...are the ones that make the biggest difference



We went to church with my in-laws on Sunday and afterwards we met up with my wife's two uncles and their wives. One of her uncles, "Bob", is a former senior pastor and former president of our former denomination. He and his wife never had children. The other is "Brad", a very humble, soft-spoken man who works in insurance. He and his wife had kids and their son, "Todd", is currently in law school after having already completed a masters in another field before figuring out he really didn't want to work in that field after all. (I know the feeling.) Todd recently emailed both Bob and Brad and posed a question about grace and prison sentences. He said that as he works his way through school, he has become increasingly convinced of the necessity of a sentencing mandate for our courts. Tough, but appropriate, sentencing is a good thing for our society, or so he has come to believe. But, he said, as a Christian, he also believes in grace and realizes that he isn't getting what he deserves because of it. So how should he reconcile these two, apparently conflicting, thoughts? Bob and Brad posed this same question to me.

I had already been thinking about this, to some extent, after reading Joseph Bottum's latest article in First Things; "Christians and the Death Penalty." I think you would be hard pressed to label Bottum's article as either pro- or anti-death penalty. Rather, he calls into question the way we think about it and the underlying assumptions that silently inform our discourse on the matter. I think a good summary of his thesis is this:

Christians would have to engage in national idolatry to suppose that all the acts allowed in ancient Israel are permitted in Connecticut...Without constant pressure from the New Testament's revelation of Christ's death and resurrection, the state always threatens to rise back up as an idol. And one sign of a government's overreaching is its claim of power to balance the books of the universe - to repay blood with blood.

Bottum believes the modern, secular state does not have the power to dispense the ultimate justice of the death penalty. It may dispense it as a punishment or as a deterrent, but it is not justice. It does not restore the lost loved ones to their families. It does not erase their pain or dry their tears. No such justice will exist, or even can exist, on this side of heaven.

So what about grace and tough sentences? Well, grace is about justice. It is about the ultimate reality of the divine (what we call justice here on earth is nothing but a pale and obscure shadow of the real thing). And criminal sentences in our courts, be they tough or minimal, are not. Where is the justice in putting a child molester in jail? How does his jail time restore his victim? How does it heal his or her pain? How does it make things right? Is the molester getting what he deserves, really & truly deserves? No, and he wouldn't be getting it even if he were killed - at least not by our hands. What he faces after death is another story entirely. He would not be getting justice because no punishment we can concoct will ever either match the pain he caused or close the wound he inflicted. So his jail time is not justice - it is punishment, it is protection of society. Perhaps for other crimes, jail, community service, heavy fines, etc, are rehabilitative. Even if they are, though, they still aren't justice. So grace and criminal sentencing exist on two entirely different spheres.

But those spheres do touch & overlap, so grace must inform a Christian's thinking about such things. So one could argue against mandatory minimum sentences, believing that the judge should be able to offer mercy in those instances when it is warranted and could offer a benefit to society. But what if the judge is not Christian? That is an important question, because it is precisely Christian thought that keeps us from seeing any punishment meted out by our courts as justice. We as Christians know where justice resides, and brother, it ain't living on the bench. And if our courts are not dispensing justice, then our thinking about our entire legal system should change. A crime damages society. Regardless of the victim or what was done to them, it is a crime against society, against a community, and should be punished as such without being confused with justice.



Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. I read that First Things article also. In fact, it's available online at:


Anonymous said...

Looks funny in the comments, but the link should be:

I had to split it into two pieces to make it viewable in the comments.


Sampson said...

Dear Nathan,

I enjoyed reading this post. I think you are asking the right questions. Just to complcate things even further...

In Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov makes a very good case that even punishment in the afterlife cannot be justice in any true sense. Nothing can restore innocence that has been stolen, or repay for the pain and tears of a wounded child. "What do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right here, if these little ones have already been tormented?"

I would go so far as to say that punishment, whether in this world or the world to come, is not and never can be justice, and should not be confused with justice. The punishment of an offender, understood as the making of the offender's life relatively more difficult or uncomfortable or miserable, has never been demonstrated to contribute to the creation of a better world. Quite the opposite, in fact. Miserable people act miserably, make others miserable.

In Judaism, the expression most often associated with tzidakah, "justice," is tikkun ha olam, which means "rebuilding/restoring/healing the world." Until we stop thinking that we can get to justice through punishment, we will never even make a beginning. Justice is not punishing the guilty, it is healing and transforming the world.