[13]

The issue of 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 and God’s character decisively shape our concept of retribution or punishment as justice.

Part of the theology underlying retributive justice speaks of how God was (and is) understood.  There are some key aspects of the view of God generally characteristic of medieval Europe that shaped (and were also shaped by) the emerging punitive practices of criminal justice and that continue to be foundational in present-day practices of retributive justice.  God’s will for violent punishment provides a crucial impetus for the overriding of our tendency to need justification for killing or in other ways acting violently toward human beings.

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.  Timothy Gorringe makes a strong case for the atonement theology of Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033-1109) providing a crucial link in applying this view of God to the practice of punitive criminal justice.[14] However, surely the roots of such an application of these theological themes go much further back, to the infusion of Greek philosophy and Roman political thought into Christian theology, fostered especially by the extraordinarily influential writings of Augustine of Hippo.[15]

The 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.[16]

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.  Canon law and the parallel theology that developed began to identify as a collective wrong against a moral or metaphysical order.  Crime was a sin, not just against a person but against God, against God’s laws, 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 Europe, and they drew deeply from the underpinnings of retributive theology.  New legal codes in France, Germany, and England enlarged the public dimensions of certain offenses and gave to the state a larger role.  Criminal codes began to specify wrongs and to emphasize punishment.

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.

Between the mid-1800s and the 1970s, the practice of criminal justice in the United States, evolved away from strictly retributive justice.  David Garland, in his important book, The Culture of Control,[17] argues that the “penal-welfare” model gained ascendancy among criminal justice professions, with a concern for rehabilitation of offenders and a diminishment of focus on strict punishment.  This model, however, never received widespread support among the general population.  Because politicians for a long time found it disadvantageous to try to intervene in criminal justice issues due to conventional wisdom that criminal justice was a no-win issue to be identified with, the prison system was allowed to pursue its own agenda.

However, with a significant increase in the crime rate in the United States after World War II, politicians discovered that “law and order” rhetoric actually gained them popularity.  The criminal justice system tended to be centralized and bureaucratic and not noticeably effective in reducing the incidents of crime.  Hence, when strong critiques were raised in the 1960s and 1970s, the somewhat ineffective focus of rehabilitation was soon significantly lessened.

The logic of retribution that became embedded in our criminal justice practices by the 19th century, even though it was mitigated against somewhat during the penal-welfare era, has returned with a vengeance in the last quarter of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st.  In the retributive model of justice, crime came to be defined as against the state, justice became a monopoly of the state, punishment became normative, and victims were disregarded.

Going back to the Middle Ages, penal theory helped reinforce the punitive theme in theology—e.g., a satisfaction theory of atonement that emphasized the idea of payment or suffering to make satisfaction for sins.  Retributive theology, which emphasized legalism and punishment, deeply influenced Western culture through rituals, hymns, symbols.  An image “of judicial murder, the cross, bestrode Western culture from the 11th to the 18th century,” with huge impact on the Western psyche.  It entered the “structures of affect” of Western Europe and “in doing so, …pumped retributivism into the legal bloodstream, reinforcing the retributive tendencies of the law.”[18] The result was an obsession with retributive themes in the Bible and a neglect of the restorative ones—a theology of a retributive God who wills violence.[19]

This view is embedded in the Western criminal justice system through our modern paradigm of retributive justice, which 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.  The aim of justice is 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 intentions outweigh outcomes and one side wins while the other side loses.

A Recipe for Alienation

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.[20] Offenders, often alienated people already, become more deeply alienated by the punitive practices and person-destroying experiences of prisons.

David Garland portrays our “culture of control” in criminal justice as a new form of segregation.  We focus not on rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, but on identifying and isolating offenders.  “The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.”[21]

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.”[22]

James Gilligan, former director of psychiatry for the Massachusetts prison system, draws on his experience working closely with violent offenders to critique retributive justice in the our criminal justice system.  “A society’s prisons serve as a key for understanding the larger society as a whole.”[23] When we look through the “magnifying glass” of the United States 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.

Despite our democratic principles and our belief that a person is innocent until proven guilty, we lead the world in per capita prison rate.  And our lead is rapidly growing.  Between 1924 and 1975, the rate of incarceration remained fairly steady at around 100 prisoners per 100,000 population—a rate at that level higher than most industrialized nations.  But since 1975, the rate has increased by more than seven times, to 700 per 100,000 in 2007.[24]

This exploding prison population faces increasingly worsening conditions.  Gilligan writes, 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.”[25]

Underlying our society’s tolerance of these dehumanizing conditions is a “rational self-interest” theory of violence.[26] 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).

The Logic of Retribution in Practice

Robert Hughes, in his account of the settling of Australia, illustrates this theory.[27] Great Britain founded Australia as a penal colony in the late 18th century.  The British sought to foster a terrible reputation for Australia, better to help deter crime.  Over time, though, life in Australia proved to have its attractions, so officials sought to establish a prison within the prison that would indeed be worthy of even the most hardened criminal’s terror.

Norfolk Island sits 1,000 miles east of Australia.  Thomas Brisbane, Australia’s governor, ordered to “prepare a place of ultimate terror for the incorrigibles of the System,”[28] established on Norfolk Island a prison of last resort from which no escape would be possible.  Brisbane intended this island to serve as “the nadir of England’s penal system,” the lowest level of hell.  In Hughes’ words, “Although no convict could escape from it, rumor and reputation would.  In this way, the ‘Old Hell,’ as convict argot termed it, would reduce mainland crime by sheer terror.”[29]

The settlement of the island began in 1825.  The government’s philosophy was concisely expressed: “Our object was to hold out that settlement as a place of the extremest Punishment, short of Death.”[30] This object was achieved; Norfolk Island became “the worst place on earth.”  The hellishness of Norfolk Island may be seen in this story.  A group of prisoners would draw lots, one became the murderer, the second the victim, and the rest witnesses.  The prison’s chief did not have the 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 gallows on the mainland.”[31] After a several years of such “murders,” the government began sending judges to the Island to try, convict, and hang the murderers there.

Hughes quotes a leading Scot churchman of the time, Rev. Sydney Smith who asserted that a prison should be “a place of punishment from which men recoil with horror—a place of real suffering painful to the memory, terrible to the imagination, a place of sorrow and wailing, which should be entered with horror.”[32]

Alexander Maconichie, a British naval commander and college professor, was sent in 1837 to investigate the treatment of prisoners in Australia.  He wrote a report that condemned the System, which he believed “debased free and bond alike.”[33] This report ended up in the hands of John Russell, the British governmental official in charge of the British penal system.  Russell, who himself opposed the System of transportation of convicts to Australia, saw Maconochie’s report as ammunition for his quest to reform, so he saw that it was widely distributed.

Then in 1840, Russell appointed Maconochie head of Norfolk Island.  Maconochie’s initial encounter with the prisoners gave him hope.  “He had the Old Hands mustered in the jailyard at Kingston and strode in to confront the collective stare of 1,200 men, nameless to him, masks of criminality and evasion, burnt by sun and seamed by misery, the twice convicted and doubly damned, Scottish bank clerks and aboriginal rapists, Spanish legionnaires and Malay pearlers, English killers and Irish rebels.  ‘A more demonical-looking assemblage could not be imagined,’ he later wrote, ‘and nearly the most formidable sight I ever beheld was the sea of faces upheld to me.’  They looked at their new commander with utter skepticism.”[34]

As Maconachie explained that his role was not to be their torturer but to help the men change their lives, the prisoners began to cheer.  According to one witness, “from that instant all crimes disappeared.  The Old Hands from that moment were a different race of beings.”[35]

Maconachie brought many books to Norfolk Island for the prisoners to read and sought, as his main form of therapy, to encourage the inmate 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.”[36]

Maconochie met with remarkable success in rehabilitating the “worst of the worst.”  Under his administration, 920 prisoners were discharged to freedom.  Only a small handful returned to prison.[37] However, this success did not insure Maconochie’s continued role.  The government recalled him in 1843, after only three years a commandant.  Crime rates increased in Britain during the 1830s and early 1840s, leading to more harsh prison practices and support for having a symbol of the threat of extreme terror as a crime deterrent such as Norfolk Island.

Maconochie’s successors returned to the harshness of the prison before his tenure.  One’s term concluded in 1846 with a mutiny that resulted in the execution of twelve Norfolk Island prisoners. Another’s extraordinarily brutal punishments led to protests from a few ministers who visited Norfolk Island and observed his handiwork first hand.  This led governmental leaders, who did not necessarily themselves oppose such treatment of prisoners, to fear that the prison “might become a serious embarrassment to the Crown” and to remove this head from the position in 1853. The government closed the prison on Norfolk Island shortly thereafter.

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.

Social Consequences

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.”[38] 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.[39] “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.”[40] 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 in 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.”[41]

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.[42]

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.[43]

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)[44] 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.  One example is the high incidence of Hepatitis C cases among prisoners.[45]

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.[46] One main reason punishment has this impact is because punishment humiliates its recipient having 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, Gilligan argues, are especially prone to acting violently, especially when the inhibiting influence of guilt is absent.

He describes how the dynamic tends to work: “Man’s greatest pain, whether in life or in prison, is the sense of personal insignificance, of being helpless and of no real value as a person, an individual—a man.  Imprisoned and left without any voice in or control over the things that affect him, his personal desires and feelings regarded with gracious indifference, and treated at best like a child and at worst like an animal by those having control of his life, a prisoner leads a life of acute deprivation and insignificance.  The psychological pain involved in such an existence creates an urgent and terrible need for reinforcement of his sense of manhood and 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 manhood and individual worth.”[47]

The spiral of violence intensifies—people hurt others, then the state steps in and hurts the violator, part of this state-sanctioned hurting takes the form of setting the violator in a culture of extreme violence (the prison) that further socializes the violent person to be violent.  Eventually, often more severely damaged than when entering prison, the violator returns to society primed for more violence.

This spiral must be broken.

Against Retribution: The True “Good News”

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.[48]

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, as Timothy Gorringe shows, 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.

I started my research several years ago with the expectation that I would find that the role of sacrifice in the Old Testament economy of salvation would be similar to how it is portrayed in Christian substitutionary atonement theology.  I expected to develop an argument that would give priority to the prophets (especially Amos, Hosea, and Micah—the “eighth-century prophets”) over the earlier sacrificial ideas—and see the prophets being the source for Jesus’ own teaching on salvation.  That is, I expected to have to read the Bible against the Bible.

However, while certainly the Bible does not offer a simple, totally unified understanding of salvation, I have found less of a gulf between the Old Testament portrayal of sacrifice (as it was intended to be) and the prophetic perspective than I expected.  A case may be made (and I will attempt to do so) the Old Testament actually presents sacrifice in ways analogous to how it presents the law.  In both cases, what we have are not means to salvation so much as responses to God’s saving initiative.  And in both cases, we also have problems that arise when the order is reversed and either the law or the sacrifice is seen as means to gain leverage over against God.

From start to finish the Old Testament does not present salvation as linked with a will of God for violence.[49] Rather, salvation in the Old Testament emerges from God’s mercy, period.  And the role of sacrifice is essentially meant to be how people show their commitment to God as a response to God’s saving works—just as following the law is meant to be how people show their commitment to God as a response to God’s saving works (on this see most clearly Exodus 20:1-2 where Moses prefaces the Ten Commandments with the confession of God’s saving work already expressed).

Human beings do not sacrifice nor follow the law in order to effect a change in God’s attitude toward them (as in appeasing God’s holy anger).  Sacrifice is a response, following the law is a response, meant to express the human choice to trust in God and follow God.

Understanding sacrifice in this way significantly impacts how we read the prophetic critique of sacrifice in the eighth-century prophets.  The prophets do not reject the rationale for sacrifice in its original intent.  Rather, they reject the way sacrifice and religiosity in general found expression in their context.  Sacrifice, according to Amos, became a means of making claims on God’s favor that were separated from the demands of the core of the law for just living as the central required response to God’s mercy. When sacrifice co-exists with profound injustice, it has been cut off from its life-source and rationale.  When sacrifice is not a response to mercy leading to just living, then that proves that the mercy has not been accepted.

The prophetic understanding of salvation, then, does not a repudiate sacrifice per se, but rather underscores that salvation from the beginning in the Old Testament comes strictly as a gift from God, initiated by God, and appropriated first by trust in God alone and a rejection of idols and then actualized through sacrifice and obedience to the law.

We will find Jesus’ own teaching to be fully compatible with the Old Testament’s understanding of salvation.  Interestingly, little attention in the history of theology has been paid to what Jesus himself said, directly and indirectly, about how human beings find harmony with God.  What was Jesus’ own soteriology (doctrine of salvation)?

As near as I can tell, Jesus’ teaching dos not link salvation with the logic of retribution—in contrast with the satisfaction atonement view.   Jesus himself did not teach about a God who needed an act of violence in order to establish a restored relationship with human beings.  Jesus reflects the ideas of the prophets (and actually, the ideas of most of the Old Testament) when he twice quotes Hosea’s words, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

In following this direction of thought, we will see that Jesus’ death is not best understood as being a necessary sacrifice in order to satisfy God’s honor, placate God’s holiness, or balance the scales of justice.  If God’s mercy provides the basis for salvation, then Jesus’ death loses a lot of the theological meaning that traditional theology assigns it.

This leads to the next step in my argument.  In the New Testament, and in Christian tradition, Jesus’ death obviously does play an important role.  If we seek to delink Jesus’ death from traditional notions of necessary violence in order to satisfy God’s holiness, might we still see Jesus’ death as having importance for our beliefs and practices?

I will look at the story of Jesus’ death attempting to answer this question.  Why did Jesus die, historically, and what meaning did that death have?  I will argue that Jesus died due to the combined violence of cultural exclusivism (seen in the Pharisees and focused on the issue of the law), religious institutionalism (seen in the leaders linked with the Temple), and political authoritarianism (seen in the occupying Roman colonial hierarchy, especially the governor, Pontius Pilate).

That these forces conspired to kill Jesus is not without significance for our soteriology, even if considering these factors does lead to a dismissing of much about traditional soteriology connected with the belief in satisfaction atonement.

The basic soteriological significance of the death of Jesus, I will suggest, may be found in how his death exposes the Powers that put him to death and reveals these powers as rivals to the true God.  We find in Jesus’ death the bases for anti-idolatry, a disillusionment with the central Principalities and Powers that seek to dominate human life and to separate people from God.  The death of Jesus reveals the difference between the reign of God and the rule of evil.  Evil uses violence; God’s reign does not.

The story of Jesus death does not tell of necessary violence as an expression of God’s punitive justice and as a requirement for human salvation.  Rather, the story of Jesus’ death repudiates violence, revealing that the Powers’ claim to need to use violence as pure rebellion against God.

The next step in the argument will be to look at the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  The saving significance of the resurrection may be found in how it vindicates Jesus’ life, reveals the Powers as idols, and promises that trust in God’s love is the source of empowerment to find freedom from idols and restoration of harmony with God.

Then, finally, we will look at how this story of Jesus and salvation was presented in two crucial apostolic writings—Romans and Revelation.  We will see how profoundly both books underscore the message of the Old Testament and Jesus about salvation.

So, I will show in this book 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, finally, 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.

[1] Paul Ramsey, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York: Scribner’s, 1968).

[2] Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[3] Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgment: Religion and the Death Penalty in England (New York: Continuum, 1993).  See also American theologian Wayne House’s argument in favor of the death penalty: H. Wayne House and John Howard Yoder, The Death Penalty Debate (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1991).

[4] Donald Capps, The Child’s Song: The Religious Abuse of Children (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 156.

[5] James Gilligan, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (New York: Putnam, 1996).

[6] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 802.  For a more recent articulation of this theology, see Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach, Pierced For Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).

[7] Cited in John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 120.

[8] Erickson, Christian, 803.

[9] Erickson, Christian, 816.

[10] Cited in Philip Greven, Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (NY: Knopf, 1991), 50.

[11] This section is drawn from Ted Grimsrud and Howard Zehr, “Rethinking God, Justice, and Treatment of Offenders,” in Thomas O’Connor, ed., Religion, the Community, and the Rehabilitation of Offenders (New York: Haworth Press, 2002), 259-285.

[12] See United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s essay, “God’s Justice and Ours,” First Things 123 (May 2002), 17-21.  A Roman Catholic, Scalia interestingly rejects the Vatican’s recent anti-death penalty statement, Evangelium Vitae, and uses the Bible (specifically Romans 13) to justify his pro-retributive justice convictions.

[13] Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[14] Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 85-125.  For Anselm’s treatment of atonement theology, see “Cur Deus Homo?” in Brian Evans and G.R. Evans, eds., Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 260-356.  For an important recent critique of Anselm that is very much in harmony with the perspective I will be arguing for in this book, see J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

[15] For an accessible compendium of Augustine’s social thought, see Henry Paolucci, ed., The Political Writings of St. Augustine (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1962); Sections I and IV most directly speak to the issue of punishment.

[16] I am especially drawing here on Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), Herman Bianchi, Justice as Sanctuary: Toward a New System of Crime Control (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), and Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, second edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995).

[17] David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[18] Gorringe, God’s, 224.

[19] See H. Wayne House’s biblically based theological argument in favor of capital punishment in House and Yoder, Death Penalty, 1-104.

[20] See Howard Zehr, Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2001).

[21] Garland, Culture, 178.

[22] Garland, Culture, 184.

[23] Gilligan, Violence, 185.

[24] The United States, with 6% of the world’s population, in 2007 held 25% of the world’s prisoners (James Samuel Logan, Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and United States Imprisonment [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008], 1).

[25] Gilligan, Violence, 23-24.  See also Garland, Culture, 130.

[26] Gilligan, Violence, 94-95.

[27] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding (New York: Knopf, 1987), see especially pages 460-551.  See also John Hirst, “The Australian Experience: The Convict Colony,” in Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, eds., The Oxford History of the Prison (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 236-265, especially 260-262.

[28] Hughes, Fatal, 455.

[29] Hughes, Fatal, 456.

[30] Hughes, Fatal, 457.

[31] Hughes, Fatal, 468.

[32] Hughes, Fatal, 484.

[33] Hughes, Fatal, 490.

[34] Hughes, Fatal, 502.

[35] Hughes, Fatal, 502-3.

[36] Hughes, Fatal, 510.

[37] Hughes, Fatal, 519.

[38] Gilligan, Violence, 155.

[39] Gilligan, Violence, 25.

[40] James Gilligan, Preventing Violence (New York: Thames and Hidson, 2001), 20.

[41] Garland, Culture, 184.

[42] See, for example, Eric Schlosser, “The Prison-Industrial Complex,” The Atlantic Monthly 282.6 (December 1998): 51-77, and Logan, Good Punishment?, chapter one, “R/eproducing Criminality and the Prison-Industrial Complex.”

[43] Gerald Austin McHugh, Christian Faith and Criminal Justice: Toward a Christian Response to Crime and Punishment (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 148.  As Eugene Bianchi writes, “once a crime has been committed there is no forgiveness, and no activity of the offenders can bring them back into the community, not even passive submission to the harm we inflict on them” (Justice, 29-30).

[44] Gilligan, Preventing, 98-99.  According to Gilligan, separate studies in the Massachusetts, Indiana, and California prison systems all showed that “not one prisoner who had acquired a college degree while in prison had been reincarcerated for a new crime.”

[45] Wil S. Hylton, “Sick on the Inside: Correctional HMOs and the Coming Prison Plague,” Harper’s Magazine (August 2003): 43-54.

[46] Gilligan, Violence, 184.

[47] Gilligan, Violence, 181.

[48] Bianchi, Justice, 2.

[49] This, of course, is not to claim that the Old Testament explicitly rejects all violence.  However, if salvation itself is understood as being nonviolent, the way is cleared to see Jesus’ rejection of violence as in continuity with the core biblical salvation story – in fact, as its logical outcome.

3 thoughts on “01. Violence as a Theological Problem

  1. Hermina Janz

    Just over halfway through, you say, “The story of Jesus death does tell of necessary violence as an expression of God’s punitive justice and as a requirement for human salvation.  Rather, the story of Jesus’ death repudiates violence, revealing that the Powers’ claim to need to use violence as pure rebellion against God.” Is the word “not” missing in your first sentence?

  2. Pingback: Unafraid to Be ... -

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