So yesterday I put down some of my thoughts about a retributive model of justice. The end conclusion I came to was that it’s a model which is in many ways necessarily reactionary and also rather focused on punishing the criminal instead of trying to make things right for the victim.
All these thoughts came up because I watched Dredd the other night, and I realized there was a major flaw in a system that was designed only to maintain order rather than foster social improvement. I also realized that a retributive justice model seems to be related to the penal substitution system of atonement theology that’s popular in contemporary evangelical communities.
For anyone who might not be familiar with penal substitution, it’s a theological doctrine that explains the necessity of Christ’s crucifixion as the method by which God satisfied his need for justice while still allowing grace. In this system, because sin is something that everyone has inherent in them, the entirety of humanity is doomed to death (the nature of that death is up for debate, but it holds that people die as a consequence of their sin). Jesus as God Incarnate was the only person on earth who was totally sinless, and therefore was able to accept the punishment of death without it destroying him. Because of this characteristic, he chose to die in place of everyone else who deserves it, acting as our substitute. In that way, God’s need for justice was satisfied because someone got punished for all the sin in the world, so now that that pesky business is dealt with, he can go on being the gracious and merciful God that he wants to be.
Do you see where things seem to go off rails?
Penal substitution’s justice model is purely retributive. Someone had to be punished in order for the just part of God’s nature to appeased so he could focus on the merciful part. It’s like there’s a weird tension in God’s character between these two aspects. I don’t know about you, but I generally like to think that God’s the one person who doesn’t have any weird conflicting personal issues. “You know, guys, I love you and all, and I want to have a relationship with you, but I just can’t let go of the fact that you’re all criminals who deserve to be executed. In fact, really, I love you guys so much that I’d pardon you myself for all that stuff you did, but it’s just going to bother me if I don’t kill someone. You can understand that, right?”
I think this theological doctrine reflects how the retributive justice model is flawed. It defines justice as being served when evil is punished rather than when good is restored. After all, when the prophet Micah exhorts Judah “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” he’s not speaking as though these things are all in tension. Serving justice is supposed to harmonize with being merciful, and neither characteristic is supposed to be counter to acting in accordance with God.
So we need a different justice model. The term I’ve seen used on occasion is a restorative model of justice. The restorative model, ideally, places emphasis on action that corrects wrongs and tries to restore communal relationships. It’s not so naive as to believe that victims and criminals can always reconciled to each other, but the aim is to strengthen relationships within communities instead of only punishing infractions.
I like that idea.
While thinking about all this justice stuff for the last few days, I happened to come across a few articles that I found really useful in putting my thoughts together. I borrowed a little bit from these posts, but they’re far better pieces than what I’ve put together, so you should go read them.