Jesus did not “come to die,” but to live and to teach humanity how to treat each other with justice and love.
Christians do not heed this message, but instead focus on the death of Jesus. This keeps them, and the societies whom they influence, from really understanding either justice or love.
In the United States today this is getting people killed in our so-called “criminal justice system.”
“Justice” and “love” can seem like easy concepts to grasp. Most of us can agree that these are good things yet, because there are so many different interpretations of these words, our realities of justice, love, and faith are often limited by our (pre)conceptions. The American ideal of justice, as it stands now, is incomplete, inaccurate, and fundamentally flawed based on a weak misplaced value of Christian atonement.
Justice is hard to define. As I have been learning from Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, there can be procedural or legal justice when laws and policies are enacted; there can be distributive justice where resources are spread from pockets of communities into greater realms; there can be restitutional justice when criminals are required to pay a consequence; and there can be restorative justice as an effort to return the world to proper balance.
Christianity, at the moment, is in the middle of a tug-of-war mostly between an idea of restorative and restitutional justice that has been going on for over 2000 years ago.
Christians have been in dialogue about Jesus’ life and Jesus’ teachings, yet more than anything we have been obsessed with his death. It is no wonder that our violence-obsessed culture is infatuated with Jesus’ crucifixion but as a result, we not only minimize his life, we lock ourselves into a narrow atonement theory that assumes Jesus had to die.
What does atonement theory suggest about a God whose creation is incomplete so that an atonement is required? What does it suggest about a Creator who is out of touch with humanity and requires an intermediary to testify on humanity’s behalf? What does it say about the life of Jesus that the only matter of influence is his death?
This is important because how we understand Jesus’ death affects how we understand Justice. I do not believe Jesus came to make restitution but rather, to lead restoration.
Currently, well over half (32) of the United States have a criminal justice system where death is required. This number compiled does not even go so far as to assert that life in prison is a different yet equal kind of death. Are we as Americans more focused on providing a forum for restitution or a forum for restoration.
Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the International Association of Penal Law. According to Katie Zavadski, he had some pointed things to say about some of America’s favorite things — torture, the death penalty, and mass imprisonment -… calling on Christians and “men of good faith” to fight “not only for the abolition of the death penalty,” but also to improve prison conditions. “A sentence of life [without parole] is a hidden death penalty,” he said.
He’s right. We cannot allow ourselves to be so obsessed with violence and restitution that we take for granted the impact of life. We must work to educate our children, and our adults with criminal records to the extent that we are using grace, love, forgiveness and opportunity (the core of the gospels of Jesus’ life) as motivation, as opposed to death.
As we seek to understand and proclaim Jesus to be somebody whose life mattered significantly, whose way provided salvation, and whose teachings urged towards restoration, we must also work to provide a legal system that is fair and economic and social conditions that provide ample opportunities for citizens to choose their destinies so that their lives matter more than their deaths.
Death is not greater than grace.
Not 2000 years ago. And not today.