Because of the hardness of our hearts: some thoughts on retributive justice
All human beings, deep down, have a thirst for justice, and this manifests itself in a desire to see evildoers punished. We are properly outraged at heinous crimes like rape, murder and genocide and want to see the perpetrators pay. We enjoy movies in which the 'bad guys' get their comeuppance (I remember literally jumping out of my seat with clenched fist with a loud cry of 'Yes!' when Lancelot hacked Prince Malagant to death in First Knight, to name one of many examples). 'Eye for an eye' and 'tooth for a tooth' just seems right. The moral law must be upheld, and punishments meted out consistently and without exception. Anything less would seem to underestimate the gravity of wrongdoing and let people 'off the hook' who shouldn't be let off.
Retributive justice is very intuitively appealing. It just seems obvious that punishment must be meted out for wrongdoing. We see it as entirely just and proper for a murderer to be sentenced to life imprisonment or even execution. We gain a certain satisfaction from imagining the cruel treatment that a rapist might suffer in prison. And we think no punishment is harsh enough for a perpetrator of genocide like Hitler or Pol Pot.
But when we really think about it, although we feel that punishment should be meted out for wrongdoing, is it true that justice has actually been done? So the Nazi officers who were tried and sentenced to death at Nuremberg got what they deserved...but their victims are still dead, and the survivors traumatized. The husband of a murdered wife may feel a sense of satisfaction watching the murderer go to the electric chair, but the wife is still gone, and nothing, not even the satisfaction of seeing punishment meted out can fully compensate for that loss.
I suggest that what really lies behind our desire for justice is not for punishment to be meted out, but things to be made right.
Let me illustrate with a less dramatic example. Suppose a thief breaks into my house and steals a priceless heirloom. The thief is caught without the heirloom ever being found, and is sentenced to pay a fine or goes to jail. Yes, that may be appropriate, but what I really want is my heirloom back. The punishment of the thief does not compensate for the loss of the heirloom.
Now imagine that a thief steals the heirloom, but feels guilty about it (and really guilty, not just worried that he might be caught, but guilty because he realizes he's done me wrong) and returns it to me with sincere apologies. Is there any need for me to report the incident to the police? If I am impressed with his remorse and have recovered the heirloom, why should any further punishment be necessary? And even if I don't recover the heirloom, but the thief comes to me in remorse and promises to do whatever is in his power to make it up to me, why should I not forgive him? The thief's remorse might even be the opportunity for us to become friends, to be reconciled and no longer at cross purposes.
Now it seems obvious to us that even if that kind of response might be appropriate in such situations, it would obviously be perverse when dealing with the perpetrator of genocide, for example. But why is that exactly?
For one thing, the perpetrators of genocide and other heinous crimes are notorious for rationalizing their behavior so that they find it impossible to see that they have done anything wrong. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of their culpability, they will flatly deny it and not shed so much as a tear for their victims.
Second, the suffering, pain and anguish they cause to their victims seems overwhelming and irreversible. The harassment, the torture and the death cannot be undone. Justice cries out for compensation.
Third, to be lenient to such criminals would seem to threaten the social order by trivializing wrongdoing, whereas a proper sense of the severity of wrongdoing is essential for social cohesion. If would-be murderers, rapists, abusers, etc. knew that they would probably be let off the hook, they would run wild. Society would break down.
But what if the following conditions held: suppose the perpetrators of genocide were to become fully aware of the enormity of their crimes and were overwhelmed with remorse (again not just because they were caught but because they realized how deeply they wronged and violated their victims), all the hurt and suffering of the victims were completely erased so that the dead came back to life and wounds healed, including their memories so that they did not even remember the pain and anguish of their persecution, and a new society appeared in which it would be impossible for any further abuses to take place? Would we still demand that the perpetrators suffer?
It seems to me that retributive justice is an accommodation to our fallen condition. Jesus said that it was because of the hardness of the Israelites' hearts that Moses allowed people to divorce (Matthew 19:8), and it seems that the same is true for the whole scheme of retribution. In this fallen world we are often confronted with wrongdoers we don't know are truly repentant (or that we do know actually aren't), the majority of crimes cause harm which cannot be taken back, undone or made up for, and in the face of the blackness of the human heart the state must consistently enforce the law to maintain social cohesion. Even in the face of sincere repentance and a desire on the part of those wronged to forgive, the state must enforce punishments so as to not give the impression that people can commit crime with impunity.
In such a condition, the only compensation that those who lose a loved one to murder can get is the satisfaction of knowing that the murderer is being punished. And in order to maintain its authority, the state has no choice but to uphold the law and mete out punishment. Note however that this is only partial compensation: it is not justice, because the loved one is still dead, and the murderer may still be unrepentant. True justice would be for things to be made right: the dead loved one restored to life, and the murderer repentant.
And in fact, due to our sinful condition, retribution itself can become an injustice, when the desire for revenge demands punishment out of all proportion with the crime. We see this in the very beginning, when Lamech boasts to his wives that "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for hurting me. If Cain is to be avenged seven times as much, then Lamech seventy-seven times!" (Genesis 4:23-24) In light of this fact, we can actually read the Mosaic injunction, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," not as endorsing retribution, but limiting it within strict boundaries. Given that human beings desire revenge for wrongs which cannot be undone and will seek it out anyway, the law simply makes sure that it won't get out of hand.
Proponents of restorative justice are often ridiculed for being too sentimentalist and unrealistic. The suggestion is made that those who advocate for it have not experienced human evil in all its ugliness, and have a 'bleeding heart' for those who do not really deserve it.
What is surprising then is that throughout history the chief proponents of restorative justice have also been the ones that experienced the most horrific injustices. Take just one well-known example: Martin Luther King. King grew up experiencing the awful injustice of discrimination. He endured the humiliation of knowing that those around him thought of him as a second-class citizen. He was doubtless aware of the history of slavery and the horrors it contained: slave-masters raping their servant girls, ripping apart families, beating and starving their slaves, not allowing them to become educated, etc. And he certainly knew about the lynch mobs that continued to take place up to his own time, and experienced the brutality of police tactics to put down demonstrations. In this context, how could anyone not wish that the oppressors would suffer, and suffer greatly?
But King constantly affirmed that his nonviolent resistance tactics had as their aim, not only to secure the right treatment of blacks, but to be reconciled to his white brothers and sisters. The aim of non-violent resistance, he said, was never to shame or to hurt the oppressors, but to make them see the truth of the injustice they were perpetrating, and bring them back into the circle of community. These convictions did not result from King's awareness that the whites were a powerful majority, or that it would be too hard to track down each and every perpetrator of injustice, but from his understanding that the oppressors too often were blind to what they were doing but remained fellow human beings, and from his firm faith that in the struggle for justice, humanity has 'cosmic companionship'. Because he was convinced that God was a God of justice and love, he had the courage to bear injustice without striking back, just as Jesus did as he was going to his death. He was convinced that ultimately love and reconciliation would prevail.
These are just a few tentative thoughts and I still have a lot of reading and studying to do before I come to a better understanding of the spirit of biblical justice. But at this point it seems plausible to understand retribution in the Bible primarily as damage control, until God could effect a complete and perfect reconciliation in Christ.