A reflection on punishment and justice

‘Justice has been done!’

With the death of Osama Bin Laden has come a whole lot of language which requires honest Christian reflection. His death is being heralded as ‘a great success’, and  as a ‘deeply satisfying’ moment for his surviving victims. I understand the just anger that many people feel toward Bin Laden, even though I cannot imagine the pain many of his surviving victims live with. But I do want to suggest that serious Christian reflection on punishment and justice must be done before we join in the chorus of those celebrating and rejoicing.

The punishment of one evil doer will never bring satisfaction for those who desire justice. I heard a victim of the 2002 Bali Bombings, today, speak with genuine relief, of the satisfaction he now experienced. His enemy, a man whose organisation had inspired the attacks that had killed the family and friends of so many, was now declared dead by the US president, ‘justice has been done.’ And this has brought satisfaction. But, it wont last. And the reason why this act of ‘justice’ won’t provide lasting satisfaction for those who have so longed for this moment is because of memory. Memory, the recalling to their minds of the pain they have experienced and will continue to experience. The punishment of this one man cannot take away the memory of thousands of lost loved ones.

Miroslav Volf writes:

What would be an adequate punishment for Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s evil and dictatorial successor in the old soviet Union between the two World Wars? He not only ruined his own country and invaded many neighbouring ones, but in the process exterminated some 20,000,000 people. If we are after justice, his crime will have outstripped by far any punishment we could devise for him. How many deaths would he have to die to compensate for all the lives he took? How many lives would he need to have to suffer all the pain he inflicted? Punishment alone falters before the enormity of such crime. (Free of Charge, 135)

If the punishment of the evil doer is the answer to a longing for justice and satisfaction, it will only ever leave people unsatisfied. What we need is an alternative story, we need a story that empowers us to be truly satisfied by getting to the heart of the issue, our memories. We need to learn to forget.

How can God forget the wrongdoings of human beings? Because at the centre of God’s all-embracing memory there is a paradoxical monument to forgetting. It is the cross of Christ. God forgets humanity’s sins in the same way God forgives humanity’s sins: by taking sins away from humanity and placing them upon God-self (sic). How will human beings be able to forget the horrors of history? Because at the centre of the new world that will emerge after “the first things have passed away” there will stand a throne, and on the throne there will sit the Lamb who has “taken away the sin of the world” and erased their memory (Revelation 22:1-4; John 1:29) Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 139-140.


2 Responses to “A reflection on punishment and justice”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to post this Steve, it was helpful 🙂

    I’m still a bit confused as to how to react. I don’t want to be a hypocrite saying ‘forgive your enemies’ but then not doing it myself, but I don’t want to not be loving (the greatest commandment!) by saying we shouldn’t be glad he’s dead and seemingly minimising his terrible deeds.
    Do you reckon human justice is a partial justice while on earth and is something that is right and good? I’m not sure, cos God does want us to obey laws and obey the people over us, and we deserve punshiment if we dont obey, which is what Osama did on a massive scale. Can we act in a non-perfect just way and punish evildoers while on earth (though only God can dole out true justice)?
    I don’t think the death penalty is right, i think lifelong imprisonment and the chance to hear about Jesus would have been both a punishment but also a second chance. It clearly says not to murder, so im pretty definte on not agreeing with them murdering him, but now that they have, saying “i dont think you should have done that” makes it sound like i think osama should be let off, which obviously he shouldnt!
    But, now that it has been done, he’s dead and gone, should we celebrate that he can no longer do more harm here on earth? im not sure. and even if i dont agree they should have killed him, how do i talk to toher people about that?? my brother has been paying me out all night cos i said something along the lines of not killing him but lifelong imprisonment instead. i dont know how to voice both sadness that it came down to murder yet sympathy for the 9/11 and bali vitcims.
    Sorry for the long post; i’m really not sure how to deal with this one 😐

    • stephengardner Says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Sam. They’re some great, and big questions.
      There has to be some sort of human justice attempted. It is always going to be a frustrated experience because those administering the justice have finite knowledge and sinful hearts. And so all too often our desires for justice are actually driven by a desire for revenge. Revenge simply perpetrates further injustice (I’m going to post some more on this in the next day or two). Revenge rejoices at the death of an enemy, a desire for justice that is shaped by the cross doesn’t.
      Its never unloving to forgive – but forgiveness doesnt equate to pretending atrocities never happened. Bringing truth and justice into the light are completely necessary so that people know what they are forgiving.

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