By Jason Rodenbeck
Friday night I watched celebration on the news. The second Boston Marathon bomber had been captured. A city was finally resting after a horrific nightmare. And an angry (and increasingly frightened) nation breathed a sigh of relief.
Why “frightened?” Whether because there are more of them or we are just hearing about more of them, tragedies like this one seem more prevalent and closer to home than ever. Even in a country where we generally feel safe and secure, we feel a growing uneasiness as the world seems to spin out of control. There is evil everywhere and, now and then, we are forced to face the truth of our own mortality. Hopelessness—darkness—is knocking at our doors.
One of my friends posted a question on a social media outlet: “What the $@#$ is happening to this world?” The question my friend (who is not a believer) is asking is “why?” It’s a common question—perhaps the best question—in the face of tragedy. But it is a question that has been expressed elsewhere in these terms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken [us]?” It may actually be the most pertinent question of all.
Little to Celebrate
As the news cameras focused on people celebrating, I felt my heart sinking. People were saying, “Justice has won!” “It’s over!” Those who had done the evil were captured (or dead). It was time to celebrate because, in times of tragedy, it seems the only hope the world has to offer is justice. That justice is defined this way: retribution. The offender (sinner) gets what he deserves.
Although I don’t doubt that it is a good thing that those who had done evil were captured before they could do more, what struck me as people reveled in retributive justice was that there was little to celebrate. Though the second bomber was captured and the first killed, there seemed like more to mourn about than celebrate. A meaningful celebration of life (the marathon) was ruined, hundreds were maimed or otherwise injured, three were dead from the bombing (including one beautiful child), and a police officer trying to protect the innocent was gunned down and another seriously injured.
To me, the “victory” seemed awfully hollow. Retributive justice doesn’t undo violence. It’s still hopeless. It’s still dark. And there are many more “bombers” out there.
The truth is, retributive justice (though, perhaps, better than no justice) is a lie. Precisely because it cannot undo the evil that is done, it doesn’t work. The old saying our mothers taught us, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” was more profound than they knew. What we truly desire inside ourselves is not punishment of wrong but for that which was wrong to be made right. We desire for evils to be undone. And that’s why retributive victories are hollow at best.
The atrocity at Pearl Harbor was not undone by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The attacks of 9/11 were not reversed when Osama bin Laden was killed. The little children and teachers slaughtered in their school in Newtown were not raised when the shooter turned his gun on himself (which many saw as a fitting end). And the lives and limbs of the victims of those bombs were not restored when the second bomber was captured. Retribution doesn’t make wrongs right.
Friday night wasn’t a time for celebration—it was a time for sorrow. Sorrow for the family of the little boy whose life is cut short. Sorrow for the family of the policeman who was doing his duty. There is even sorrow for the surviving perpetrator of the crime. His life is wasted on an act of hatred and death. There is nothing but pain in these kinds of stories. There is nothing to celebrate in retributive justice. We may argue that it is necessary, but it cannot be happy. The dead are still dead. Victims are still victims. The tragedy is still tragic. The question remains unanswered, “My God . . . where were you?”
We seek something more than retributive justice (for, honestly, if retributive justice rules, who among us will not experience retribution?). We seek, instead, something better. We seek God’s justice. His isn’t retributive. His is restorative justice.
Where retributive justice seeks punishment for the crime, restorative justice seeks forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation of criminal and victim. Where retributive justice seeks eye for an eye, restorative justice seeks healing—the replacement of eyes! Where retributive justice seeks death for death, restorative justice seeks to restore life to the dead. Retributive justice seeks to even the score. Restorative justice seeks to make right what was wrong. This is how Jesus taught us to live.
The cross is God’s supreme revelation of restorative justice. It was an act of senseless violence as someone who had done no wrong suffered at the hands of evil men. And as he suffered he asked the same question, “My God, my God . . .why have you forsaken me?”
Many times it’s been said that what was happening on the cross was retributive. It was about punishment. At that moment God “turned his face” from the affliction of Jesus. However, Jesus was quoting Psalm 22—a psalm of suffering and pain. The psalmist asks the question and laments his loneliness and fear but acknowledges that God has “not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:24). In fact, God is engaged in that suffering and seeking to restore the life of the one who suffers, to undo the wrong that was done.
When Jesus quoted that psalm, he was asking the question we all ask—he was identifying with our struggle. But he was also answering it. Jesus was God on the cross resolving the problem of evil. How?
The cross is not about punishment from God. Jesus is God. On the cross God was being punished—by us. This is why Jesus said over and over, “I will be handed over to evil men” and Peter stated, “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death” (Acts 2:23). It was our evil, hatred, and violence that killed the Son of God. It was God who undid that evil.
Instead of seeking retribution, God sought restoration. He offered forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation. When I read the story of his death I often wonder, How, at that moment, can anyone offer forgiveness to people who have done such evil? The evil done to me in my life doesn’t scratch the surface, and I haven’t responded with one-tenth of his grace. How could he seek restoration in the face of that evil? How could he look in the eyes of men like the Boston Marathon bombers and say, “I forgive you. Come to me.”?
I’ll tell you how: because he knew that, someday soon, God would undo the evil that they did. After reminding his audience at Pentecost that they had killed the Son of God, Peter quickly added, “But God raised him from the dead” (Acts 2:24). God undid their evil. God restored what had been ruined. God made right what had been wrong.
Restoration, Not Retribution
God’s kingdom is not about retribution; it’s about restoration (as is our movement). For that reason, Christians can’t celebrate the destruction of enemies or the punishment of criminals. Christians celebrate the cross on which died a God who sought peace, healing, and reconciliation with the people who put him on it. We celebrate the cross because we, like Jesus, look forward to the coming day when evil is not beaten by evil, but good. We look forward to the day when hate is undone by love, not by more hatred. We look forward to the day when violence is not returned for violence, but peace is the norm. We look forward to the day that death is undone—defeated—and life is restored.
We look forward to the final manifestation of the kingdom of God. Until then, our lives must be a living witness to it. We look forward to Jesus’ return with anticipation, not because we seek divine retribution for those who do wrong, but because we have experienced the firstfruits of his restoration and we are here now in the pangs of childbirth, waiting for the redemption of our bodies (of this earth)—the restoration of God’s good creation when he undoes all of our evil, restores what has been spoiled, and makes right what once was wrong. We look forward to the day when Jesus is finally crowned king and the earth is his footstool.
And today, as retributive justice is done and hollow celebration happens, I think, “Amen, even so, come Lord Jesus.”
Jason Rodenbeck is director of academic services for the Access Program at Point University, where he teaches theology and biblical interpretation. He is also the preacher at Castle Christian Church in Cumming, Georgia.