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Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Grace: Week 1

Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice
Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In my forty-five years as a priest, I have found that one of the best things we can do to remove people’s ingrained inability to experience grace and mercy is to first clear away their toxic image of God. As I see it, there are two major obstructions that need to be removed. One is theological and one is more psychological.

Poor theology has led most people to view God as a sometimes benevolent Santa Claus or as an unforgiving tyrant who is going to burn us in hell for all eternity if we don’t love him. (Who would love, or even trust, a god like that?) Psychologically, humans tend to operate out of a worldview of fear and scarcity rather than trust and abundance. This stingy, calculating worldview makes both grace and mercy unimaginable and difficult to experience. We’ll spend several days looking at these impediments to receiving grace.

First, let me expand on our secular and limited definition of justice, which for most people is merely retributive justice. When people on the news say, “We want justice!” they normally mean that bad deeds should be punished or that they want vengeance. Our judicial, legal, and penal systems are almost entirely based on this idea of retributive justice. Retributive justice seems to be the best our dualistic world can do. This much bad deserves this much punishment; this much good deserves this much reward. The rational, logical, tit for tat, quid pro quo system makes sense to most of us.

This does hold civil society together. I certainly recognize many early passages in the Bible that present God as punitive and retributive, but you must stay with the text—and observe how we gradually let God grow up. God does not change, but our knowledge of God surely evolves. Mere divine retribution leads to an ego-satisfying and eventually unworkable image of God which situates us inside of a very unsafe and dangerous universe. Both Jesus and Paul observed the human tendency toward retribution and spoke strongly about the limitations of the law.

The biblical notion of justice, beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures with the Jewish prophets—especially Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea—is quite different. If we read carefully and honestly, we will see that God’s justice is restorative. (This term has only been around for about the last twenty-five years as human consciousness has evolved.) In each case, after the prophet chastises the Israelites for their transgressions against YHWH, the prophet continues by saying, in effect, “And here’s what YHWH will do for you: God will now love you more than ever! God will love you into wholeness. God will pour upon you a gratuitous, unbelievable, unaccountable, irrefutable love that you will finally be unable to resist.”

God “punishes us by loving us more! How else could divine love be supreme and victorious? Check out this theme for yourself: read such passages as Isaiah 29:13-24, Hosea 6:1-6, Ezekiel 16 (especially verses 59-63), and so many of the Psalms. God’s justice is fully successful when God can legitimate and validate a human being in their original and total identity! God wins by making sure we win—just as any loving human parent does. The little “time outs” and spankings along the way are simply to keep us awake and growing.

Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart. In the Gospel we see Jesus fully revealing this divine wisdom. Love takes the shape and symbolism of healing and radical forgiveness—which is just about all that Jesus does. Jesus, who represents God, usually transforms people at the moments when they most hate themselves, when they most want to punish themselves or feel shame and guilt. Look at Jesus’ interaction with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). He doesn’t belittle or punish Zacchaeus; instead, Jesus goes to his home, shares a meal with him, and treats him like a friend. Zacchaeus’ heart is opened and transformed.

As Isaiah says of God, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Yet I am afraid we largely pulled God down into “our thoughts.” We think fear, anger, divine intimidation, threat, and punishment are going to lead people to love. Show me where that has worked. You cannot lead people to the highest level of motivation by teaching them the lowest. God always and forever models the highest, and our task is merely to “imitate God” (Ephesians 5:1).

Gateway to Silence:
Open me to grace upon grace upon grace.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” December 10, 2015,; and “Jesus Punishes No One,” September 6, 2015,

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