Why I hate retributive justice

I just found out that a kid I love a lot who’s a very smart and beautiful person has been arrested for a shooting that sounds like it’s a pretty cut and dry case, which will effectively end his chances at having a future. This kid’s little brother shot and killed his sister a couple of months ago. I was their youth pastor. I helped them start a soccer team called Sangre de Cristo. We got the uniforms of the Spanish national team the year they won the World Cup (before they won the World Cup!) mostly because their uniforms looked cool and they were the “right” color, red, since none of my kids would have worn them if they were blue. It was supposed to be the inspiring “Dangerous Minds” story about how they walked away from gangs and enrolled in all AP classes and all went to Harvard for college. Things don’t happen like they do in the movies.

Some of my youth are doing really well, and I’m super-proud of them. The kid who got arrested this morning was one of the ones I thought  was doing really well until very recently. He was in ROTC. He was getting good grades. He was a senior. So close to graduating and going into the Air Force and most importantly getting the hell out of east Durham. I can’t really put into words how I mourn for him. But I will tell you one thing. His life isn’t a math equation. Whether he gets 10 years, 20 years, or even 50 years, it offends me to the bone to think that anyone would have the audacity to say that’s the measure of who he is.

Even if he had actually killed somebody, it would not negate the fact that he carried the cooler for me almost every time we went to the practice field, and before we found a competent adult to be our coach, he basically ran our team’s practices since I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t understand how someone as gentle and intelligent and compassionate as the kid I knew could shoot somebody. But even if he did, it doesn’t mean that the kid I knew didn’t really exist. Just because people have more than one side doesn’t mean that their dark side gets to be their “real” side, which is the lie that our scandal-happy media tries to tell us.

He asked intelligent questions about the Bible in youth group when the other kids were playing around. He treated me with more respect and dignity than any other kid in that youth group. Sometimes they were really mean to me. But he never was. And it wasn’t because he was kissing up. He was mature and genuinely compassionate. I don’t care that there was another side to him. And no, I’m not saying that my warm and fuzzy memories mean he shouldn’t have to do time.

But this is why it offends me so deeply when people think that the best God can do with His divine justice in dealing with us eternally is some crude math equation in which there are only two possible options: zero or infinity. Just because a kid gets in trouble for doing something horrible doesn’t mean that he becomes a “thug” who has had everything else about his life vaporized in an instant: every gold star he got on a third grade spelling test, every Bible verse he memorized in Sunday school, every stick of gum he shared with another kid, every hug he ever gave to his grandma. I get that we couldn’t have any kind of stability in our society if kids could run around doing things that are extremely dangerous and violent without having to go to the big house. Maybe our penal system is the best we can do (I know many who would argue it isn’t). But even if it were, it’s still not pure justice.

The reason that Jacques Derrida wasn’t full of crap to say that “Deconstruction is justice” is because justice is infinitely nuanced and every finite law and order system can and should be deconstructed endlessly for its imperfections; that’s what is supposed to happen within our judicial and legislative processes. It’s actually out of zeal for doing justice to justice that I reject a crude, oversimplified retributive formula. You can even call justice mathematical if you want, but if so, it follows the most infinitely complex fractal pattern you could possibly imagine, because a perfect justice accounts for every mitigating, aggravating factor perfectly and doesn’t let a single drop of good or evil go unaccounted for.

Justice doesn’t just “round down” and account for every evil while dismissing every good (as evangelical Christians who misinterpret the point of the book of Romans have come to assume). What makes me scream out against crude caricatures of retributive justice is the way that they betray the far deeper textures that are impossible for the human mind to account for but nonetheless demand to receive their hearing and rage with white hot wrath against being dismissed and silenced as immaterial evidence, externalities, and so forth.

The best representation of God’s justice doesn’t come from the psalm that Paul quotes in Romans 3 to make a point that “none of us are righteous” and thus none of us have a leg to stand on in judging others. The best way to think about God’s justice is given to us in Hebrews 4:12-13: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Even though the metaphor of a sharp sword makes this passage sound intensely harsh, it’s actually very comforting to me because it represents perfect integrity. I need to believe that God is not a stupid redneck who is unbothered by oversimplification; I need to believe that He’s perfectly truthful. And I do. God sees every intricacy of good and evil within us. Because of His integrity, He doesn’t falsely misrepresent what we did in the worst possible light. If Augustine is right and every evil is simply privatio boni (choosing the pettier good over the greater good), that means that there’s at least some good to legitimate within every evil. An infinitely just God does not just meticulously build cases against His creatures, as the common caricatures impugn Him. Rather He embraces the impossible burden of accounting for every good and bad intricacy perfectly.

It does not do justice to my friend’s character and the measure of his life to say that he’s just some scumbag Mexican thug who should never see the outside of a prison again. And I’m sure at least a hundred people watching him come up on the news down in Durham tonight had that thought or one like it run through their heads. I would punch every single one of those people in the face if I could, even though it would be wrong for me to do so (and even though I have been that guy watching the news about thug kids and their guns and making dismissive, unfair presumptions because I wasn’t their youth pastor).

If justice weren’t infinitely complicated, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die on the cross. It would have just been a matter of God saying to each of us you have accrued this many pounds of blame and you have accrued this many and so forth. That’s the dimension we don’t think about: it’s not just that we need to be rescued from an enormous quantity of guilt; we need to be rescued from the impossibly infinite complexity of assigning blame. Jesus’ blood is the only solvent that can vaporize the infinitely ridiculous and intricate mess that we’ve made so that we don’t have to spend eternity trying to get to the bottom of who did what. That blood is the violence that swallows every other violence so that only peace that remains for those who accept its power.

Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin isn’t intended to validate the divine sovereignty of whatever couch potato rednecks thought they could casually dismiss the life of a teenage gunman whom I know and love when he came up on the news tonight. On the contrary, Jesus’ cross makes it so that we don’t have to learn multivariable calculus in order to do justice. We can simply say this world is one messed up place where  compassionate, mature, and intelligent kids can throw away their futures and hurt their families deeply only a month after they already went through unspeakably senseless tragedy by doing something that is inexplicably ridiculous, and yet these same kids do not thus become garbage that is fit to be burned forever because God will do everything in His power to get them back.

Now I do think that it makes sense for God to throw the book at us if we have the audacity to try and claim we don’t need His mercy to enter into eternal communion with Him. But I don’t think that’s because God is a slave to retributive mathematics; it’s because He protects the objects of His mercy from the oppression of those who hate mercy. Retribution is always only a means to a greater end, a removal of the obstacles that keep us from accepting God’s sovereign judgment of what each person needs to thrive and be incorporated into His cosmic shalom.

I think that the pettier we want to be with God, the pickier He’ll be with every minutiae of sin we had in what we thought were impeccable deeds, and He’ll take that all the way to infinity, but again it’s not because He’s a mathematician before He’s a Father. It’s because we have to be !@#$%^&*-slapped hard enough for the self-satisfied smirk to disappear before we can be part of the safe space that God has established on His holy mountain. He will not let any self-appointed sideline judges interfere with the rule of His mercy and peace. And I imagine some people who can’t stop trying to play god will be sent to Gehenna, whatever the hell that is.

Pray for my buddy. Pray for his little brother who’s still in juvy and his little sister who is with God now. (And if you want to ask me how I know she’s with God and whether she made a “decision for Christ” in time, then go ahead and ask me that, and see whether the fire in my eyes doesn’t electrocute you through the fiber optic lines of cyberspace where you’re sitting in your comfortable abstraction.)

Pray for their mother and father who have now lost three children in two months. How do you live after that? I wouldn’t know how. I would just lie on the floor and drink until I fell asleep and then drink again after I woke up, and I’m supposed to be a pastor. Pray for the two babies in the family that somehow they’ll make it. Pray that angels would be sent. And shepherds. Pray that I will stop hating myself for not being there.


8 thoughts on “Why I hate retributive justice

  1. “Pray for my buddy. Pray for his little brother who’s still in juvy and his little sister who is with God now. (And if you want to ask me how I know she’s with God and whether she made a “decision for Christ” in time, then go ahead and ask me that, and see whether the fire in my eyes doesn’t electrocute you through the fiber optic lines of cyberspace where you’re sitting in your comfortable abstraction.)”

    I hope this is said in a more OT sense than a Calvinist way. Let everyone who thinks they are “elect” be damned. But surely God is not an ogre who will send kids to hell forever for not believing a story they’ve had no compelling evidence for, just as I wouldn’t send you to jail for not believing that the events in my novel are true history.

  2. After seeing the news of the latest tragedy here and elsewhere a little fear of God may be in order.
    I wonder where retributive justice fits in this scenario?
    20 elementary children dead. 19 Stabbed overseas.

    I hope you find the words soon.

    • For some of us this is theoretical. For others it is about people we love. I can only say that I long for the kingdom where this doesn’t happen.

  3. “Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin isn’t intended to validate the divine sovereignty of whatever couch potato rednecks thought they could casually dismiss the life of a teenage gunman whom I know and love when he came up on the news tonight.”

    But that sacrifice was certain to validate the divine sovereignty of Christ.
    Judgement, justice, and discernment are part of the Christian experience.

    If you can show mercy what makes you think God’s mercy and judgement will not be superior to yours?
    Have faith.

    • Absolutely. I trust that God’s mercy and judgment are far superior to mine. And I will struggle for the rest of my life to learn how to describe them for people so that they can embrace the mercy that God gives to all who fear HIm.

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