In this homily, Father Richard describes how different God’s methods of transformation and correction are from ours:
Isaiah 35:4–7 is quite an important reading for what we call “restorative justice.” It begins by saying: “Say to those who are frightened: Be strong, fear not. Here is your God. He comes with vindication. He comes with divine recompense” (35:4). Most people stop reading here, after the supposed threats—but threats don’t save anybody. We have to continue to the next lines for the “good news” where Isaiah defines how YHWH is going to save the people Israel: “God comes to save you, God will open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, the lame will leap like a stag, and the tongue of the mute will sing” (35:5–6). God doesn’t come with punishment—in fact, God comes to love us, heal us, and transform us.
Almost all of us in Western civilization were educated with the notion of retributive justice. Our entire penal system and judicial systems are based on it. Even the old-fashioned ideas of heaven and hell are based on it: if we sin this much, we get this much punishment; if we do this much good, we get this much heaven. It’s a pretty sick system, based on quid pro quo thinking. There’s nothing grand, transformative, or godly about it.
Here’s the great surprise of the Hebrew Scriptures, revealed in this central passage from Isaiah: People are not going to get what they deserve, they’re going to get much better than they deserve. God says, “The way I punish you—this vindication, this retribution—is actually going to be by loving you more and loving you more deeply.” Show me anyone whose heart was changed by punishing them! Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart. Nothing else. I was a jail chaplain for fourteen years and I have seen the evidence. We can punish people all we want, and the more we punish people and imprison people, the worse they become.
Many Catholics grew up with the threat of purgatory and arbitrary sentences doled out for various sins—from three days in purgatory to three months to three years. Please tell me how that makes us love God more? In fact, what it’s done is make a high percentage of Catholics fear God, not love God. It certainly did not make us love our neighbor.
I think the question we really have to ask is, “Do we like restorative justice?” If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we like to see people punished. We like to see people in jail and for them to “get what they deserve.” How different God is from humanity! We don’t know God, agree with God, or understand God. We think in such a small, small way. We think fear and anger and judgment and punishment are going to achieve love—but show me where?
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Jesus Punishes No One,” homily, September 6, 2015, MP3 audio.
Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Taylor Wilson, Isha (detail), watercolor and cyanotype. Taylor Wilson, Ruah (detail), print. Izzy Spitz, Chemistry of Self 3 (detail), digital oil pastels. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image.
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I am a clergy sexual abuse survivor. In my fight for justice for what happened to me and so many others, I have tried to follow Jesus’ example of nonviolent disruption of abuse of power. Since 1991, I have been a tireless activist, speaking out, writing, and bringing the truth to light. Sacrificing children and families to maintain a secret and abusive culture is perpetuating evil. Giving voice to pain and suffering within the church is essential for all of us to heal, justice to be served, and for us to live with Love as our guide. —Patricia M.