One of the first officers I worked with as a police chaplain told me about a paper he had written during his criminal justice education. His thesis was that what we call a justice system is more important to recognize as a system of crime and punishment. Further, he explained, the punishment cannot fit the crime. Otherwise, criminals would consider the cost-benefit ratio of their actions (a willingness to do the time for having done the crime) and include the potential for committing multiple crimes before being caught, or even going without being caught at all. Therefore, punishments must far exceed the actual cost of the crimes committed so that there is a negative incentive that changes the balance of the equation. Those who are caught and convicted must be shown to receive more than retributive justice. They must be made an example of through the vengeful infliction of significantly greater consequences than those they have caused to others.
Some time ago, Paul Louis Metzger wrote about one of Jesus’ Beatitudes. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” to which Metzger’s title adds, “not those who crave fast food justice.” This raises the question for me, “Does vengeful punishment, or at least its potential infliction ‘if caught,’ promote greater righteousness in any individual, family, community, or society?” No. Injustice breeds injustice. Vengeance builds upon vengeance in a cycle that pits entire law-enforcement agencies against the entirety of communities that they are, theoretically, committed to serve and protect. What do the results suggest about this experiment that we call the criminal justice system? It isn’t working.
To further apply Metzger’s analogy, note his quote from London’s Daily Mail about fast food: “Research shows that unhealthy fats found in dairy products, burgers and milk shakes quickly make their way to the brain, where they shut off the alarm system that tells us when we’ve had enough to eat.” I would suggest that there appears to be something similar in our publicly proclaimed punishments and the voyeuristic tendencies to watch Nancy Grace and others pontificate over every minute detail of testimony and technicality. In the pornographically pervasive portrayals of our “justice system” we lose our abilities to discern and pursue the relationships that result both in and from the righteousness Jesus makes possible.
The numbing effects of exposing ourselves to so much of the crime-and-punishment saga has multiple effects. The worst of these, from my perspective (including service as both a police chaplain and prison chaplain), is that we find forgiveness to be incomprehensible. Accepting that others who have harmed us in the past may indeed harm us again in the future, and yet unilaterally pursuing the reconciliation of the relationship with them—this is ludicrously costly. So, what difference can Jesus make if His followers were to adopt something so insanely risky? Just this: those who would buy into the preacher of these beatitudes, we who also listen and follow when He says to forgive as we have been forgiven by God, and when He says to give to anyone who asks of us…we are destined to a similar fate as our Lord faced. No, not all of us will be crucified. But we will each find ourselves making the myriad sacrifices that parallel the condescension described in Philippians 2:5-8. Jesus gave up much more than we often appreciate, long before He gave the last vestiges of His life itself. Will we, as the Apostle Paul requires, "have this same mind which was in Christ Jesus?"
And yet, even if crucified with Christ, we “nevertheless” live (Galatians 2:20). We are subjected to forces that seem sure to destroy us, and yet are preserved throughout them (II Corinthians 4:6-10). And as we implement the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount (in which the beatitudes are found), we entrust ourselves to the miraculous provision and protection that sustains us, up until the time that Jesus completes our service here on earth (i.e., when that which is for the good of we who love Him and are called according to His purpose—Romans 8:28—is to be taken home to His most immediate presence).
As citizens in 21st Century North America, we are free to pursue justice. But as subjects of God's eternal kingdom we are, instead, called to do justice—i.e., to give to those whom we owe—and to love mercy—i.e., to forgive those who owe us. This requires, as God says in Micah 6:8, that we walk humbly with God. But to demand our rights, to seek to have others inflicted with vengeance for their wrongs against, or to support a system that operates on such principles? To do so is to ignore the calling to righteousness inherent in the gospel, especially in the Sermon on the Mounts, and undeniably in the beatitudes.
As you consider the wrongs that others have done to you, pray about giving Jesus’ way a try. You may be shocked and awed by the results.