A Better Story: How Our Understanding of Justice is Radically Re-defined by the Gospel

Justice Redefined
Go to see an action film this weekend, and in addition to the spectacle of epic visual effects, you will likely encounter a very familiar storyline where in the end the good guys win, and the bad guy “gets what he deserves” (usually by being killed by an “accident” of the scriptwriter’s own making). That’s the way life is supposed to work, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s why, when tragedy strikes, we so often find people of faith asking “why do bad things happen to good people?” The assumption behind this is that bad things are supposed to happen to bad people, and good things to good people. This is a justice based on people “getting what they deserve” and we find it again and again in the movies we love. We love them because they tell us a story we long to hear.

This is what is known as retributive justice, and it has deep roots in Western culture, stretching back for centuries upon centuries. So much so that it has become part of our DNA, part of what we assume to be self-evident. So when we speak of justice being done, we mean punishment. Justice and punishment go together like bread and butter. The two are inseparable in our thinking, even synonymous. For someone to “get justice” or to “get what they deserve” means that they are punished.

The converse to this is mercy. Reflecting the assumptions of the surrounding culture, Christian theology has classically framed mercy as being in conflict with justice. This goes way beyond theology however, and can be found as the assumptions underlying any national debate over the use of state violence, whether in regards to crime or international conflict and war. To “bring about justice” means punishing, it means violence, it means seeking to harm. Conversely, mercy means to refrain from violence. It is thus understood as an inaction. So in short: in this framework justice means inflicting harm, and mercy means doing nothing.

Related: The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good – by Peter Greer

Because these are our culture’s default understandings of both justice and mercy, it is common for people to think that the only way to address crime or conflict is by inflicting harm, by the use of violent force. It is either that or doing nothing, we think. Either we act to “bring about justice” (meaning we respond with violence seeking to harm), or we act in mercy (which is understood to mean refraining from violence, and thus to do nothing). Because the options are framed in this way, many Christians reject the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies because they think it entails doing nothing in the face of evil, which would be unloving and morally irresponsible. We need to protect the vulnerable from harm, don’t we? We need to care for the wellbeing for ourselves and our loved ones. So while people may regret the need to respond with violence, they feel they have no alternative but to respond to violence with violence. It’s regrettable, but what choice do we have? How else can we stop violence?

The tragic irony is that inflicting violence and harm in the name of justice does not in fact stop violence at all; it perpetuates it. When a person says “I want to make them hurt like they hurt me” what they are really longing for is empathy, for the person to recognize the harm they have done, and for them to care. It is hoped that punishing a person will cause them to see the error of their ways and repent. But what in fact happens is quite the opposite. It produces resentment. This really should not surprise us. Inflicting harm is not good for a person. People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized. So the fruit of this kind of “justice” is that it makes things worse.

That’s where the gospel comes in. The gospel presents a new kind of justice which is characterized by making things right. It is the narrative of God in Christ acting to restore and redeem all of humanity through an act of grace and enemy love. Paul refers to this in Romans as the dikaiosyne theou which literally means “the justice of God.” In Christ we see that God’s justice is a restorative justice, a justice that acts to make things right.

It’s crucial to recognize here is that this gospel-perspective entails understanding both justice and mercy in a completely different way: Justice is not about inflicting harm, it is about making things right. Similarly, mercy is not about inaction; on the contrary it is about acting to make people whole again, acting to make things right. Mercy is therefore not in conflict with restorative justice at all, rather it is the very means to it.

Brave New Films

As a concrete application, let’s continue with the example of crime: Restorative justice begins by addressing the needs of the victim—asking what they need in order to be restored and made whole again. This seems like an obvious focus, but the fact is in our current criminal justice system the focus is placed on the criminal and the state, and the actual needs and wellbeing of victims are ignored.

Also by Derek: Healing Toxic Faith – Did Jesus Die to Save Us from God?

A corollary focus of restorative justice is on the reform of the criminal, helping them to develop empathy and insight so they can break out of patterns of harm. This obviously benefits the offender, helping them to regain their humanity, but it is equally in our own self-interest as well because a reformed criminal means a safer world for all of us. Consider what happens instead when a person is made to suffer for their crimes in prison, and then after serving their time is placed back on the street. Is it any wonder that they return to the same patterns that landed them in jail in the first place? Such patterns are, if anything, reinforced in the brutal culture of prison life—especially when the goal of prison is understood as punitive.

That is the difference between retributive and restorative justice. Looking at the fruits, we can see that one produces death and the other life. We need to wake up and realize that seeking to harm someone is not justice at all. So rather than continuing to tell stories that perpetuate this myth of redemptive violence we need instead to learn a different story, a better and deeper story. The gospel shows us the true story our hearts long for. It’s the story of redemption. It’s the story of overcoming evil with good. Or to put it in the childish terms of action movies: It’s about turning “bad guys” into “good guys.” This is what real justice looks like, and the more that we can imagine and rehearse this, the more that we can make that story a reality in our world.

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About the Author

Derek FloodDerek Flood is the author of Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Sojourners, here at Red Letter Christians, as well as writing regularly at his website theRebelGod.com. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice. Follow Derek on Twitter @therebelgod and Facebook.View all posts by Derek Flood →

  • Michael

    C. S. Lewis wrote a very thoughtful essay in favor or retrubitive justice called “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”.

    • Derek Flood

      I’m normally a bug fan of Lewis, but this is probably one of the worst essays I have ever read by him. In it he opposes treatment that we now know helps to reform criminals, and instead advocates for abuse.

      The central problem with Lewis’ essay is that it is written in a philosophical vacuum with no appreciation for the most basic understanding of human psychology (to his credit, it was written at least 50 years ago). He imagines that people can just make freewill choices for right or wrong. The reality is a lot more complex.

      Consider a person who has a pattern of violence: Such people have often learned hurtful patterns of behavior which involve insecurity, an inability to regulate their emotions, and poor impulse control. It does not work to simply give them negative consequences, they need to learn alternative patterns of behavior so they can develop self-reflection and empathy. One does not develop empathy by being beaten, harmed, and dehumanized.

      While Lewis may wish people had dignity and freewill, Scripture talks about people being “slaves to sin.” People who are caught in these destructive behavior patterns, as well as people who struggle with addition, can testify to that reality. The question is: How can we most effectively help people to break out of that? Punishment simply is not an effective means of bringing about change in this case.

      • Michael

        You say a lot with very few words so I don’t have time to discuss all of it at the moment. But let me say all of it is very thought provoking and while I disagree with some of it. I (cautiously) agree with much of it. Or at least would like too. I’m not sure if person without empathy can be taught it, but I’m all for trying. Also, while I want them to be punished, I also want them redeemed. I don’t see retribution and redemption as mutually exclusive concepts.

        I will say that I do not think punishment has to be dehumanizing. It certainly can be, but punishment–even harsh punishment–is not inherently dehumanizng. Suffering the consequences of our actions is part of the human condition, and I think most people inately appreciate the concept of pennace, even when they are the ones paying it. Though those who lack empathy probably do not appreciate it.

  • otrotierra

    An excellent reminder of just how politically incorrect it is to stand with Jesus and affirm justice.

  • SamHamilton

    Thanks for this blog post. I’m all for this in theory. What does it look like in practice when it comes to a legal/judicial system?

  • Jonathan Jensen

    I agree almost wholly with this article. But this sentence,

    “This seems like an obvious focus, but the fact is in our current criminal justice system the focus is placed on the criminal and the state, and the actual needs and wellbeing of victims are ignored.”

    I agree to a certain extent, but I think it runs deeper, that our cultural view is that this punishment on the perpetrator is actually focused on the victim. Is not our “cultural” viewpoint even more perverse as to think that a victim’s needs and/or wellbeing are met by crushing or punishing another person?

    My point being that when I look at systems of justice in the United States (especially the criminal justice system) I find it starkly obvious that it functions wholly as retributive justice. However, I find it more disconcerting that many people would not see it as retributive at all, they might see it in some perverse way to actually be redemptive. So if we can’t just shift from one mindset to the other, we have to, in fact, redefine these mindsets altogether. And now I wonder “How” ? Or at least where to begin?

    • Michael

      I think people want “retributive justice”, but they want to want “redemptive justice”.

      Personally, I think justice should be primarily retributive, but it’s kind of hard to have a discussion about it until everyone is honest with themselves about what they want.

      People like me who think justice should be retributive need to admit it, and people who think it should be redemptive need to explain what that looks like in practice.

      My understanding is that prison was at one point believed to be redemptive. The idea was that quite contemplation would reform criminals, but that has not been the effect of prison so I’d like to know what specifically should be done with criminals in order to redeem them.

      • Jonathan Jensen

        I think we agree, more or less, on the current state of things as to people on any side of this topic need to admit, or decide what they want, actually know what they want, what they want to want, and decide what it all really means so we can have a real discussion about it all. Even though we probably come down on different sides of this topic in the end.

        To explain what redemptive justice (or I’m more prone to use the term “restorative” justice) looks like in practice, I believe it incorporates a four-pronged approach. One being a focus on the victims needs and well-being and being restored to a healthy relationship with society. Second being a societal or communal approach to the restoration of victims, an approach that would respond to those that might identify with the actual victim. I don’t think any victimization happens within a box, it affects a larger community of people. And in restorative justice, I believe a focus needs to be placed on this societal victimization. Third, being a focus on the individual needs of the perpetrator with regard to returning that person to a healed relationship with society. I wouldn’t even go as far as saying punishment is out of the question, I just believe that the focus needs to be on the individual needs of that person and an aim to restore their relationship with their community. And fourth, being a focus on the societal, cultural, economic systems at play that lead to situations of crime (these are large and at play in various ways across the criminal spectrum, but I feel that they deserve focus) in order to limit the societal, cultural and economic causes of crime.

        Now, I know this is not a very exhaustive explanation of this topic, but its a start…

        I’d like also to hear about your take on retributive justice and why you think justice should primarily be retributive.

        • Michael

          You give four things, but your aren’t very specific. I can imagine what three of them might look like (though I’d be guessing to a degree as to what you really thought), but your 3rd one is kind of sandwiched in there: “Third, being a focus on the individual needs of the perpetrator with regard to returning that person to a healed relationship with society. I wouldn’t even go as far as saying punishment is out of the question, I just believe that the focus needs to be on the individual needs of that person and an aim to restore their relationship with their community.” I can’t even guess what you have in mind practically. You mention that it might include prison, but I have no idea why. How does prison help accomplish this? And what besides prison can we dor to redeem the “perpetrator”?

          As for why justice should be retributive. Actually, I think justice is retributive by definition. Really there’s no such thing as “redemptive/restorative justice”.
          As for why justice is good, I think humans inately desire justice. We need it, and if our governments don’t provide it, people start taking into their own hands. Flood seems to think that this inate desire is actually a product of Western Culture, but I think most cultures have the same desire for justice as ours. Actually, if anything, after the Elightenment, I think Western culture has become less concerned with justice that other cultures.
          And God himself is big on justice, and his justice takes the form of retribution though it is tempered with mercy as ours should be.

  • Derek Flood

    Several people have asked what restorative justice as applied to the criminal justice system looks like practically. A good place to start here is the book “Changing Lenses” by Howard Zehr.

    It is important to stress that this is not simply theoretical. Right now restorative justice programs are being implemented in prisons across the country (as well as in many schools as a way of dealing with school violence), and these prgrams are being shown to be deeply effective in bringing about lasting reform where traditional punitive approaches have failed.

    • Michael

      Maybe a better place to start is with you giving us some idea what you are talking about. You “stress” that this is not simply theoretical, but it is completely theoretical if you don’t give the examples. At the very least you could name some of the prisons and schools that have implemented these programs and a description ofsome of these programs would be even better. So far, I cannot even imagine what such a program looks like so without an illustration (even a made up one though since what you are talking about really exist a real one is much preferable) I cannot understand what you are talking about.

  • Issiah

    Justice like Moses slaughtering Egyptians or God punishing the world with a flood and destroying a whole population. Restorative justice my ass

    • Michael

      Yeah, I know that we are under the new law and not the old, but sometimes pacifists create a standard that God has often failed to live up to. I think that’s why many of them appear to be turning to universalism, but it still doesn’t explain why God did what did in the OT. It’s like God used to be bad but became good. It’s like Marcionism come again.

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