God's restorative justice

Saturday, March 05, 2011

In my last post, I addressed the first part of my answer to some questions Peter's Gurry asked in the comments to another blog post. Here I'd like to deal with the second part:

"I struggle to see how your definition of God's righteousness/justice will hold in Rom 3:21-26, especially vv. 25-26. When God passed over previously committed sins, does that mean he never healed people of their brokenness? And if so, how does healing that brokenness now through the cross show that God is, in fact, restoratively just when he restores those who have faith in Christ (3:26)? In other words, I still don't see the need for a blood-stained cross in your system.

I think Paul's logic in this section of Romans makes much more sense if the question he's addressing is not "When will God restore broken, fractured lives" (important as that question is) but rather, "How can God possibly forgive punishment-deserving rebels in a way that doesn't make a mockery of the very retribution they deserve?" In other words, How can God be both just and the justifier? Remember, the question that sets this section going is a question of God's wrath against rebellious humans (1:18-3:20). It's not a question about our fractured human lives. We are victims to be sure, but far more serious is the fact that we are perpetrators and that all our sin is finally directed Godward."

As Peter notes, my definition of "God's righteousness/justice" (Greek: diakaiosyne theo) is restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice. Peter asks about how that understanding of justice as "making things right" fits with Romans 3:25-26:

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

So let's back up to the beginning of Romans and follow Paul's argument up to here. Paul opens Romans with a discussion of the wrath God (beginning at Ro 1:18). Wrath here can be understood as retributive justice: it is the just punitive consequence for our sinful actions. We do bad stuff, and bad things happen to us. It is the law of sewing and reaping, quid pro quo, or if you like "karma." Paul is addressing his fellow Jews, and begins by speaking about pagan depravity. At this point his audience is thinking "yeah, those pagans sure are rotten! God's gonna get them!" It is here that Paul turns the tables and says that we have no right to judge others when we are just as bad. He then goes on to argue (Ro 2:1-3:20) that we are all under sin, and therefore when we hope for God to judge, we are in fact calling down wrath on ourselves.

This is something that Paul knew from practical experience. He had himself, before his conversion, not only wished for God's wrath, but had seen himself as an instrument of it, acting to persecute, harm, and even kill Christians based on his belief that he was doing this all in the name of God. Paul's major sin was that of religious zeal leading to acts of violence in God's name. This motivation to religious violence was common in his time, has continued to be among the church throughout its history (the crusades, the inquisitions, etc) and frankly still is today among many Christians.

While Paul begins by saying that we are all guilty of sins in general (chapter 2), he then moves on in chapter 3 to address the specific sins of religious people. Notice that the specific sins he lists here have to do with hateful speech (“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness”) and violence (“Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”) What Paul is describing here is the sins of religious zeal that results in hateful judgment and acts of violence done in God's name. Since Paul would of course include himself in his indictment, we could read this as Paul's own confession of the shape of his religious life before his conversion:

“My throats was an open grave; my tongue practiced deceit. The poison of vipers was on my lips. My mouth was full of cursing and bitterness.
My feet were swift to shed blood; ruin and misery marked my ways, and the way of peace I did not know. There is no fear of God before my eyes.”

Paul did not know the way of peace, and there was no fear of God before his eyes. So Paul's aim in this first part of his argument is to put the fear of God before our eyes: if we continue on this way of judgment and retribution, it will lead to our own destruction. This is also a common theme of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus warns of God's wrath unless we embrace the radical way of forgiveness.

At this point in Romans, Paul introduces a new concept: "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify" (Ro 3:21). The law here represents the system of retributive justice, of blessings and curses, that Paul has been discussing up to now. If we obey the law we receive blessing, and if we break it we find wrath. Paul contrasts this way of retribution with "the righteousness/justice of God." This is God's action, motivated by unmerited love of enemies, to make things right. It is restorative justice. So what Paul is proposing is that God's restorative justice breaks into the cycle of violence inherit in retributive justice. God overcomes the cycle of our hurting and being hurt by acting to restore and reconcile us.

With all that in mind, let's return to 3:25-26: Paul writes that God made things right through Jesus in order to "demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished." In other words, God leaving sins unpunished was seen as wrong by Paul's audience who wanted to see God's wrath poured out on bad people. They felt it was unfair that bad people got away with it, and wanted God to punish them. Paul has been arguing that the bigger problem is that we are all bad, and so in wanting this we are really just hoping to add to the hatred and pain, we are pulling ourselves into the destructive cycle of retribution. In order for God to show that he was not unjust in leaving past sins unpunished, in not wiping us all out (and it would be unjust to simply do nothing in the face of evil), God now acts to make things right through Jesus. "God did this to demonstrate his restorative justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus." (v 26, my translation). We could also translate this verse as "God did this to demonstrate his goodness at the present time, so as to be good and the one who makes-good those who have faith in Jesus."

So I think Peter is absolutely right in saying that Paul is not addressing the question "When will God restore broken, fractured lives" (important as that question is) but rather, "How can God possibly forgive punishment-deserving rebels in a way that doesn't make a mockery of the very retribution they deserve?" More specifically, the question is how can God just ignore sin, and not punish it? Paul's answer is that God cannot simply ignore sin and be just, but God can act to heal sin (and sinners) and make things right, and in doing so God demonstrates true justice which is God's restorative justice that comes through Jesus.

Now how exactly God's action in Jesus (in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection) acts to restore us, Paul does not detail here (he does elsewhere, but that will need to be the subject of another post). He simply claims here that what God is doing now in Jesus apart from law (that is, in contrast to the system of retribution) is about God's act to restore ("the justice of God" diakaiosyne theo) as an answer to the problem of retributive justice (wrath).

Peter Gurry writes that "We are victims to be sure, but far more serious is the fact that we are perpetrators and that all our sin is finally directed Godward." As we have seen, Paul was a perpetrator. That sin was indeed directed Godward. Jesus confronts Paul on the road to Damascus with the words "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5). Because God identifies with the victim, when we hurt others, even when we do this as Paul did in God's name, (or perhaps especially when we do) as do it unto them, the least, the vulnerable, we do it unto God. But what Paul the violent perpetrator encountered was grace and forgiveness instead of wrath, and that unmerited enemy love turned him around so that he renounced his former commitment to the way of retribution, and instead embraced the way of grace and restorative justice in Jesus. Paul's brokenness was precisely his hurtful understanding of religion that lead him to hatred and violence, and it is this wrong understanding of justice that Jesus undoes in Paul, replacing that with a new understanding of God's justice typified by restorative enemy love.

Following Jesus means following in that way of love of enemies, of forsaking judgment and instead embracing healing restoring forgiveness. To claim that the atonement is one rooted in the fulfillment of a retributive demand (that God punishes Jesus to fulfill the demands of retributive justice) is to utterly miss the entire point of the New Testament--that God's way is the way of radical restorative grace. That is what God's justice means. The cross is a demonstration of that restorative justice acting to overcome the way of retribution by making things good again, rather than adding hurt to hurt.


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