I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed for the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
“God will forgive us of our sins, but the consequences of our sin will always play out.” These were the words expressed by the family of Stacie Bagley, for whose murder Brandon Bernard was sentenced to death. While the family are dealing with the anguish years later, that these words would make sense and seem reasonable to many other people in the face of the death penalty makes something manifest: many people’s sense of justice, particularly those who are Christians are tied up with a punitive worldview. That is, if one does something wrong, one should be punished. Meanwhile, forgiveness is treated as a spiritual matter that has little to do with how we address wrongdoing, injustice, and evil. My point here is not to broach the topic of the death penalty. There is much that has been said that my voice can really add to. Rather, my concern here is how a punitive worldview is at the core of a painful, cruel world.
So, join me in a thought experiment about injustice. Recognize that this is a potentially triggering thought experiment.
Imagine someone you know is raped and that they have the culprit in custody. What is it that should be done? Think about this for a few moments.
If your very first thoughts were about to lock the rapist up, or worse, your thinking is likely an expression of a punitive worldview. When injustice and evil occurs, the punitive worldview trains us to think that our response should be to make the people who did it pay. Yet, did you consider in your reflection how one should go about addressing the fears, pains, suffering, and trauma of the victim? How much time did you give for reflection about the victim’s well-being?
If you live with a punitive worldview, something subtle yet powerfully negative occurs. You think injustice is addressed primarily by punishing the wrongdoer, rather than restoring the wronged. So far as the guilty party is held accountable, we can go along comfortably with our lives, believing that justice has been done. Yet, it isn’t, not for the victim. The victim may bear their wounds for years to come. Such ‘justice’ can feel quite hollow for people whose lives have been uprooted for something that wasn’t their fault.
The problem with a punitive worldview is that we focus on the perpetrator because we feel it is punishment that satisfies our sense of justice. Less time and focus is given to how to heal and restore the aggrieved. Our political institutions place punishment at the center of our response to injustice with massive social backing when injustice occurs, whereas the task of healing and nurturing back to well-being is farmed out to the helping professions. People will passionately seek justice by a focus on the perpetrator, but less time and attention is given to bringing the victim into a place of restoration.
This has cultural effects on all of us by creating a set of values that influence what we talk about. When people gather around the table to discuss the happenings of the world, in their small talk they might talk about what needs to be done to those people who sinned, who did something bad. In the conversations that follow, various ideas about how to enact justice by addressing the perpetrator may follow. While it need not be formally intellectual in its style, the conversations help to form people’s thinking about discipline and punishment. However, how much time is given in the conversation to think about how to help the victims of the wrongdoers? In what ways can one shower empathy, listen, and restore a sense of peace to people, especially those whose lives have been thrown upside down?
The culture becomes “experts” when it comes to imagining how to address wrongdoers, but it remains in a basic incompetence in trying to bind the hearts of the broken. In Christian circles, this incompetence can be exhibited by a combination of telling people to seek Jesus for their wounds and encouragement to seek professional help. Both of which are necessary, but yet healing requires an important component that those who are traumatized often lack: meaningful connections to people within their daily lives. The throes of pain and emotions that can be expressed by victims promote a sense of uncertainty as to how to proceed by others in the midst of their cultural incompetence. This uncertainty can feel uncomfortable, which then leads people to various sorts of responses, such as avoidance, thinking they need to get tougher, thinking they are playing the victim, getting angry, etc., that shuts off compassion and can reinforce the feeling of disconnection that victims feel. All the meanwhile, the need for meaningful social connections that has great importance in helping us to grow resilient and strong in the face of hard times is often left unaddressed. This is in part because of our cultural incompetence in addressing pain and suffering in others that comes when we think justice is primarily about addressing the wrongdoers. We can imagine how to address perpetrators, but our uncertainty begets responses of minimal compassion towards the victims.
Even many of the responses of many people who seek to help are often limited by ignorance and cultural incompetence. Helpers want to find a solution for the person, when in fact there is no quick and easy solution. Solutions for the broken have to start from within the person as their own pains and longings provide the pathway to discovering how to heal, even if the ways they want to put this into place may not be realistic. For the victim to heal, they need to be able to address their own insecurities as they feel them, their own struggles as they see them. Yet, for people who want to help, this often leaves them feeling helpless as it requires patience to understand and requires entering into the world of the victim, which can make people feel uncomfortable. Indeed, this can be somewhat traumatizing for helpers as can be witnessed by the realities of second-hand trauma. Instead, many who seek to help may try to act as an expert on the problem and solution in response to this discomfort, rather than letting themselves being a resource that the victims can find access. Consequently, it often requires professionals who are trauma-informed in order to be able to effectively help, leaving the need for connections within one’s daily life for healing at the risk of being unmet.
Yet, it isn’t the fault of those who genuinely seek to help or people in general. It is hard to know how to respond to people’s pain, especially when each trauma and wound is unique and not immediately understandable without open listening. Yet, at the same time, it isn’t automatically obvious how to deal with wrongdoers either, but our culture trains us to think about modes of discipline and punishment. The roots of the problem are found in a punitive worldview that makes the important response to wrongs being in bring about discipline and punishment, which encourages us to focus on the perpetrator, and not the victim. Most of us intuitively know more about how to discipline and punish than how to heal and restore because our worldview encourages us to spend more time thinking about the former than the latter.
This leads to two particularly perverse outcomes. On the one hand, the focus, if not obsession, on discipline and punishment can lead to imagining and expecting particularly painful punishments. The more we focus on the perpetrator as a wrongdoer, the more we in our anger and fear can simmer, leading us to more extreme, if not cruel, punishments with more extreme judgments about the perpetrators to rationalize these punishments. The death penalty for an 18-year-old is a necessary consequence of murder? I am not personally against the death penalty in theory, in practice we find it being used in unjust and unnecessary ways. What value is there is taking the life of a man who was repentant and in no danger of inflicting harm upon others. Only a worldview that roots justice in punishment would think something is gained by that. A worldview that focuses on the restoration of the harmed, though, would find little solace in a death that does little to address the pain except as a symbolic gesture.
On the other hand, because we have a tendency to focus on the perpetrator when it comes to matters of injustice, a countervailing tendency of spending more time advocating for the punished than the wounded can occur, often in the name of forgiveness. While the case of Brandon Bernard does not necessarily demonstrate the worst sides of this tendency, how often in the past have popular athletes of perpetrators of violence against women given exoneration by restoring them back to their careers on the field with little to address the problems. How readily have we seen pastors who have repeatedly abused the flock been given the freedom to quickly return to power over the flock, all in the name of forgiveness? Fortunately, many of these tendencies are being more justly addressed in recent years, but it has is in part been powered by how much attention we give to wrongdoers and the fears we may be too harsh on them rather than on the wronged and whether they are being.
If we focused more on the wronged than the wrongdoers, then these countervailing tendencies that can lead people to oppose conclusions will be diminished. Our imaginations wouldn’t spend as much time thinking about how we can teach a lesson to those who do wrong, but rather how we can excel is restoring the broken. We wouldn’t feel as guilty about discipline and punishment that causes us to advocate the interests of the wrongdoers because we would have instead focused more so on what brings restoration of the life of the wronged.
Yet, there is a reason we are inclined to punitive worldviews. It often seems quicker, simpler, and cheaper to discipline and punish than it is to heal (however, the costs and time for long jail sentences make it clear that this is not always true in reality). Thus a punitive worldview is quicker to help us feel the world is safe and restored to order than a therapeutic worldview, which would have us more cognizant of the pains and struggles that people face with injustice.
Yet, another reason for punitive worldviews, particularly in Christian (sub)cultures, is connected to how the atonement of Christ is understood. When it is understood that Christ’s death saves us by being a substitute for the punishments for our sins, then at the heart of worship is the expression of a punitive worldview, where God is seen as focusing on punishing any and every act of wrongdoing. Going beyond recognizing that God will punish those who inflict harm upon others so as to protect His people, it becomes a worldview where for God to be just he must punish sin simply because it happened. Rather than a God whose punishment is principally concerned with protecting those who are wrong, God instead is seen as having to punish sin without regard for whether it helps the wounded or not. Little concern for the restoration of the recipients of injustice is evident in the theological imagination; God is understood to be focused only on punishment and forgiveness of sins.
But all of this is of the flesh. It prioritizes vengeance laced with talks of “justice” over love. It is the result of minds who make God a representation of our own social life and concerns, rather than a holy God who is surprisingly transforming our world in ways that we could not expect. The punitive world view is fleshly in its nature. It is focused and obsessed upon death, literally and symbolically, in the focus on how we discipline and punish those who do wrong. Yet, the way of the Spirit is life and peace. Such concerns should guide and motivate us to think and learn how we can excel in loving those who are broken, how we can set free the captives, locked in the pains and traumas of injustice. One can still discipline and punish with an eye towards life and peace, but the perpetrator does not become the focus of our rage and sympathies.
But, yes, it is complicated to restore and heal. Yet, so much of this complication is rooted in our cultural incompetence, where the ways of the flesh have kept our minds in the dark about the ways of God’s Spirit. Yet, if we learn to die to ourselves, to face our own crosses, to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, we will then be in a place where our minds will begin to be changed so that we can discern and discover God’s life-giving, shalom-forming will for people. With greater insight and perception, we will be able to more readily engage in loving compassion for those who struggle. Our minds will not be so ignorant about healing, leading us to have to rely upon the few of those who are trauma-informed to heal, but we will grow in wisdom as to seek to excel in God’s type of love. We won’t be in ready danger of secondary-trauma, because we will have faced and overcome our own crosses and know the hope of victory, even as we can sit in compassion with those who feel defeated, lost, and dejected. We won’t have to be experts in therapeutic techniques, but we can be aware of a new way of relating to victims, helping them to become resilient and strong without shaming them into silence and disconnection.
Yet, to come to this (divine) therapeutic worldview means we need to let go of the punitive worldview. It requires believers to recognize that forgiveness doesn’t occur when we rationalize our vindictive desires as “justice,” while at the same time recognizing it isn’t about letting the perpetrator getting off scot-free either. Forgiveness is about not seeking to needlessly go after the perpetrator, but instead allowing us to focus on pursuing the goodness of life and shalom, including for the victim. Seeking shalom will often entail discipline, but it is a part of the broader concern for restoring what people lost in injustice, where what protects and heals informs our disciplining rather than the enactment of punishment becoming a symbolic avenue for healing. A (divine) therapeutic worldview can still have a place for addressing the wrongdoer, but, ultimately, time, energy, effort, and imagination is directed towards love, towards hope for making the broken whole again.
This is at the heart of the God of new creation, who in the present time is focused more on making us new creation rather than punishing the wicked. The time does come and will come when God will pronounce judgment against those who sought selfishly for themselves at the cost of other people, but God knows that restoration is more important than punishment because love, especially for the powerless, is his chief defining character, not anger.