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.
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.
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.
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.