For our monthly Bread & Wine group here in Hong Kong last Friday night we watched a debate between Michael Brown and Brian Zahnd over the concept of atonement, or more simply “what exactly was Jesus was accomplishing on the cross”.
Brown took the position defending the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) or the view that God the Father required a violent sacrifice in order to appease his wrath and forgive humanity of its sin. Zahnd countered that belief and instead stated that God can forgive of his own volition and that Christ’s death on the cross revealed the heart of the Father which can be summed up as mankind executes it’s creator with, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing!”
Now there are many verses in the Bible that support Brown’s position. You want God’s wrath, anger, vengeance, and calls of slaughter of the sinner…it’s all there. Arguably it’s confined to the Old Testament but some of that good old fire and brimstone works its way into the New. Sometimes it looks a little misplaced. Almost like if you had a book about Mother Teresa teaching on loving the poor unconditionally but then she adds, “you can kick their ass later if they don’t respond.”
But it’s natural, as humans we want, dare I say, need to see “bad people” get their comeuppance, their just deserts! And that was the focus Michael Brown kept coming back to in the debate. Yes, God is loving but (always look for the “but”) he is also just!
However the concept of justice takes on different form depending on the perspective. If my son breaks into someone’s home and steals their goods the wronged family rightly want to see my son caught. They want the police to handcuff him and wouldn’t mind if an embarrassing mugshot was posted in the papers. They want justice!
But it’s retributive justice…They’ve been wronged and that wrong must be righted to restore balance; an eye for an eye .
It’s both very biblical AND what Jesus came to help us rise above.
See the perspective on justice changes radically when it shifts to my view as the father. Like the offended party I am very upset with my son breaking into a house and stealing their goods but I take no pleasure in seeing him led away in handcuffs or his mugshot on display.
Instead my heart is broken.
As a father I to want justice but I want a justice that makes the situation beautiful again for both my son and the offended party.
I want to see restorative justice.
In the debate, Michael Brown kept coming back to the biblical argument that a debt must be paid for sin but as Zahnd countered this form of retributive justice does not make the world right.
Similarly in the New Testament Jesus countered this Old Testament idea of retributive justice on many occasions (Matthew 5, Luke 9: 54-57). To repay evil for good in the hope that a sinner could be restored and the world made a little more right.
As a high school school teacher I will often have a student come and tell me what another student is doing that is “bad”. (For the record, my generation would never have tolerated the tattle tailing that goes on with kids today ) The goal of the tattler is to try to get another student in trouble. When I say I’ll “take care of it” the student is left thinking I will levy some punishment. In fact they want to see a teacher meet out punishment. But what is going on in my head though is much different than the tattling student. They want to see demerits, detentions, and trips to the principal’s office for the offending party.
They want retributive justice!
As a teacher though my goal is much different. I want to see justice too but I want to bring wholeness to the student’s lives and contribute to keeping the school running in a life giving way.
I want restorative justice!
Paul the Apostle deals with this adolescent attitude to justice in his letter to the Romans. In the epistle Paul gently encourages a people who only think through the retributive eyes of the offended party towards beginning to view the world, and those around them, through the restorative eyes of a father.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12: 17-21
As humans we often project our need for retributive justice onto God. We want Jesus to come back and kick some butt and haul the bad guys off in chains.
In the process however we often transform into the angry demanding mob! (Which never leads to anything good)
So when God says, “It is for me to avenge” that’s His way of telling a tattling student that he’ll take care of it.
And believe me the Father sees “taking care of it” a whole lot different than we do.