Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rehabilitative vs. retributive justice: A case study

I just learned about an interesting news story from, of all places, Wikipedia's "Did you know?" section. It's about a man, Cornealious Michael Anderson, whose case is pretty well summed up on Wikipedia:
Cornealious Michael Anderson was convicted of armed robbery in 2000 and sentenced to 13 years in the Missouri state prison system. Shortly after his conviction he was released on bail pending the outcome of an appeal of his conviction. In May 2002, his appeal was ultimately rejected and his bond should have been revoked with a warrant issued for his arrest, but it was not. It is unclear why he was not arrested and imprisoned to serve his 13-year sentence, but, apparently due to clerical errors and miscommunication, the Missouri Department of Corrections thought he was already in prison. The error was only discovered when he was scheduled to be released from prison in 2013. On July 25, 2013 he was arrested and required to serve his 13-year sentence.
I've already pointed out our uneasiness about the traditional view of Hell in that it presents a strictly retributive concept of God's justice (endlessly punishing people for their sins, with no hope of respite), which clashes with our modern rehabilitative concept of justice (where reconciling the wrongdoer with society and morality is the goal). Here, we see these two kinds of justice clash dramatically. A man who has, to all appearances, already been rehabilitated from a crime he committed, now faces retribution for it. The subsequent outcry of "injustice" that followed reveals how purely retributive justice clashes with our expectations for what justice is. As someone on This American Life said about the case, "13 years without going to prison did exactly what you'd hope 13 years in prison will do for a person."

This case displays a complex interaction between retribution and rehabilitation in peoples' reactions. Whereas Missouri's actions reveal an independent need for justice-as-retribution (and if this leads to the rehabilitation of the criminal, that's great too), this comment views retribution as a means to rehabilitation, and therefore unnecessary (harmful, even) if Cornealious has already cleaned up his life.

Apply this to God and our definition of justice. Do we believe God, in order to be just, must punish sin independently of restoring sinners (and not just sinners, but the whole tainted creation)? Or is the restoration the ultimate goal, with retribution (in the form of "discipline", see Hebrews 12) attendant to it? Cornealious' plight has increased my certainty that the latter is more true. As I studied in a previous post, the Old Testament generally refers to God's "justice" as something we should earnestly desire and emulate, something that has been perverted in the creation that God is going to restore—not something we need to be saved from. Or consider how the Greek word for "justice", dikaiosyne, can also mean "righteousness"—which I, after N.T. Wright, take to mean something along the lines of "God's covenant faithfulness to fulfill His promises to His people and restore the creation from sin and death."

Of course, this doesn't mean that all punishment for sin is always restorative. God's wrath is said to consist of more passively "giving up" sinners (Romans 1:24-28), infusing the natural consequences of their actions with divine displeasure. This is roughly the view on Hell that I came to in my study of it, following after C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller: it's a consequence of our own rejection of God, not something He actively does to us. We are free agents able to accept or reject God's grace, rather than objects who are simply acted on by God, for good or evil. God doesn't want to destroy us for being sinners—He wants to redeem us from our condition by destroying our sin; this justice only becomes harsh when we refuse to let go of it and accept life.

I'm reminded again of the powerful episode in The Great Divorce where a man with a lizard (representing lust) on his shoulder whispering into his ear is followed by an angel repeatedly asking the man to let him kill the lizard. The man refuses at length, but finally accepts; only after the lizard is killed does it turn into a powerful stallion to carry him into the mountains of heaven where all souls long to go. This is a good depiction of the restoration that God can and will work in those who know Him: not just the destruction of the flesh but its transformation into what it was always meant to be. As is written: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." (2 Cor 5:17)

For those wanting to do something to help Cornealious, you can sign a petition for his release (started by his attorney) on

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