Reconciliation

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the sad state of our American justice system. To recap: I believe the problem is the system itself. It is built on an adversarial foundation in which both sides try to “win” the case, and the truth of the situation at hand gets lost in the war. The goal of our current system is either vengeance or revenge (in the form of a conviction and incarceration/execution) or acquittal. In this system neither the victim nor the accused is served any kind of justice. Even if there is an acquittal, the accused is forever branded with the “Scarlet Letter” of having been arrested and tried for whatever crime he or she was supposed to have committed. As one famous defendant said following his acquittal, “What court do I go to to have my name cleared?”

Biblical justice, however, had an entirely different goal – reconciliation. In God’s plan there were no jails, no prisons. An accused was brought before the town elders, multiple witnesses were required to proclaim guilt, and there were steep prices to pay for perjury. Once “convicted” the guilty had to make restitution to the victim or the aggrieved party – thieves had to replace the stolen goods, plus and additional amount of “interest” or “punitive damages.” In the case of actions that were so egregious as to dehumanize the victim (pre-meditated murder, rape, kidnapping), the guilty was simply executed.

Notice that in every case except the last, the goal was the reconciliation between accused and victim. The goal was the repair – as far as was humanly possible – of the relationship between individuals and between the accused and the community he or she violated. In the case of premeditated murder, rape, or kidnapping that restoration was impossible. In God’s justice system there is a line that, once crossed, cannot be restored. When you devalue human life to the point that you intentionally take a life, destroy a person through sexual assault, or kidnap them, then you sacrifice your own life. It is elegant in its simplicity. We have corrupted it by trying to make it more “humane.”

When our founding fathers created a system built on an adversarial foundation, and where the goal is simply to establish a legal standing, they eliminated the possibility of the judicial system working toward reconciliation. In order for reconciliation to function, a different foundation needs to be laid.

  • Critical for the process of reconciliation to work there has to be the genuine offer of the possibility of forgiveness. The offer has to be genuine (not simply a legal fiction), but it cannot be considered to be automatic.
  • The other critical component for reconciliation to work is the prospect of an honest, complete, and unpretentious confession of all guilt. Once the door of forgiveness has been opened, it is absolutely necessary for all accountability to be expressed in genuine repentance. There can be no room here for self-serving confession (“I’m sorry you were offended” is the worst confession ever uttered).
  • The final critical component would be for each party to then agree upon what steps are necessary and proper for the restitution of relationship between the guilty and the victim, and between the guilty and the larger community. Forgiveness does not mean that in most situations there needs to be some form of restitution or punishment. Maybe it would be the full restitution of items stolen. Maybe it would be a public apology. Maybe it would be public service for the victim or for the community. What ever the decision, it would have to be agreed upon by all sides and it would have to be measured. Just as an example, our current system of incarcerating individuals for the mere possession of illegal drugs is both inhumane and unjust. It serves no good purpose at all – except to make some individuals very wealthy (lawyers, judges, prison builders).

A justice system built on reconciliation would look radically different from our current system. I think it can be done, though. I think it has been done before.

I think it was started by a man hanging on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, some 2000 years ago.

Maybe those who claim to follow that man should think about reconciliation before we demand revenge. Just a thought.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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