Pro-Death Penalty = Anti-Shalom

execute justiceIn his excellent blog post last week on the travesty that is called the “Timely Justice Act,” which still sits on the desk of Florida Governor Rick Scott, my partner-monk Bret wisely rips apart the argument that justice has anything to do with the bill, which would speed the execution process. In fact, as he shows by the words of those who support the bill, justice is actually beside the point! What matters is a swift process, not an accurate one.

But this skirts a fundamentally more important issue, one which has a lot to do with the life and calling of a missional monk. That issue has to do with a right understanding of justice.

What exactly do we mean we talk about justice? In current popular usage, justice refers simply to the process by which those who are accused of a crime are tried, and either absolved or convicted and punished. The popularity of shows like “CSI,” “Law and Order,” and “NCIS,” as well as superhero movies, proves that we like to watch bad guys get caught, and we like to see them get what’s coming to them.

In contemporary Christian lingo, justice tends to take one of two predominant meanings. It could refer to a trait of God, which is unyielding and stubborn, and finally exercised by Jesus on a white throne at the end of time. Of course, God’s justice is tempered by God’s mercy, but it is never obliterated or removed. This justice is a divine necessity.

A second meaning is used, either perjoratively or complimentary, of Christians who are concerned with social issues, such as climate change, poverty, environmental destruction, and war. Usually the word “social” is tacked on in front of the word “justice.” Often, churches are depicted as focusing either on personal piety or social justice; this dichotomy has infiltrated most churches in North America.

I think we ought to abandon these notions of justice, and start over with something that is more concrete, as well as more scriptural.

First of all, we must reclaim justice as an integral part of our identity as followers of Jesus. It is not a separate sphere of action; it is not a call to which only certain people and prophets must pursue; it does not stand in contradistinction with piety, spiritual disciplines, or worship.

When we follow Jesus, we are pursuing lives of justice, which orients us to all areas of human activity.

In scripture, there are two Hebrew words for justice: tzedekah and mishpat. These words get alternatively translated as “justice” and “righteousness,” and are shown to have roughly the same meaning. And in fact, in the Greek New Testament, there is simply one word used interchangeably for both.

The best scriptural definition for justice, then, is righteousness, which means simply “to be in right relation with.” Justice is a relational word! When justice is done, then right relationships exist between individuals, communities, cities, and nations. Things are set right, things become what they were meant to be in relation to each other.

Justice is never an abstract concept; it can be seen concretely when people treat each other with dignity and respect, or as Jesus would put it, with love.

This is why every part of our lives is a justice issue. The things we teach our children orient them to a certain relationship with others and the world; the prayers we pray strengthen our relationship with God; the worship we engage in impacts our relationship with fellow members in the pews. Everything is about justice, because human existence is a dense network of relationships.

In his book, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Bryant L. Myers argues that the nature of poverty is essentially relational: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.”

By introducing the word shalom into the conversation, Myers brings a different scriptural word into play, one which I believe could transform the conversation. Shalom is a beautifully rich Hebrew word which encompasses everything we could possibly want to say about justice. It is translated peace, wholeness, fullness, and wellbeing. It is used, to this day, as a greeting as well as a benediction. Shalom is both the goal of all life and the promised future, as well as the kind of life which we, as followers of Christ, have access to right now. Shalom is, essentially, the kingdom of God, which is both now and not yet.

Shalom is being in right relationship — with everything and everyone!

Myers illustrates the idea of shalom with a simple chart that depicts the self in relationship with five other spheres: the self, God, others, community, and the environment. Shalom is the state of being in right relations with all of these spheres. Thus, one must have a healthy self-awareness and identity, must have a living relationship with God, must have healthy relationships with family and friends, must be a responsible and participating member of the community, and must be a conscious and careful citizen of the planet. Only when all of those relationships are in order, can it be said that true justice, or true shalom, is present.

What makes this state of affairs difficult to achieve is that everything is overlaid with the unseen, invisible forces of systems — economic, social, political, global, and even religious — which conspire to thwart, twist, and corrupt any attempts at making relationships sound. These systems include patterns of thought, unspoken assumptions, prejudices and hatreds.

When seen in this framework, then, bills like the “Timely Justice Act” are seen as what they truly are — pitiful and painful attempts to make things right by removing the relational aspect from the picture.

In fact, the death penalty itself fails to achieve anything like “justice” for this very reason.

If justice means to restore even the remote possibility of a right relationship, then killing someone is out of the question. To take someone else’s life means to destroy all possibility that something new and hopeful might replace the well-worn conflicts and abuses that have existed before.

This is why so much is being made today of the difference between retributive and restorative justice. Retributive justice pays back and punishes; it makes a judgment that someone must be harmed in retaliation for what he or she has done. This retaliation usually results in destroyed relationships.

But restorative justice believes that a person can be redeemed and can have his or her relationships with others restored. Hope remains, because the possibility of a new relationship is kept open, even if only slightly, with family, friends, and even the victim and victim’s family.

The death penalty is the ultimate anti-shalom measure. It breaks and crushes the possibilty that a murderer might be able to find forgiveness, receive a word of grace, or even speak a word of grace to someone else. It continues the spiral of destruction which a murderer began, often because of the lack of shalom in his own life.

If we want true justice, which is always timely, by the way, then it begins with the relationships closest to us. Down the hall, across the street, on the other end of a phone.

Do justice. Make shalom.

And please, Gov. Scott — kill that bill.


Posted on June 14, 2013, in death penalty, justice. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great article. Great info here. I think where we get into disagreements here is not so much that death penalty advocates (of which I am not) dont want to practice restorative justice and hold out hope for the individual, but that they see the greater good of COMMUNITY justice- the good of the group at large – as being threatened by “taking a chance” on letting this guy free who deserves death. if the odds are that he’s going to go back out into the world and live a destructive life. When you take into consideration that the vast majority of criminals arent restored to a healthy life after prison, it starts to make you wonder what the odds are that this person is going to change if we let them out. The smaller the odds, the more ridiculous it begins to seem when you think about letting them free. It can be even more frustrating when you are managing the prison system and it just seems hopeless.

    All that is from the standpoint of someone “in control” of the system at large, such as a politician.

    I totally agree that we followers of Jesus should hold out hope for everyone, no matter how small the odds. We should never ever want to continue the spiral of destruction in a situation we are involved in. The problem I have here is that, I am talking about a personal hope for someone I have actually met and seen the image of God in. This is about looking into someone’s eyes and seeing God and saying, “I see something amazing here” even when no one else in the world sees it. This is where Jesus’ type of love is rooted – it comes from a heart moved by seeing the image of God in another. Its where hope comes from in the most unlikely of situations.

    But the death penalty argument as a whole isnt about people. Its about the system. While systems affect people, they cannot love, they cannot hope, and they cannot see the image of God in people. They cannot force or convict anyone else to do any of those things. While I would think it would be awesome to have a group of Jesus followers standing in solidarity and protest over someone they knew who was on death row, I think it invalidates our message to try to get involved with the squabbling over laws when our rabbi came to fulfill the law by laying his life down for his own friends. I see no real connection with Jesus in our attempts to try to sway the entire system at large via politics, laws and votes. Jesus never seemed too bothered or threatened by Tiberius Caesar or the Roman Empire. But 2,000 years later, you can see which kingdom has outlasted the other.

    Again, great thought provoking article, well presented and meaty. Thanks for challenging us. I love your heart here. Thanks buddy!

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    I understand your point about concern for the community as a whole. And, yes, you’re absolutely correct, the justice system does not have a very good track record of restoring people – the very high recidivism rates alone make that case. However, I find it incredibly sad that we (as a country) shrug our shoulders and decide it is easier to just kill the person than to seriously consider why the justice system isn’t more effective. (Particularly when there is a real and present risk that we may execute the wrong person.)

    And this is the primary difference between our context and the political context of Jesus as a Jewish man in the midst of the Roman Empire. Theoretically ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. As citizens, we are expected to have a voice in both developing and reforming the systems at work. No, systems are not people – but the death penalty issue is very much about people…people that are directly and indirectly affected by a system “of the people.” The death penalty doesn’t execute a system, it executes a person.

    I’m not trying to be Pollyana here. Both Wes and I know first-hand how difficult it is to change a system – whether that is in a local congregation or a state/federal government. And I also acknowledge that our “democracy” is besieged with back-room deals and seeming disregard for the will of the people. But neither do I think this is an either/or scenario – where we can either focus on standing with a person or focus on confronting an unjust system. And actually Jesus very much confronted systems – it’s just that his focus was on the socio-religious system of the Israelite people. He “squabbled over laws” with Pharisees and religious scholars regularly. This was not at the expense of sharing a meal with the outcasts, it was all connected. I’m not sure I see any way our message is invalidated by advocating for more just laws in the system. To the contrary, our message is invalidated by our refusal to put this way of life into effect in every area of our lives. The prophet Isaiah reminded the people that God was beyond uninterested in their acts of personal piety and worship because they participated in and allowed injustice and oppression to run rampant around them. We may not be able to personally change a law, we may not be the one signing the death warrant or administering the injection…and yet, as citizens of a democratic nation, if we do nothing, we kinda are.

    I really appreciate your thoughts. My response is intended in the spirit of dialog, and theological reflection, not attack…and I pray it is received as such.

    – Bret

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