Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment

Marshall, Christopher D.
Eerdmans (2001)
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Christopher Marshall is far too, in the proper sense of the term, politically correct (in a previous generation he would have been termed genteel) to state the governing proposition of this eminently judicious book as baldly as I will: worse than any other form of idolatry, Christian fundamentalists commit the ultimate heinous sin of pride by mis-using - through a mixture of shoddy scholarship, the inability to parse and, worst of all, the wilful neglect of the teaching of Jesus - God's Word in the Bible for their own selfish and vengeful ends. To that extent, Marshall's book is not likely to inform the prejudices ("minds" would be too clinical a word) of the proponents of retributive punishment, including the death penalty but it still has much value for those on his own side whose emotions direct them towards restorative justice without quite knowing how they can confront the arguments of the vengeful.

Marshall's patient, clear and helpfully summarised exegesis of the New Testament texts concerning crime and punishment, naturally focused on Jesus, is supported by a useful survey of the key Old Testament texts, together with a fascinating and all too brief survey of First Century Jewish and Roman judicial practice which illuminates much of what the Evangelists and Paul have to say; but the greatest achievement of this book is the superb closing chapter on the nature of forgiveness which every criminologist and sentimentalist should read.

And that's the point. Too often, Marshall says, those whose inclination is towards restoration do not confront seriously enough the genuine social need for punishment so that, in their mild way, they are committing the same error as their hot-headed but cold-hearted opponents.

Like all good authors, Marshall is careful to limit the scope of his enquiry and is frank where he is sketchy but I would have dearly liked him to have found space for a chapter on the fundamentals. His last paragraph sums up the virtues and the shortcomings:

"Restorative justice cannot manufacture penitence and forgiveness. But by placing a concern for the healing of hurts, the renewal of relationships, and the re-creation of community at the heart of its agenda, it makes room for the miracle of forgiveness to occur and for a new future to dawn. Nothing could be more compatible with the message of the New Testament than this. For without diminishing the reality of evil, without denying the culpability of those who commit crime  or minimizing the pain of those who suffer at their hands, and without dispensing with punishment as a mechanism for constraining evil and promoting change, the New Testament looks beyond retribution to a vision of justice that is finally satisfied only by the defeat of evil and the healing of its victims, by the repentance of sinners and the forgiveness of their sins, by the restoration of peace and the renewal of hope - a justice that manifests God's redemptive work of making all things new.:

Nestled in the middle of the paragraph are two simple assumptions: the reality of evil; the culpability of criminals; and the necessity of punishment. But in the context of our being deliberately created imperfect in order to be able to love of our own free will, what is evil? The common phrase that we are all sinners might be better expressed in the idea that we all make mistakes, or wrong choices. Added to his, is is very difficult to draw a line between what we call sickness and what we call criminal behaviour which questions any easy notion of culpability besides which, Marshall himself admits that much individual 'criminal behaviour' can be accounted for by flawed socio-economic arrangements. You only have to look at the racial profile and the economic status of 'criminals' in the United States to get the point.

But Marshall's third point is surely critical to the whole of his argument: if punishment is not a deterrent and not to be administered vengefully, its only use can be reformative but Marshall does not produce evidence that this is so; rather the reverse. Had he been braver he would have challenged those who support it to provide rational justification for retributive and/or restorative punishment as opposed to restraint for medical and psychological/psychiatric reasons. There is a conventional culpability spectrum which puts the mentally ill at one end  and cold-hearted, calculating mass murderers at the other but we are bound to ask whether the proper figure should be a circle with these two elements contiguous and overlapping, a similar form of understanding to that we apply to mental health and the creative arts, what I call the van Gogh syndrome. I am not questioning whether Hitler and STalin were mad rather than bad because I am a liberal but  because there is growing evidence that, in addition to Lord Action's maxim that power tends to corrupt, there is growing evidence that if power is exercised for long enough without proper controls, it produces a brain changing syndrome which sends people mad; a good example of this is the increasing madness of the current Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As far as it goes, then, this is a good book for what it is but I suspect that most of us at least start out by allowing our temperament to dictate our attitude to punishment, with those who are more pessimistic about human nature being more inclined to punish, not least those at both conservative ends of the religious spectrum - Roman Catholics and fundamentalist Evangelicals - who believe in humanity's fallen nature. But just as Marshall shows that forgiveness is a learned attribute, so should our attitude to punishment be.

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