Ted Grimsrud

12. Conclusion: Is There an Atonement Model in this Story?

Ted Grimsrud

For many Christians, the “biblical view” of salvation centers on Jesus’ death. The doctrine of salvation (“soteriology”) is defined in terms of how Jesus’ death makes salvation possible. It is linked closely with the atonement, which is commonly defined as “how Christ accomplished our justification (i.e., being found just or righteous before God) through his sacrifice on the cross.”[1]

I have attempted in this book to show that the Bible’s portrayal of salvation actually does not focus on Jesus’ death as the basis for reconciliation of humanity with God. Not all accounts of salvation that place Jesus’ death as central explicitly argue in favor of retributive justice as part the divine economy that must be satisfied by a sacrifice such as Jesus’ death. However, I suspect that any view of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice necessary for salvation at least implicitly accepts retributive justice as an element of the process of providing for salvation.

I will leave it for a sequel to this book, though, to take up issues of historical theology and the development and logic of atonement theologies that developed much later than the biblical era. What I have done here is focus on the biblical story itself without explicitly interpreting it as compatible or incompatible with particular atonement models.

I have made a case: (1) to see that salvation in the Bible is not centered on Jesus’ death as a necessary pre-requisite for salvation to be made available, and (2) to see that the dynamics of justice that undergird salvation in the Bible are best understood as restorative and not retributive. In a nutshell, I argue that the biblical story of salvation portrays God as reaching out to human beings with mercy. The God of the Bible responds to human brokenness, violence, and sinfulness with healing love. In telling the salvation story in this way, the Bible refutes the logic of retribution.

We see in the present-day United States the consequences of when human beings order important elements of social life more by the logic of retribution than the logic of mercy—an ever-expanding spiral of violence. Ironically, some of the strongest advocates in our culture for the appropriateness of, for example, shaping our criminal justice system according to the logic of retribution, are professing Christians—those who should be most responsive to the biblical story of salvation.

To conclude my treatment of salvation, justice, and the logic of retribution, I will first go back to review the basic argument I have presented, then reflect briefly on a hermeneutical strategy for thinking about the pro-violence elements of the Bible, and then discuss how the logic of mercy might be applied to present-day concerns regarding criminal justice.

The basic argument

One crucial element of the popularity of the logic of retribution in the United States is a common belief that God wills that violations of the public peace be punished. If God requires retaliation, repaying violence with violence, then official violent sanctions are appropriate, even a positive good. This logic provides a basis to justify warfare, certainly—along with, for many people, a basis to justify the use of corporal punishment on children. In chapter one I looked in more detail at how the logic of retribution justifies punishing criminal offenders—and the problematic consequences of the uses of such punishment.

However, no matter how widespread the use of punitive responses to wrongdoing and the basis for such responses in beliefs about God, we cannot avoid the reality that all such beliefs are human beliefs. Hence, all such beliefs are, by definition, finite and relative—and subject to challenge and revision. This book challenges the logic of retribution on the basis of theological beliefs. I have maintained a fairly narrow focus on a core element of our beliefs about God—our understanding of the Bible’s portrayal of God in relation to effecting salvation for human beings.

If salvation stems from a holy and pure God being governed by the need to destroy sin and impurity unless God’s righteous anger is dealt with, then the logic of retribution may be validated. However, if salvation according to the Bible instead may be most accurately understood as contrary to the logic of retribution, governed by God’s simple healing mercy—unearned by human repayment, unconditional except for human acceptance of it—one of the main bases for affirming the logic of retribution will be refuted.

Chapters two through four summarized the core or “primal” biblical story of salvation. The Old Testament emphasizes a few key moments at the heart of salvation: (1) the calling of Abraham and Sarah to parent descendants (miraculously, given Sarah’s barrenness) who would form a people who will bless all the families of the earth; (2) the liberation of these descendants from slavery in Egypt and the threat of annihilation they faced there at the hands of Egypt’s god-king Pharaoh; (3) the coalescing of these liberated slaves into a coherent peoplehood shaped by Torah, given by God to the people through their leader, Moses; (4) the establishment of this community in the promised land to enable them to sustain their peoplehood in a real-world environment; and (5) the sustenance of this community even in the face of the destruction of their main political and religious institutions by the Babylonians through the promises voiced by the prophets and the perseverance of Torah as their organizing blueprint.

The story portrays each of these five “moments” as expressions of God’s unilateral mercy. Each is a gift of a loving God, not the fruit of human action, rituals, or payments to God. In none of these cases are we led to believe that God was constrained by holiness or the need to balance the scales of justice before the gift is given. Certainly, at least in some cases, violence, even punishment, may be seen as an element of the story. Human beings do reap consequences for their injustice and resistance to God. However, in terms of the basic gift, the violence is peripheral. The gift does not require that there be pre-payment of appeasement or punishment.  The gift is unearned; the violence is not inherent in its bestowal.

The centrality of the gift may be seen in the role the law and sacrifices play in salvation. Both are second steps, responses to the gift. God acts directly to give life to Abraham and Sarah; then they offer sacrifices. God acts directly to liberate the Hebrew slaves from Egypt; then God gives the law to shape the people’s responsive living. Salvation is not the consequence of obedience to the law or the offering of sacrifices. To the contrary, obedience to the law and the offering of sacrifices are consequences of salvation.

Because of God’s gift, the Hebrews express their gratitude by giving offerings to God—the offerings of their goods and of their actions. To be sure, with regard to sacrifices, provision is also made for sin offerings beyond gratitude offerings. However, these are not ways to appease God’s righteous anger so much as concrete expressions of remorse that are offered as responses to forgiveness. The entire system as portrayed in Leviticus presupposes God’s mercy and is not based on the logic of retribution. God provides for the Hebrews’ communal health through ritual as an expression of love, not of detached balance-the-scales-of-justice holiness.

The perseverance of God’s love and the basic mercy-oriented commitment of God to sustain the Hebrew people as a channel for blessing all the families of the earth are born out through the story of God’s response to the Hebrews’ own sinfulness. Prophets emerged in the generations after the Hebrews, contrary to God’s will, installed a human king so as to be “like the nations.” These prophets testified to God’s on-going commitment to the people and to the covenant God had made with them. Prophets such as Amos, Hosea, and Micah spoke sharp words of critique in response to Israel’s injustice, violence, and idolatry. They asserted that Israel would face dire consequences should the people not turn back.

However, even though some of these warnings are expressed in punitive language, they sought to effect healing changes. They are framed by promises of such healing.  The prophets presented the path back to God as simple and straightforward: all listeners must do is turn back. God, the gracious God who brought them out of slavery, waits with open arms should they do so. God requires no appeasement—“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

So, these prophets, even amidst their sharp critiques, reinforce the basic message of the salvation story. Salvation is a gift; it simply requires trust, while its fruit is faithful living. Reject the gift and you will face consequences—but even then, God awaits your return should you choose to do so. The point of the consequences is not punishment, nor is it that God is unable to forgive without the scales of justice being balanced. Rather, the consequences remind people that wholeness requires harmony with the God of the universe. The consequences themselves point toward God’s healing love that must be trusted in for it to heal.

The events ultimately vindicate the prophets. First of all, the Hebrews’ unwillingness to trust God and instead trust in the ways of the nations and their power politics and injustices leads to the failure of the Hebrew kingdoms, first the northern kingdom of Israel and then the southern kingdom of Judah. Secondly, though, and more profoundly, the underlying message of God’s persevering love remains when the Hebrew people’s tradition and community survives the fall of Jerusalem. According to the prophecies in Second Isaiah, this survival itself is a gift. God’s will for healing emerges as more fundamental than God’s anger at the people’s unfaithfulness.

It is not as a nation-state successful in power politics that Israel is sustained. Abraham’s descendants do keep their identity. They are scattered widely, but also retain a presence back in Judea. They remain at the mercy of the empires and always long for something more secure. Still, the promise to Abraham remains in effect and the tradition survives.

The next stage in the biblical story of salvation emerges when a prophet arises in Galilee, a kind of Jewish in-between area, nearer than the diaspora, but outside of Judea. This prophet shares a name with one of the Old Testament’s main heroes: Joshua/Jesus. This name also expresses an aspiration. Jesus means “savior” or “liberator.” As presented in the four gospels, Jesus overtly linked himself with his forebears—not only Joshua, but Moses, Elijah, and a few other key prophets.

Remarkably, given how Christian theology has evolved in the centuries since Jesus’ lifetime to assert a disjunction between “Christian salvation” and “Old Testament salvation,” Jesus’ message actually places him squarely within the mainstream of the Old Testament salvation story. For Jesus, salvation is a gift.  Obedience follows as a response to the gift. Jesus affirms Torah as thesource of guidance for this obedience-as-a-response-to-God’s-mercy.

The God of the Exodus liberates captives from the Powers—and Jesus embraces this understanding of God. The God of Hosea responds to wandering Israel with mercy—and Jesus embraces this understanding of God. For example, Jesus tells how God responds to the wandering prodigal son with mercy. Jesus gives no hint of the need for some kind of sacrificial violence ala the logic of retribution as a prerequisite for salvation. Simply repent and trust in the good news of the presence of God’s kingdom and respond with lives shaped by love—just as in the time of Abraham, of Moses, of Joshua, of Second Isaiah.

So, the story of Jesus stands in continuity with the Old Testament salvation story. It embraces the logic of mercy, not the logic of retribution. In Jesus, as in the Old Testament, God responds to brokenness not with punitive violence but with unconditional mercy. The spiral of violence that leads to vengeance that leads to brokenness and more violence must be resisted. Forgiveness trumps retribution.

The story of Jesus goes further, though. Amos, Hosea, and Micah underscored the truthfulness of that original story and also deepened it. So also Jesus affirmed what was already known about God and salvation and yet added clarity and depth to the “old, old story.” What came clearer with Jesus’ story was the nature of the human predicament and the relevance of the biblical salvation story for this predicament. Rather than, as later theology often assumed, operating according to the logic of retribution, Jesus exposed retributivism as prevalent in the Powers of cultural exclusivism, religious institutionalism, and political authoritarianism, and as contrary to the will of God.

The story of Jesus’ death does add something essential to the biblical portrayal of salvation that precedes it, as traditional Christian theology affirms. But this essential element is nearly the opposite of what the traditional theology says it is. Jesus’ death reveals the logic of retribution to be the tool of evil, not the God-ordained rule of the universe. If Jesus’ basic salvation message proclaims liberation from the Powers, the story of his death reveals the true character of some of the main Powers that bind people.

Jesus proclaimed and embodied emphases from Old Testament prophets: Torah as a gift from God meant to enhance human well-being and the sustenance of liberated existence (“the Sabbath is for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath”), worship as an expression of all in the community’s access to God and as an invitation to all the families of the earth (“the temple is meant to be a house of prayer for the nations”), and political life characterized by service and mutuality (“the Gentiles’ leaders lord it over them; it must not be so with you”).

With such a message, Jesus ended up in conflict with the Powers who found themselves threatened by his alternative consciousness. Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Romans alike asserted that Jesus violated their standards for behavior. By doing good in the way he did, by faithfully expressing God’s will for human life, Jesus found himself in conflict with the principles of the guardians of society’s alleged peace and order.

This conflict makes clear the problematic nature of these principles for peace and order. The Powers of cultural exclusivism, religious institutionalism, and political authoritarianism claim to serve God and society’s welfare. However, their standards place them at odds with the one who actually embodies the will of the true God and, hence, the authentic peace that does serve society’s welfare.

Jesus, remarkably, as he becomes aware of the tensions between his vision of authentic peace and the Powers pushes the tensions further. When confronted by Pharisees, Sadducees, and Pilate, Jesus does not defer to their power but instead acts even more vigorously to express God’s will for healing (even on the Sabbath), for the temple being a light for the nations, and for God’s truth being affirmed. Jesus brings to the surface the brutality of his opponents.

Jesus’ conflict with the Powers leads to their acts that silence him with extreme violence, in the name of their service to the gods of peace and order. When he remains firmly committed to the path of liberation, Jesus exposes the Powers as unworthy of the kind of trust they demand that, when given, leads to bondage.

The story of Jesus’ death contributes to the larger biblical story of salvation insofar as it: (1) reinforces the truthfulness of the prophetic message of God’s mercy as a critique of and alternative to the peace and order of power politics, (2) highlights the tension between Torah as revealed through Moses and the distortion of the law as an instrument of cultural exclusivism, (3) reveals the underlying violence of religious institutionalism and political authoritarianism, and (4) decisively refutes the belief that the logic of retribution reflects God’s will.

Understanding the story of Jesus’ death, for those who believe Jesus embodies human life as God intends it to be lived, will undermine uncritical acceptance of the demands for loyalty made by culture, religion, and state. Those who heed this story will find that they operate with a strong hermeneutic of suspicion toward any attempts by the Powers to follow the logic of retribution as a means to reinforce their domination.

The final element of the story points both backward (and underscores the truthfulness of Jesus’ way that underscored the truthfulness of the Old Testament’s prophetic message) and forward (and offered hope that the way of Jesus indeed does express life that cannot be conquered by the Powers of death). God raises Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection vindicates his message. Rather than being ill-fated and naïve, a kind of quixotic idealism in the face of the “real world’s” overwhelming force, Jesus’ way links inextricably with the creative powers that form the universe. God blessed the way Jesus lived and taught, and God verified the message given at the time of Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).

Jesus’ resurrection confirms that Jesus’ own resistance to the Powers deserves to be followed. He challenged their hegemony; he proclaimed alternative ways to their exclusivism, institutionalism, and authoritarianism; he remained utterly committed to nonviolence even in the face of their brutality.[2]

The differences between the Bible’s salvation story and atonement theology are significant enough to conclude that we do not find an atonement model in this story. The Bible’s salvation story does not base salvation on Jesus’ death. As David Brandos concludes, “Jesus’ death may have been seen as the center and starting point” of traditional atonement theology. However, for the Bible “what was redemptive was the whole story, that is, all the events making up that story; the cross was redemptive only to the extent that it formed a part of that story.”[3]

My reasons for concluding that we do not have an atonement model in this story include: (1) The story places the emphasis on God’s mercy as the basis for salvation, not on Jesus’ death. Atonement theology, when it defines salvation in terms of the cross, cannot help but add complicating layers to the dynamics of salvation, whereas the Bible’s story itself from start to finish remains simple. God makes salvation available due to God’s mercy—period.

(2) The story presents justice as restorative much more than as retributive. Salvation is “just” because it restores relationships and heals brokenness due to God’s merciful initiative. This is contrary to the retributive notion that God’s justice requires punishment and sacrifice to be satisfied as a prerequisite for making salvation possible.

(3) For atonement theology, Jesus’ death is the core content. It provides a heretofore missing and necessary basis for salvation being made available. For the Bible’s salvation story, the basis for salvation is given at the very beginning and never changes: it is God’s mercy. Jesus’ death provides no new content in relation to the essence of salvation. Jesus’ death does confirm the origin basis for salvation and, crucially, reveals how powerfully the Powers resist his embodiment of God’s mercy. Likewise, Jesus’ resurrection does not change the basis for salvation but rather confirms it when it vindicates Jesus’ way of life that reiterates the original basis for salvation, which is God’s mercy.

Reflecting on the Bible’s “dark side”

As I near the end of this book, I want to acknowledge that my focus has been limited in my treatment of biblical themes. I have traced what I understand to be the basic salvation story and sought to find there our best approximation of the Bible’s portrayal of God’s will for human beings. I believe that if we understand the Bible’s salvation story as being a refutation of the logic of retribution rather than an expression of such logic, we will conclude that God Godself does not respond to wrong-doing with violence, but rather with mercy—and, hence, that we also should refuse to follow the logic of retribution in how we respond to wrongdoing.

However, the biblical materials are indeed diverse and, we could even say, messy. It is not without reason that many peace-minded people have turned from the Bible (especially the Old Testament) as a hopelessly “bloody book”—nor, that many who support the use of appropriate violence find in the Bible strong support for their position.

I decided for this book not directly to take on this perception of the Bible as being pro-violence. I chose rather to construct a positive case for the core message of mercy rather than to try to refute the counter-veiling evidence piece by piece.  I took this path largely due to my belief that to focus on the problems would detract from the need simply to lay out the positive case. However, I recognize value in at least a brief hermeneutical reflection on how I might deal with this counter-veiling evidence.

I grant that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, does contain stories and direct teaching that speak of vengeance, retribution, and punishment. How should one who reads the Bible in light of the way of Jesus best understand these materials?

(1) We should probably recognize that the Bible contains within itself a variety of perspectives, some even mutually exclusive of others. So we should not be surprised, or even necessarily troubled to find pro-violence sentiment in the broader context of an ultimately anti-violence perspective. If we read the Bible in light of its overall message, we can accept that some elements are in tension with that message without actually threatening its viability.

We see a fairly clear example of this dynamic in the contrast between how the story of Jehu’s vengeance upon King Ahab’s descendants is recounted in 1 Kings and then the use of it later on in the prophet Hosea. The initial account seems to portray Jehu’s violence in positive terms; Hosea, on the other hand, condemns it. The tension seems to be resolved when we recognize how Hosea’s critique fits much better with broader biblical themes of the Hebrew people’s calling to be a light of peace to the nations and God’s own forbearance toward the rebellious Hebrew people as captured so poignantly in Hosea 11.[4]

(2) The perspective of biblical writers differs from our modern sense of a materialistic universe that operates according to impersonal laws of cause and effect. In the Bible, everything comes from God. God is involved in all actions and reactions. So for biblical people to speak of God’s connections with events in the world has somewhat different connotations that it would for modern people. For Jesus to say, for example, that God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike is basically saying, in modern terms, that God has created the world in such a way that when rain falls, it does not discriminate upon whom it falls but simply wets all in its path. But, for the biblical way of speaking of reality, it is God that does it, even if it is actually a natural and impersonal process.

Hence, at least some of the biblical language about God’s involvement in judgment and “punishment” may actually simply be a way of speaking of the natural and impersonal processes of the world. That is, the world is set up so that when people violate the basic harmony of healthy human inter-relating, they will face negative consequences. We could call this “providential punishment,” a sense that God’s has providentially established the world in such a way that human beings reap the natural negative consequences of sinful acts.

When the people of Israel follow the paths of disorder and disrespect for the dictates of Torah (that are dictates for harmony with the created order), they will be “judged” and “punished” by reaping the natural consequences of such departures from God’s will. To say that God is part of this process is not to say that God acts in direct, unusual ways to punish particular people for particular acts so much as to say that God is part of the way the universe works. The imprecision of the “judgment” that characterizes many stories bears this suggestion out.  For example, the Hebrew people suffered significant trauma as a consequence of the terrible sins their king David committed with Bathsheba and Uriah. David himself did not bear the brunt of those consequences; they were visited more upon his descendants. God was behind this providentially; however, God cannot be said directly and with precision to have punished David in a way that was commensurate with David’s sins.

(3) The story makes clear throughout that the threats, and even carried-out incidents, of judgment and retribution served the broader purposes of God’s work for salvation.  Even the “providential punishing” is not an end in itself but ultimately serves redemptive ends.

Each of the three eighth-century prophets that we considered in chapter three (Amos, Micah, and Hosea) spoke sharp words of critique and uttered dire threats of judgment. In each case, though, the books end not with visions of on-going punishment but with visions of healing and restoration. The threats were not meant to express God’s will to punish; rather, the threats must be linked with the visions of healing and thus seen as having a redemptive, not punitive, intent.

(4) Mercy in the Bible means God heals that which is broken and does not simply accept brokenness and sinfulness. The vision that concludes the Bible illustrates this. Revelation portrays the New Jerusalem as welcoming those heretofore seen to be God’s enemies, the “kings of the earth” and “the nations.” However, this city is also portrayed as a place into which nothing unclean will enter. The leaves of the tree of life in the New Jerusalem are for the healing of the nations. Hence, the vision refers to transformation, not simply acceptance. This transformation is a gift, of course, an expression of God’s mercy.

The healing requires resistance to the brokenness. The consequences of sinfulness, when seen as part of God’s providential work to effect healing (“providential punishment”) may therefore be seen as for human beings’ welfare, even as they are “imprecise” and not always directly life-giving.

(5) So, if we look at the whole, we will see that retribution is secondary in the overall biblical perspective; mercy is central. The underlying logic is one wherein retribution, to the extent it is part of the picture at all, serves God’s merciful, healing intentions. The biblical salvation story rests upon the logic of mercy, not the logic of retribution.

Healing justice

To conclude, I would like to return briefly to the issue I used in chapter one to illustrate the costliness of the logic of retribution when it governs how we respond to wrongdoing—criminal justice.[5] What would a concept of justice look like if it were based, instead, on the logic of mercy—that is, on respect and concern for the people involved, on a commitment to respond constructively? Could such a relational or restorative approach to justice not only be articulated but actually implemented? Is it imaginable that the actual underpinning of salvation in the Bible (mercy) could shape a different kind of public policy that would avoid the kinds of human suffering exacerbated by the traditional retribution-oriented salvation theology I outline in chapter one.

In fact, in recent decades a movement has emerged that has made significant progress in implementing such an approach—known as “restorative justice.”[6] One of the earliest efforts that led to the current restorative justice movement came in the 1970s when two Canadian Mennonite peace workers, frustrated with existing criminal justice practices, conducted a series of “victim-offender reconciliation” encounters between two juvenile offenders and the numerous people these young men had victimized in a drunken spree. This led to the implementation of various forms of victim-offender mediation or reconciliation throughout North America, Europe and elsewhere and to the development of restorative justice theory.

Restorative justice has drawn on various sources including non-retributive Christian and Jewish readings of the Bible as well as other religious traditions, the conflict resolution movement as well as the seemingly contradictory movements for victim rights and alternatives to prison. Feminist theory has provided an important awareness of the patriarchal nature of our structures, including the justice system, but has also enriched the stream with its emphasis on an ethic of relationship. The stream is fed in important ways from a variety of traditional values, practices, and customs.  Indeed, two of the most promising forms of restorative justice, Family Group Conferences and Circle Sentencing, come directly from aboriginal or indigenous values adapted to modern legal systems.

In contrast to the “retributive” paradigm of justice, the concept of restorative justice that underlies these approaches might be summarized like this: (1) Crime is primarily a violation of, or harm to, people and relationships. (2) Violations create obligations. The aim of justice is to identify needs and obligations so that things can be “made right” to the extent possible. (3) The process of justice should, to the extent possible, involve victims, offenders and community members in an effort mutually to identify needs, obligations and solutions.

The restorative justice concept can be framed in a variety of ways, but two ideas are fundamental: restorative justice is harm (rather than rule) focused and it promotes the engagement of an enlarged set of stakeholders.  Most restorative justice efforts can be seen as following from these two concepts.

Restorative justice views crime first of all as harm done to people and communities. Our legal system, with its focus on rules and laws, often loses sight of this reality, that crime is essentially harm; consequently, it makes victims at best a secondary concern of justice. A harm focus, however, implies a central concern for victims’ needs and roles. Restorative justice, then, begins with a concern for victims and how to meet their needs, for repairing the harm as much as possible. A focus on harm also implies an emphasis on offender accountability and responsibility—in concrete, not abstract, terms. Too often we have thought of accountability as punishment, that is, pain administered to offenders for the pain they have caused. In reality, this has very little to do with actual accountability.

Mainstream justice processes rarely encourage offenders to understand the consequences of their actions or to empathize with victims. On the contrary, the adversarial game requires offenders to look out for themselves. Offenders are discouraged from acknowledging their responsibility and are given little opportunity to act on this responsibility in concrete ways. The “neutralizing strategies”—the stereotypes and rationalizations that offenders use to distance themselves from the people they hurt—are never challenged. However, if crime is essentially about harm, accountability means being encouraged to understand that harm and to begin to comprehend the consequences of one’s behavior. Moreover, it means taking responsibility to make things right in so far as possible, both concretely and symbolically.

The principle of engagement suggests that the primary parties affected by crime—victims, offenders, members of the community—should be given significant roles in the justice process. Engagement implies involvement of an enlarged circle of stakeholders as compared to the traditional justice process.

The three central questions of the retributive justice paradigm might be characterized like this: What laws have been broken? Who “done” it? What do they deserve? The comparable questions for a restorative approach then might be these: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose obligations are they? “What does the Lord require?” asks the prophet Micah, and begins the answer like this: “To do justice. . . .” But what does justice require? The latter question is central to restorative justice. What does justice require for victims? For offenders? For communities?

Out of the traumas of victims’ experiences come many needs.[7] They badly need what might be called somewhat ambiguously “an experience of justice.” This has many dimensions.  Often it is assumed that vengeance is part of this need but various studies suggest that this is not necessarily so. The need for vengeance often may mostly be simply the result of justice denied.

The experience of justice seems to include public assurance that what happened to the victim was wrong, that it was unfair, that it was undeserved. Victims need to know that something is being done to make sure that the offense does not happen again. Often they feel the need for some repayment of losses, in part because of the statement of responsibility that is implied. So restitution and apologies from an offender can play an important role in the experience of justice.

Victims also need answers; in fact, crime victims often rate the need for answers above needs for compensation. Why me? What could I have done differently? What kind of person did this and why? These are just a few of the questions that haunt victims. Without answers, it can be very difficult to restore a sense of order and therefore to heal.

Another area is sometimes termed “truth-telling”—opportunities to tell their stories and to vent their feelings, often repeatedly, to people that matter: to friends, to law enforcement people, perhaps even to those who caused this pain. Only by expressing their anger and by repeatedly telling their stories can many victims integrate this terrible experience into their own stories, their own identities.

Also important is the need for empowerment. In the crime, an offender has taken power over victims’ lives—not only of their body and or property during the incident itself, but over their subsequent emotions, dreams and reality. Indeed, many victims find that, at least for awhile, the offense and the offender are in control of their psyche. That is profoundly unnerving. Without an experience of justice and healing, this too can last a lifetime.

Offenders need to be held accountable, but in ways that encourage them to grow in empathy and responsibility.  However, they certainly have other needs as well. Instead of isolation, offenders need encouragement to be reintegrated—or integrated—into the community. They also need opportunities for personal transformation. This implies focus on developing competencies (instead of the usual focus on deficiencies). It requires that they have an opportunity to have their own needs—including the harms and sense of victimization that may have led to their actions—addressed.

Although retributive justice is done in the name of the “community” (which actually means the state), in reality the actual human community of those affected by the crime is left out of this process and its needs addressed only abstractly, if at all. Fears and stereotypes are heightened rather than addressed. People are encouraged to view things in simple dichotomies—them and us, guilty or innocent—rather than appreciate the rich nuances of real-life people and situations. Worst of all, perhaps, when the community is left out of the justice process, important opportunities for growth and community building are missed. When conflicts are processed appropriately, they provide the means to build relationships between people and within communities; take this away, and you take away a fundamental building block of community and of crime prevention.

Communities have needs well as responsibilities that must be addressed. To address these needs, a diverse set of practices has emerged in various communities.  Most work in a cooperative relationship with the existing justice system, receiving referrals from it.  Many are designed to provide alternative sentencing options or alternatives to arrest or prosecution. Others, such as those that work with severe violence, may be primarily designed to assist the healing of victims and offenders, with minimal impact on legal outcomes. Most, however, involve some form of victim-offender conferencing. They involve an opportunity for a facilitated dialogue between victim and offender, often with a written restitution agreement as part of the outcome.

Justice needs to be redefined in new terms, if not explicitly in the language of mercy, then in the language of peace and respect. Criminologists Richard Quinney and John Wildeman set the context like this: “From its earliest beginnings . . . the primary focus of criminology has been on retribution, punishment, and vengeance in the cause of an existing social order . . . rather than a criminology of peace, justice and liberation. . . . If crime is violent and wreaks violence on our fellows and our social relations, then the effort to understand and control crime must be violent and repressive.”[8] However, such an approach only intensifies the spiral of violence leading to greater violence.  What is needed is something that breaks the cycle of violence, a “peacemaking school of criminology.”[9]

Such a peacemaking approach must take seriously (and vigorously critique) the philosophical and theological roots to retributive criminology. As this book has tried to show, the deepest roots of Western theology, found in the Bible, are indeed fully compatible with new, peacemaking approaches to criminal justice. The growing restorative justice movement shows that such a peacemaking school has great potential to impact our society’s criminal justice practices in more humane ways. And in doing so, it will vindicate the Bible’s salvation story.


[1] Long, “Justification,” 79.

[2] Wink’s Engaging remains our best treatment of this combination of critique, alternative consciousness, and unwavering adherence to creative nonviolence.

[3] Brandos, Paul, 194-95.

[4] Brenneman, “Prophets.”

[5] Some of what follows is drawn from Grimsrud and Zehr, “Rethinking.”

[6] One prominent account of the origins, philosophy, and practical approach of Restorative Justice is Zehr, Changing. Zehr demonstrates that important elements of this movement draw on similar theological perspectives to those articulated in this book. See also Sawatsky, Justpeace, and Redekop, Changing.

[7] Zehr, Transcending, 185-98.

[8] Quinney and Wildeman, Problem, 40-41.

[9] Schwartz, Dreams.

  1. […] two chapters: “Theology Through Revelation” that focuses on the book of Revelation and “Conclusion: Is There an Atonement Model in this Story?” Share this:FacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. ▶ No Responses /* 0) { […]

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