The fourth of July is here and it is a very testy time to say the least with the government and Christianity.
On everyone’s mind right now is the role of government. What did it do? What should it have done etc? How should Christians react? Paul gives an interesting summary of the purpose of the Government and he calls it God’s avenger. This doesn’t so much hit on the ruling yet but setting some ground work for the discussion to happen. I know that Paul’s discussion doesn’t quite get to what everyone is so mad about right now. This isn’t the hot topic of the day right now, but, the reach of the government is. In order to get there though we need to see what its purpose is supposed to be. We need to look at Romans 13.
I started writing about this honestly because I occasionally see someone comment about how Christians shouldn’t be for the death penalty because we are pro life and believe we are made in the image of God. Rightly so, we are. But so much has happened historically that this will be a two part-er.
On more reflection on my previous needing a hero blog and our desire of justice, it got me thinking about another hero. Or rather an anti-hero The Punisher. I was familiar with the comic book character and so I watched the movie a few years ago and I remember struggling with a line in the movie where he says “It is not vengeance but punishment.” In other words he was justified because it was not a personal vendetta but administering the due desert.
At the time I remember struggling with how it was any different, mostly because he was entirely spurned on by the personal loss of his family. But I do understand the intent. Vengeance in the our typical sense is reactionary despite justice, whereas punishment is in direct response measured by desert.
Any vengeance is in a sense retribution but our typical vernacular tends to be more along the lines of a personal tit for tat, or payback with righting the wrong of personal feelings. True desert involves righting the wrong as in restitution, it is a measured response to the wrongdoing. The problems of vengeance tend to be emotional and thus the solution may be greater than the crime.
For example: “He should be in prison, but I want him dead.”
This as I have said before is why God instructed the rule “An eye for an eye”. So the punishment is measured. God is about just measures, remember?
So at the time I didn’t understand it for the movie, I am not sure if it conveyed the idea well, but I do understand the difference in principle. The idea is that sometimes people escape through the system and true justice cannot be levied so the Punisher brings the desert for the crimes. This is the very premise of the Steven Seagal movie Above the Law (1988).
Now while I can grant them the premise for the fictional comic book character and for a movie, this doesn’t work in real life. When real people do this they also have to give account.
A more realistic yet still fictional story tried to portray this as well. The movie A Time to Kill (1996) from a John Grisham book dealt with this exact premise. A Father whose daughter was brutally raped knew that the accused were going to be let go because of racial tension so he took it upon himself to punish them. He shot them both dead and the movie plays out about his own trial. Despite his own obvious guilt he feels justified because the system failed. His guilt is undeniable the question becomes should he be prosecuted? In the end he isn’t because the jury realizes he acted as probably any father would because he was himself denied justice. A very good movie.
But the obvious point is sometimes the system isn’t enough. Now this system is in fact what God has left behind to be his own avenger. Romans 13 calls the government a servant of God for the common good. The government is referred to as his avenger who carries out God’s own wrath on the wrongdoer. In other words God is about punitive desert.
So what are the common responses?
People are the image of God. God told us we are made in his image and he believes in the death penalty. God enacted the penalty many times and had his people do the same. God is not so concerned about his image bearers that he refrains from snuffing them out when they corrupt his image by offense. But that was the Old Testament. Well in New Testament rightly so that responsibility has been handed over to God’s Avengers: the Governments. Their primary purpose is to restrain evil and this is done by the sword (by force). But what about the woman caught in adultery? The scenario was that the mob wanted Jesus to allow them to put her to death. They actually didn’t have the right under Roman law to act such. There was no formal trial and the man was mysteriously absent. But primarily Jesus’ purpose was to save lives not destroy them. Jesus reminds his own disciples this in Luke 9:56 when they wanted to call down fire on his opponents. His purpose was to bring the gospel, his mission from God was to spread news of the Kingdom. It was not his responsibility to act under Old Testament laws when the New Covenant was being put in place. However he did teach Paul to instruct that Governments did hold that power as his servants. Why do we kill people to show that killing people is wrong? Because death is a great message. Really it is. The death penalty serves as an object lesson for sure but first and foremost is a just desert. It is also to curb evil. God gave us the example of punitive justice.
I would further point out the punishment for our sins was punitive; the death penalty. Furthermore when reading the New Testament at this point God is delaying punishment til his return for the purposes of showing mercy 2 Peter 3:15. God wants to grant grace in forgiveness through his Son. But a time will come when he shows up and the time for mercy will have expired. This is why everyone wants to put a date on the apocalypse. Read the New Testament about the Day of the Lord. God’s justice is about the death penalty. The wadges of sin is death. God does offer a way out but if people don’t take it then they deny the savior end up paying it themselves.
Now the purpose of this blog is not to defend the death penalty, but to advance the notion that sometimes justice is punitive. Justice doesn’t really care about the rehabilitation, that is for a separate office. Rehabilitation is on the individual. A system can be put in place to help, but rehabilitation is not justice. Rehabilitation is necessary for a society to function but it is a luxury. A luxury that we all very much hope that people take advantage of, but it cannot take the place of just desert. God demands justice, he is not as much interested about his avenger creating programs to reintegrate the people into society, the avenger’s job is justice. Rehabilitation is the Church’s job. It is called the Gospel.
Before we get caught up in the why’s of this or that tragedy let’s not skip over the just desert. When we skip over desert we compound the trespass, multiply the victims, and encourage repeat offenses. The punishment must fit the crime after-all.
Without punishment we breed lawlessness. And thus we get a country that hates accountability and screams for little more than anarchy. If we need to change the system we should use the system lawfully or else our own lawlessness brings about more sin. Again in chapter 13 of Romans we are told to not resist the government as they act as the avengers or else we are found to be fighting against God himself.
If the Avengers go bad, they will give an account to new governments and ultimately to God. Avengers will give an account. Just as God punished those he used to punish Israel. Avengers are not above the law as Steven Seagal taught us.
Thus we leave punishment to the government and we leave the government to hands of God. But what about when they violate God’s law? Well we can look at that next time.