Posts tagged with: retributive justice

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Last Saturday a brief op-ed commentary of mine ran in the weekly Religion section of the Grand Rapids Press, “Chandler case exemplifies need to repent.”

The occasion for the piece was the sentencing over the last few months of those convicted of involvement in the rape and murder of Janet Chandler in 1979 (more details about the case can be found in the Holland Sentinel’s special coverage section.) Chandler was a student at Holland’s Hope College at the time of her death. (Here are two of the stories that form the background for my article’s argument: “Swank: ‘No excuse’ for role in Chandler death” and “Lives built on dark secret crumble.”)

In the op-ed I make the claim that the work of the criminal justice system in the conviction and sentencing of those involved provides a necessary context within which forgiveness, or more precisely a form of restorative justice, might be sought. “For criminals who are in denial about what they have done, the power of the state to punish crime stands as public and objective testimony to the wrong that has been committed,” I write.

Swank: “No excuse…” (Sentinel/Dan Irving)

That’s exactly what has happened in this case. Earlier in December four men were sentenced to life in prison in connection with Chandler’s murder. After the four men were sentenced, Janet’s father Jim said, “As a Christian, I thought of saying we should forgive, but you have to ask for forgiveness. None of these arrogant people ever felt remorse or asked for forgiveness.”

Jim Chandler touches here on the critical difference between a forgiveness that is merely offered, and forgiveness that is sought out and received. Forgiveness that is merely offered is described as the “weak” form of forgiveness by Victor Claar, a professor at Hope College, and John N. Oswalt, a professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Miss., in an article appearing in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Can Neoclassical Economics Handle a Scriptural View of Forgiveness?”

Claar and Oswalt also describe the “strong” form of forgiveness: “This strong form follows the biblical view that forgiveness cannot be granted unless the victimizer has repented. Apology is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the strong form of forgiveness. Further, only the strong form holds the possibility of reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without apology.”

Much of the reflection that lies behind the GR Press article is the fruit of the study behind a piece on restorative justice and the Christian tradition that is due to appear in an issue of next year’s Ave Maria Law Review. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how so-called “retributive” justice and “restorative” justice relate.

One way of putting the question is to inquire as to how to put together the instructions in Romans 12, such as, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,” and Romans 13, including the statements referring to the civil magistrate, “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

For more on how restorative justice can work within the context of the criminal justice system, see this story about the work of Celebrate Recovery, a prison ministry at work in Michigan and around the country, “Pastors baptize 33 at St. Joseph County Jail” (HT).