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Crime, Punishment and Christianity

Robin Alexander

Posted on February 16, 2018 11:36

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Our ideas on punishment share a common thread — an assumption so deeply held it is not even articulated in article after article — the perpetrator of the crime receives the punishment. This lies at the core of our sense of justice and ethics, and potentially forgiveness. But do ethics lie at the core of Christianity?

First, there’s a crime or a sin, depending on the arena. Then there’s punishment. Some reasons: 1) rehabilitation; 2) deterrence; 3) retribution via a proportionate sentence; 4) protection of the citizenry.

But there are deeper issues at play: justice; ethics; forgiveness. Christopher Hitchens - author, atheist and “slashing polemicist” — delves as no one else can:

“I could pay off your debt, I may even take your place on the scaffold, but I can’t take away your responsibility; I can’t take away what you did; I can’t forgive you; I can’t make you washed clean. The name for that in primitive Middle Eastern society was scapegoating.”

Personal responsibility is the foundation of ethics and morality; scapegoating is the antithesis of taking personal responsibility.

And yet … Jesus is the archetypical scapegoat.

Begin at the beginning, and assume that God is a father, not a dictator:

·        God creates humankind with free will, places a tree in the garden and dares Adam and Eve to eat from it. Why would any parent do that? (C’mon, he wanted them to).

·        The kids disobey and eat a fruit. This is considered major sin. (Shouldn’t a father teach his kids to function in the outside world, not keep them uninformed and living in a bubble?)

·        All humankind must pay for their folly. Forever. Eternal physical and spiritual death. This probably violates the idea of “proportionate sentencing”. (Hey look, what child doesn’t disobey? I was usually banned from watching TV, but not for eternity).

·        The father declares that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness”. Hmmm. I usually avoided punishment with sincere apology. (I am currently a responsible citizen, as are my three children, so this turned out fine).

·        The concept of blood for sin dates back to the Hebrew habit of animal sacrifice – perhaps earlier. (My parents never once threatened to martyr the dog).

·        Animal sacrifice was a huge advance over the pagan practice of human sacrifice (remember that pivotal moment between Abraham and Isaac)? Humankind turned that corner millennia before the climax of this story.

·        Suddenly, animal sacrifice is to be replaced by one, final, perfect, ultimate HUMAN sacrifice. Holy moly, slam on the brakes, isn’t this a complete 180-degree ethical U-turn?!

·        The reason why this perfect child was even born in the first place was so that he could be that sacrifice. (Somebody call DYFS.)

So here’s what we have: a brutal spectacle of torture and suffering absolves our sin … which we inherited from Adam and Eve … and gives us back eternal life … but only spiritually, not physically … IF we believe it.

Bottom line, the guy on the cross takes the punishment for others. At its core, the story screams “unethical”. 

And finally, none of this is the behavior of a competent parent. I know scores of dads who have forgiven their kids for far worse than eating a fruit, without torturing their younger brother. They simply found it in their hearts.

Robin Alexander

Posted on February 16, 2018 11:36

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