The Christian blogosphere lit up after the Republican debate on Wednesday night when the audience applauded Rick Perry’s response to a question on his state’s use of the death penalty. Bruce Reyes-Chow started it off with a post that “applauding executions might be American but it is not Christian.” Peter Catapano of the NY Times has a good summary of the blogs on “both sides of the aisle” that have followed.
I think the first thing that’s important to recognize is that the people who applauded at the debate weren’t applauding the loss of life. They were applauding Perry’s boldness in answering what seemed like a snarky question from Brian Williams, a representative of the “liberal” mainstream media. They were applauding what they perceived to be moral clarity in an age of moral relativism. I’m cynical about the hyperventilation of left-wing bloggers who really want this incident to show that Republicans are monsters. We live in a time of manufactured outrage, and there’s going to be a whole lot of it in the next year, particularly if Rick Perry gets the Republican nomination (I’m not sure we should use the word “if” anymore). Perry is the the kind of Clint Eastwood cowboy who makes one half of our country cheer and the other half howl for the same reason.
As a pastor of a thoroughly “purple” church, I’m trying very hard to avoid taking sides according to the terms of our poisonous partisan political landscape. I’m more interested in understanding what blue and red people value and extracting what is true and good from the values of each side, because the only side I want to be on is Jesus’ side! To me, there’s an underlying question about justice that determines whether Christians should or shouldn’t applaud the death penalty. Is justice inherently retributive? Retributive justice means that people get what they deserve (assuming that we can delineate guilt with clarity into individualized terms which postmodern philosophy has loudly questioned). The common symbol for retributive justice is the Roman goddess Justitia who holds a scale in her hands blindfolded. Justice is whatever makes the scale equal. The Latin expression for this is lex talionis. In the Old Testament, it is described as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (instead of killing somebody who pokes out your eye or knocking out all the teeth of somebody who accidentally chips one of your teeth).
Christians believe (with a wide variety of opinions on the details) that Jesus’ death on the cross somehow addresses our/God’s/the universe’s need for retributive justice to be paid out for our sins. The question is whether the cross serves the purpose of validating or undermining retributive justice in our dealings with other people.
We can either say, “Jesus had to die for our sins; that means that people should get what they deserve because God doesn’t let sin go unpunished.”
Or we can say, “Jesus died for our sins so that we would stop caring whether people get what they deserve and instead focus on making sure everyone gets what they need.”
What do you think? Should the cross make us more zealous about making sure that other people get what they deserve? Or should it short-circuit our need for others to get what they deserve? Is God’s primary purpose with the cross to affirm the need for sin’s retribution or to convince us to let go of our need for retribution?
Please don’t read this as a “liberal” vs. “conservative” difference. It’s two different ways of understanding what Christ has done for us on the cross that translate into two different ways of understanding the appropriate response to criminal behavior. Republicans and Democrats alike have applied both ways of thinking in their arguments. Republicans yell louder for retributive justice when it concerns gang violence and drug abuse, while Democrats yell louder when it concerns hate speech and violence against women.
To be clear, the non-retributive way of thinking about justice doesn’t mean that people who hurt others should be running in the streets free to hurt more people. What it does mean is that incarceration serves the purpose of fulfilling criminals’ need for rehabilitation and transformation as well as the need for the rest of the society not to be victimized further instead of fulfilling the need for criminals to “pay” for what they did.
So which way do you interpret the cross? What do you understand about justice? Have I been fair in how I’ve framed this question? I look forward to your discussion.