Monday, November 29, 2010

The Apocalypse of Retribution.

My wife and I went to see Faster this weekend (yes, the one with the Rock).  A couple of interesting Christian themes, though I think that the basic theological worldview was a bit confused (I realize that this is shocking in light of the fact that it was a movie staring a former pro-wrestler).  

Anyways, the whole thing was your typical revenge fantasy.  I suspect that in honor-shame cultures without common-law constitutions these stories are less prevalent.  If someone made a movie about revenge in say, Afghanistan, people would probably say "yeah, so what?"  But in America, most of us know the Sermon on the Mount and believe in the Bill of Rights, and so the idea of just abandoning all that and taking people out is just not something we do.  Nevertheless, we secretly wish that it was that way, and so hence the genre.

One aspect of the film which was a little less ambiguous was the idea that forgiveness is necessary since otherwise there is simply an unending cycle of revenge.  This was balanced out with a pagan sense of violence and tragedy.  At certain points the Rock seems resolved to this violent and tragic nature of reality (like a Homeric hero).  When called on the phone by the son of one of his victims (who BTW, cut his brother's throat) he is informed that the young man is going to take revenge on him, much like he has taken revenge.  The Rock informs him "that's fine.  You do what you have to do."  The tragic, pagan drama of reality continues on and all we can do is play the role the Fates have assigned us.  Our end will be tragic whatever happens.  So just take the revenge that you have been assigned and then take your place in line so that revenge can happen to you.  

In other words, in this scenario, retribution never ends.  Also, retribution is never really just in an absolute sense.  By taking revenge and becoming the agent of justice from one perspective, there is yet another perspective within which one becomes a villain- simply to have justice exacted again.  This is an unending cycle.

This brings us to the Bible.  I do not consider it to be an accident that the first sacrifices (Cain and Abel) or the permission to kill animals in sacrifice (Genesis 9) are connected with the first murder and also the permission on God's part to allow judicial retribution.  

If we turn to Leviticus and Numbers, judicial killing stands in correspondence to sacrifice.  An eye is taken for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.  If we willfully sin, says God, we are to be killed, since God as the source of life is being rejected.  As a result, the removal of that life is the necessary consequence.  Unwilling or accidental sin can be met with bloody sacrifice- which is also nevertheless the removal life.  

Nonetheless, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, sacrifices could never actually wash away sin.  Neither, I might add, could civil retribution ever really take away sin and make things right again.  Yes, of course the government is a good and approved by God when it kills to maintain order in the civil society.  But this isn't really justice in the ultimate sense and it was never meant to be so by God (otherwise there would be no Hell!).  As we know, civil government can restrain sin, but really can't deal with it.  Although justice may be done in a relative sense coram mundo, coram deo the agent of death and retribution is always a guilty as the victim.  Eventually in his death (however that takes place) he too will be the object of divine retribution because "the wages of sin is death."

In both the cases of sacrifice and political retribution, things are essentially the same.  Both the victim and the executioner/priest are equally unholy, and therefore retribution must continue with futility, on and on and on and on.  It is for this reason that for retribution to properly end, there must be a final and eschatological act of retribution.  Namely, Jesus the holy victim must take all our sins upon himself and simultaneously actualize an existence beyond the law of retribution that we may receive.  Fulfilling all retribution in the cross, he makes it possible also for us to forgive and not take retribution as the parable of the ungrateful servant shows.  This retribution is real and ultimate, because Christ takes all sin upon himself.  At the same time, the agent of that retribution is God himself, who is ultimately holy and therefore acting in an undeniably holy manner.  He can only be absolutely just in relation to his object of justice- unlike human executioners!  

Having taken on all retribution, we no long must play the role within the sad pagan drama of revenge.  In other words, any wrong that has been done to us has been punished in Jesus and therefore we no longer have to demand payment (this of course does not mean that we should not ask the governing authorities to correct injustice, we simply do no wish them to do so out of revenge).  Any punishment that we deserve has been suffered for by Jesus and therefore we are no longer the object of retribution ourselves.  This means that freedom from guilt ultimately translates into freedom to forgive the other, whom we no longer need to settle a score with.  

Christ's own sacrifice therefore mean true justice and true forgiveness.  It is the eschatological end of all retribution and dawning of true freedom.

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