Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment
By Christopher Marshall
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001
362 pages, Paperback, $26.00
Reviewed by Kenneth Carder, Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Christian Ministry and Bishop in Residence at Duke Divinity School
All societies develop procedures, processes, and institutions in response to violations of behavioral norms. The United States, thares designed to apprehend, adjudicate, and correct those who violate norms that have been codified into laws.
Underlying this criminal justice system is the premise that justice and correction demand retribution and punishment. The high incarceration rate and use of state-performed executions signify the fundamental role of retribution and punishment as the preferred response to wrongdoing in American society. Today approximately 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, the highest in the world; one in nine adults is under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
Increasingly questions are being raised as to the effectiveness of the current criminal justice system. The disparities in sentencing driven by race and class raise serious questions about the fairness of the current system. The excessive cost of incarceration is forcing both state and federal governments to consider alternatives to imprisonment. The high recidivism rate indicates that “correctional institutions” seldom actually provide correction, but rather intensify isolation and alienation. The focus on punishment of offenders routinely leaves victims of crime unattended and even further victimized.
What is needed is a justice system that includes the offender, the victim, and the community with the goal of reconciliation, restoration, and transformation. The restorative justice movement offers an alternative lens through which to view crime and punishment. The focus shifts from merely punishing the offender for violations against the state to repairing the harm inflicted on the victim, the offender, and the community.
In Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, Christopher Marshall provides a coherent and comprehensive theological critique of the current reliance on retribution and offers an alternative approach grounded in the New Testament. Marshall’s analysis uses both his knowledge as a New Testament scholar and also his experience as a restorative justice facilitator. The result is a compelling biblical and theological foundation for a restorative means of dealing with crime and wrongdoing, though his arguments are sometimes unnecessarily repetitive.
While faith communities have supported and provided theological rationale for the system of retribution and punishment, they have also spawned the restorative justice movement. Marshall lets the reader know up front that he considers the Christian gospel as formative in understanding and practicing justice: “My premise is that the first Christians experienced in Christ and lived out in their faith communities an understanding of justice as a power that heals, restores, and reconciles rather than hurts, punishes, and kills, and that their reality ought to shape and direct a Christian contribution to the criminal justice debate today.”
Justice from a biblical perspective is shaped by God’s vision and action in history and supremely demonstrated in Jesus Christ. This justice is expressed through God’s saving action to create shalom within a covenantal community. Therefore, biblical justice involves covenant, redemptive action, and community empowered by and directed toward a vision of shalom. As Marshall affirms, “The justice of God is not primarily or normatively a retributive justice or a distributive justice but a restorative and reconstructive justice, a saving action by God that recreates shalom and makes things right.”
Marshall helpfully explores the role of punishment in justice and efforts in behalf of restoration. He writes, “The New Testament writers see a valid place for punishment in the administration of justice, though in nearly every case it serves a predominantly redemptive rather than retributive purpose.” This kind of “restorative punishment” serves to demonstrate a society’s moral boundaries and to call forth repentance and reparation. Punishments employed as part of the early church’s discipline were inflicted out of equal concern for the integrity of the community and the spiritual welfare of the offender, not out of vengeance or as a means of inflicting pain on the offender.
While there is a proper role for “good punishment,” Marshall concurs with James Logan that many punishments employed in the current penal system, such as long periods of incarceration, are inherently destructive rather than restorative. Capital punishment is incompatible with a vision of redemption and reconciliation and contradicts basic foundational principles of restorative justice.
Marshall concludes that forgiveness is the consummation of justice, and it is grounded in God’s forgiveness as expressed in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is not superficial; it is not permitting wrongs to happen with impunity or forgetting the past. Rather, forgiveness involves taking seriously the harm done and entering into the painful process of repentance and reconciliation within the context of covenant community. It is God’s forgiveness as revealed in Jesus Christ that we are to imitate.
While Marshall focuses on the criminal justice system, his analysis provides a strong biblical and theological lens through which to view all wrongdoing and violations of personal and societal norms. Beyond Retribution merits careful consideration by all those committed to reconciliation and transformation deeply grounded in justice and forgiveness.