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Article No. 118

Punishment and retribution

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Punishment and retribution

In today’s paper I read that Jews and Moslems in Jerusalem have united against the homosexuals who want to parade this Friday night, despite the fact that homosexuality was legalised in Israel eighteen years ago. Apparently the gays have received death threats - whether from ultra-orthodox Jews or Moslems or both I don’t know. As they say, ‘all religions discredit gays because it is against decent human nature created by God’. One of the Members of Parliament for the United Torah Judaism party has said that ‘We believe that God will be very upset’.

One of the slogans sometimes used by some Christians towards gay people is that they will burn in hell. Most gay Christians have long since progressed past any nervous apprehension at the prospect of burning in hell fires. As, probably, have most Christians. That is not the same as denying that hell exists - most people make some provision for the totally unforgivable sinner - it may be some such figure as Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or it may be some man who attacks little children and young girls - or boys for that matter.

We all of us have our own range of culpability in our minds. At one extreme are the sorts of people I have described and at the other there are people like St Francis, Mother Teresa or some saintly person we know ourselves. And in the middle you find the vast majority - the rest of ‘us’ - the ordinary people who neither sin greatly (we think) nor are particularly saintly (we think).

The key to our ideas of heaven and hell is revealed when we ask why we need these concepts. I suspect the answer to that question is simply that we feel accountable and want everyone else to also be accountable. Without a framework of law there is anarchy. Therefore if someone does what we see as some great wrong we feel that there must be some form of retribution sooner or later, or life cannot be called ‘fair’.

This idea of fairness - or justice - lies very deep in each of us. Listen to any clutch of siblings and before long you will hear some such phrase as ‘Its not fair, he’s had one, why can’t I?’ Thus from our earliest days we see the need in us all to fight for justice - for fairness. And maybe it is thus that the idea of a God who ‘sets things right’ comes.

Indeed, the very idea of justice seems to need a further life after this one, where wrongs are righted and evil is recompensed.

Suppose we learned that God doesn’t ‘set things right’ after death in any way that we recognise. That there is no Grand Assizes where people are tried and the guilty punished? What if God’s forgiveness extends to everyone when they die? Could we live with such a concept - such a God? Or would we feel permanently aggrieved - that the sinful had not received their just deserts? That it just ‘wasn’t fair’?

This thought struck me this weekend when I was reading an account of an interview with Sister Wendy - the Carmelite Nun who achieved some television fame a decade or so ago talking about various famous pictures in the Art Galleries. Among several interesting things she said was this idea that everyone got to heaven. She said that she thought that the loving God welcomes everyone into heaven and that even the blackest-hearted, when they die, will see the truth and say ‘what a fool I was!’

That is very hard for many people to accept. They want justice and they want retribution - otherwise what sort of world is it?

In a way our own guilt, too, is wrapped up in all of this. When we do wrong there is a part of us - or at least of most of us - that actually wants to be punished. Those who understand the human mind better than I do say that human beings often have the need to feel they have been punished for what they have done wrong - then they can feel ‘cleansed’ and able to start afresh. In one sense the vicarious death of Christ on the Cross substitutes in some people’s mind for our being punished personally.

I think that there is another way of putting this that helps us to get deeper into the meaning for love and justice. I would suggest that the bottom line is that we are all accountable for our actions - something we sense instinctively. We feel accountable and our sense of fairness demands that others are accountable too. That is why we expect there to be some form of judgement when we die. Evil will be punished and goodness rewarded.

However, there is a problem! When we look into the heart of God we see absolute love. Much of the New Testament and what Jesus said leads us to think that forgiveness is total. And while we think that forgiveness is obviously appropriate if it follows penitence, it seems to be flowing from God irrespective of what we say or do. Could it be that God forgives even before we repent of our sin?

Come to think of it - is that not the very essence of the stories Jesus told in the gospels? Did not the father strain his eyesight looking for his prodigal son who had gone a whoring in a far country long before the lad came and asked for forgiveness? And does not the rain fall on the just and the unjust equally? And were the disciples not told to forgive seventy time seven? And wasn’t the ordinary man told to go the extra mile when forced to carry a soldier’s baggage?

In fact the more one looks at what Jesus actually said the more one sees that we are meant to live our lives on a basis of total forgiveness irrespective of the attitude in the other person. Indeed, does not the prayer Jesus taught us actually tell us to forgive others just as we are forgiven - that is, totally, freely and without demand for penitence by the other party?

So does God only forgive when we are penitent? Or does his vast love so embrace us that we are thereby moved to confession and regret at our previous attitude? Indeed, might we not say, once we realise the immense free forgiving love that surrounds us - what a fool I have been?

Shylock could not get his pound of flesh without spilling some blood. As I see it, we cannot demand retribution against the unrepentant sinner without to some extent imperilling our own souls - tainting ourselves with a vindictiveness and hard coldness towards his humanity.

And of course we have to face the fact that whatever we demand of others should, in all fairness, be demanded of us. And dare we face a retributive God? A God who weighs us in the balances and, surely, finds us wanting? A God who is all seeing, all knowing, omni-present?

No wonder that when Jonathon Edwards used to preach on the text that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God his hearers converted in droves! Once let your imagination rove over what we - any of us - truly deserve and the mind wants to run immediately to the grace and forgiveness of God!

These thoughts were going through my mind on the day that my Quiet Time turned up the saying by Jesus: ‘I predict that people will come from east and west and north and south to sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at a great banquet in the realm of heaven. Those who think the realm of God belongs to them will be thrown out into the dark where they will cry with bitter regret’

Maybe we need to let go of our demands for fairness and retributive justice to be vented on others and, instead, to approach this whole question from the other side.

I have just seen the television programme about Lord Longford. I found it very moving - particularly as I once met him over a meal and can testify to the veracity of Jim Broadbent’s portrayal of him. What struck me as the key sentence of the whole programme was what Lord Longford said when he was unable to avoid the question on a live radio phone in, as to whether he regretted having spent so much effort and time on trying to help Myra Hindley, who had in effect lied to him and thus betrayed him.

His answer was ‘Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith and the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey. In that respect she has enriched my spiritual life beyond measure and for that I will always be grateful to her.’

That statement ranks for me alongside Christ washing the feet of the disciples, and Mother Teresa cleaning the toilets of her Refuge for the Dying in Calcutta.

I believe that God is completely future oriented. I really don’t think that he is looking at the trail of trouble that we have already left behind us - and are still leaving behind us each day. All he is concerned with is the ‘now’ of choice and the choice we have to follow his will henceforth.

I love the verse by Paul where he talks of forgetting the past and reaching out for all that God has for us. That’s my view of how we should live. God knows the mess I have left behind me. Of course I am accountable in the legal sense - but God is concerned with now and the future, not the past. What he wants is that I listen to his voice - that I open my heart to Him - that I start to really love those I meet day by day.

Jesus said that you cannot sew a new patch on old clothes. That the dead should be left to bury the dead. That if we will ask (today - now) we shall receive. He told us again and again to stay alert. If we are burdened by the past then we need to shed that burden. Ah! you say - but I cannot avoid the guilt of what I have done. Well maybe, but God wants you to accept that he has dealt with it at the Cross and now you must move on from it and open your heart to his incredible love and purpose for your life.

I believe that God is totally unconcerned with punishment and retribution. All of those feelings are not only very human - they are very negative too. Our past - with all its mistakes - has made us as we are. God seizes the moment - the eternal now. Now, here, as you read this, at this moment in your life - are you fully open to God and all he wants to give you? Don’t anguish over the past. It is past. Leave all that to sort itself out. Let God have it all. Instead - ask ‘what can I make of the present?’

The key to understanding God better is that he is intensely concerned with this present moment in your life. Move on from the past. Reach out for all that God has for you. Keep looking for the next step.

The key thing that matters in your life is your relationship with God. Trying to live a perfect life is futile. None of us can do it. All we can do is submit ourselves to God and do what we think he tells us. Sometimes we will get it wrong. And problems will arise. But each moment we can return to that simple decision - what would God have me do?

Let the errors of the past deepen your faith as you listen to what God wants of you today. That way maybe eventually you won’t have to say with such conviction ‘What a fool I was!’

Tony Cross

November 2006

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