What does payback have to do with God’s humanitarian justice? Absolutely nothing! The following was written by a Canadian who recognizes exactly what God’s justice really is. It is so worth the effort to wade through it. I could not help but add his piece to my blog because he gets it!  ~h

“The essential offensiveness in Jesus teaching is found in this emphasis on unconditional forgiveness, mercy, love, and generosity. Unconditional. No pre-conditions being met. None. We need to let this really sink in and thoroughly piss us off. Really upset our comfortable notions about fairness, just as it pissed off the older brother and the workers in the vineyard who were upset with the “unfair” generosity of the vineyard owner. Then we are getting the full force of what Jesus actually taught.”

Payback’s a Bitch (Conditions, conditions, conditions)

Christianity has developed an intricate explanatory system for the barbaric practice of payback. It offers the most elaborate set of arguments for payback ever devised by human minds. It is built around a view of a deity who takes vengeance and payback punishment (retaliation) very seriously. Numerous statements in the Old Testament are attributed to this deity such as in Deut. 32:41, “I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me” (others are found in Judges 11:36, Psalm 94:1, Isaiah 34:8, Jeremiah 20:12, Micah 5:15, Nahum 1:2, and so on). The New Testament elevates this vengeful payback attitude to new heights of perversity with visions of the blood of enemies flowing deep and these enemies thrown into a burning lake of sulfur (Rev. 19:20, see also Matt.23:33, Heb. 10:26-31- “It is mine to avenge, I will repay,” 2Peter 3:7, Rev.6:16-17, and so on). There is nothing here at all of forgiving and loving enemies, let alone unconditionally.

Robert Wright affirms this retributive nature of the Biblical god in his book The Evolution of God. He notes the many anti-Babylonian exilic passages in the Old Testament and refers to them as “retribution theology”. It is very much an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth thinking…. To the extent that we can tell, the one true God – the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims – was originally a god of vengeance.” (p.177, 185). So also with the New Testament. Referring to the book of Revelation and the Christian attitude toward their enemies, Wright says, “When Christians faced oppression at the hands of Roman imperialists, they did what Jews had done when they faced oppression at the hands of Babylonian imperialists: dreamed of vengeance and enshrined the dream in theology” (p.187).

And the God of Christianity is a God who keeps finely detailed records of every tiny infraction, even secret thoughts, motives, and feelings. He demands payment or punishment for every single fault and failure. He will not overlook any infraction at any level. This god cannot “unconditionally” forgive and love his enemies but must first exact full payment or render severe punishment for every fault. If payment is not made in full then he cannot freely forgive but must damn failing human beings to suffering and torment in Hell. This is orthodox Christian reasoning constructed around the concept of strict and unbending payback.

Over the centuries Christians have tried to explain this barbaric theme of payback vengeance in theological terms such as expiation (making amends for legal guilt), propitiation (appeasing or satisfying by suffering and death), and in general with theories of atonement (blood sacrifice to affect reconciliation with this god). They have constructed their theology of payback around a view of the death of Jesus as a payment for sin. Christians state that the only means by which sin could be forgiven was by the shedding of blood (the primitive theme of blood sacrifice, appeasing offended and angry deities, predates Christianity). This alone could satisfy God’s infinitely offended justice. Everyone has been condemned as sinful (guilty of breaking god’s laws) and deserving of divine punishment. God’s “holy” justice requires that sin be punished in full and only Jesus, as God incarnate, could provide a sufficient sacrifice to propitiate God. Only the death of Jesus could provide a satisfaction of infinite worth rendered to the law and justice of god. So Jesus paid the debt for sin by suffering and dying on the cross. This infinite payment must first be made in order that God can then forgive and love others. This is the divine condition, according to Christians. The theology of payback in Christianity is all about irrevocable conditions being met according to the strictest divine guidelines before any forgiveness or love may be expressed toward others. It is about pre-condition of an infinitely exacting standard at the core of divinity.

Christianity has also couched this theology of payback in the language of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and such to give the appearance that the entire scheme somehow arose out of the love and goodness of God. But this has led to horrific distortion of these great human ideals and emptied them of their common sense meaning.

Despite these endeavors to dress up this theme of payback in esoteric statements of theology and the language of love, it is at core still about the most base of human emotions and responses – bloody vengeance and retaliation. You cannot merge such barbarity with the highest of human ideals and values without perverting the human element. In merging these disparate concepts, you then create the worst of oxymoronic conflations – unconditional love and mercy based on the violent and bloody death of Jesus as payback for sin. Love and mercy based on violence, suffering and death? Surely, this expresses the greatest contradiction in the Christian system of belief. Christianity has tried to dress up the vilest of animal-like responses with the highest human values but has only corrupted the human in the process.

Payback theology also operates to reinforce in people the base animal-like response of getting even, of punishing those who have offended, or then demanding the most brutal forms of payment from offenders- harsh forms of penalty, suffering, and even death. This is inhumane in the extreme. Note that one of the most Christian nations in the world – the US – is also one of the most punishment oriented countries (its prison population exceeds that of any other country).

It helps to stand back and reconsider this barbaric theology from the perspective of some common sense reasoning and a more humane outlook (Bob Brinsmead has done some valuable groundbreaking work on this in his series The Scandal of Joshua Ben Adam – available online). Consider this: if someone first extracts a full payment from another then any forgiveness or love based on this prerequisite payment is not unconditional. And there is no need to forgive. After all, the debtor or offender has paid their debt in full (even if payment is by substitution, i.e. paid by another person). It renders authentic and unconditional forgiveness a meaningless concept.

Further, it is never right to punish innocent victims for the faults or debts of others. And the brutal suffering and sacrifice of a human being can never be justified in any system of humane justice. This is barbaric and primitive thinking at its worst enshrined at the core of Christian salvation theology.

The entire system of Christian theology is built on this foundation of brutal bloody payback to meet irrevocable divine conditions. As with all the rest of Judeo-Christian teaching, this theme has been placed beyond challenge or question under the canopy of the sacred. God must exact payback because he is holy, say Christians. He cannot just forgive wrong/sin. But why not? That would be authentic unconditional forgiveness (not demanding payment of some sort first).

Despite projecting payback onto the divine, it is still a base animal-like response at core. It embodies the worst features of primitive pre-human existence: the hatred of offenders/outsiders, the threat of violent retaliation, the stingy exacting of payment for all debts, and it confuses this with the most highly valued of human ideals. It is nothing but the old animal approach to life – retaliation – deified. When you deify inhumanity as Christianity has done, you provide it with an aura of the untouchable, something that is sacred and holy truth, beyond human challenge or change. You are then obligated to accommodate it and this leads to all sorts of ridiculous attempts to defend primitive barbarity and merge it with entirely contradicting human opposites.

Most importantly, the whole system of payback theology is damned by the statements of the very person that Christianity claims as its founder. I am reminded here of Jacques Ellul’s statement (The Subversion of Christianity) that Christianity is on all points the exact opposite of what Jesus intended. Nowhere is this more true than in relation to this brutal payback theology. The core teaching of Jesus is so clearly against any form of payback and it cannot be employed in any manner to support such theology. This Palestinian “secular sage” struck the greatest blow to payback thinking in history. In doing this he got to the very essence of love, mercy, and true forgiveness. And he expressed the essence of what it means to be human (what makes us so uniquely different from animal existence and response).

Let me interject here that the anti-payback views of Jesus had precedent further back in history. The Old Testament itself contains statements from centuries earlier that viewed justice not as retaliation and punishment but as mercy and liberation. Other passages speak of God not wanting sacrifice but mercy. And a Summerian wisdom tablet from 700 BC spoke of not retaliating against enemies but of doing good to them (see Jacquetta Hawkes’ The First Great Civilizations). This anti-payback theme is the most authentically humane strain of insight ever developed by human beings. It gets to the essential meaning of forgiveness, mercy and love and in doing this it gets to the essence of what it means to be truly human or humane. Surely God is no less humane.

Jesus made the following statements to counter the base payback response: Don’t judge or condemn others (Matt.7:1, Luke 6:37), don’t keep track of their faults (Matt.7:2), don’t retaliate as in the Old Testament (Matt.5:38- eye for eye or tooth for tooth justice), but rather, give freely without asking for payment (Matt.5:41-42). Also, don’t hate your enemies but treat them generously (Matt:5:43-46). Central here is the emphasis that we should not demand payment before forgiving and treating enemies generously. This gets to the very heart of Jesus’ anti-payback perspective (absolutely no pre-conditions). And in Luke 6:27-42 we have similar statements. Jesus urged people to not expect payment but to love and give freely, to love without expecting anything in return. He was arguing that we should not hold grudges or remember the faults and failings of others and hold such against them before loving them generously. Our love to them should not be conditional on their first making amends for faults or paying debts. Absolutely no pre-conditions should be set before forgiving and loving others with scandalous generosity. We also see this generosity toward others in Jesus’ inclusion of all people – the so-called sinners – without demanding anything from them first. Now, if we are expected to respond to enemies with “unconditional” forgiveness and love, then how much more so would this be true of a genuinely loving God?

And Jesus made exactly this point on there being no pre-conditions in divinity when he made this astounding statement that if you do these things (no retaliation, no demand for payment or penitence before loving generously), “Then you will be like the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). This is what God is actually like. He demands no pre-conditions be met. He does not demand payment in full before loving and treating anyone generously (especially the so-called “wicked” or enemies). He does not demand some bloody sacrifice as payment before forgiving.

This teaching is not just embodied in the actual statements of Jesus but it is also notable in his storytelling, especially in the most famous of all his parables- the story of the prodigal son. Note carefully the response of the father to the return of his wasteful younger son. This is the central point of the story. The father makes absolutely no pre-requisite demand for repayment, for penance, or for sacrifice of any kind. He simply opens his arms unconditionally and showers the formerly lost son with unconditional love and acceptance. The attitude of the father is scandalous to the older son who feels that the younger wasteful son should not be treated so generously and unconditionally. He should somehow pay for his wrongdoing.

This teaching of Jesus undermines payment and traditional views of justice entirely. And this is why he and his teaching were such a scandal. He overturned all conventional thinking on justice. He horrified good religious people with their strong sense of justice as right and wrong and receiving reward for good actions or punishment for bad actions. He upturned the traditional view of justice as proper consequence, deserved payment, fairness and so on.

If we are not offended by the teaching of Jesus on justice then we have not understood just what he was saying. We have not yet felt the full force of the scandal of his radical new view of justice. If you think he affirms our traditional notions of justice as fairness, consequence, just payment, rightly deserved and so on, and his teaching is not offensive to you, then you have not gotten Jesus right. You have not understood that his gospel is above all else an absolutely “no pre-conditions” gospel.

The essential offensiveness in Jesus teaching is found in this emphasis on unconditional forgiveness, mercy, love, and generosity. Unconditional. No pre-conditions being met. None. We need to let this really sink in and thoroughly piss us off. Really upset our comfortable notions about fairness, just as it pissed off the older brother and the workers in the vineyard who were upset with the “unfair” generosity of the vineyard owner. Then we are getting the full force of what Jesus actually taught. It is an offense to our notions of atonement, propitiation, expiation, and all the rest of the theology that affirms a traditional sense of justice as full payment, fairness, punishment for wrong, and all the rest.

So let this sink in thoroughly. God does not remember and hold the faults of people against them, demanding payment or threatening retaliation. He does not take revenge or engage in payback. No. He does not demand payment before he loves and forgives. God loves and forgives unconditionally which means that no prerequisite conditions must be fulfilled before love and forgiveness are offered and this is applied most notably to the wicked or to enemies. It is a specific application that counters graphically the old standard of justice which expressed an intuitive retaliation toward enemies. In Jesus’ new view of justice as mercy and liberation there are no pre-conditions to meet before receiving divine love. If we claim that such unconditionality is just a human obligation (and only after God has made atonement possible) but it does not apply to God, then God meets a less humane standard of love and forgiveness and the true meaning of forgiveness and love is distorted utterly.

But fortunately this is not so. The God of Jesus is entirely opposite to the payback and pre-condition oriented deity of Christianity.

Let me interject here that, obviously, a no pre-conditions response toward others is not an advocacy for abandoning common sense. It is not advocating anarchy and setting people like socio-paths free to destroy the lives of others. Common sense requires that some people that cannot control their worst impulses be locked up in order to protect others.

This humane attitude toward others (unconditional forgiveness, unconditional love) enables us to be scandalously generous (note that after urging these non-payback responses, Jesus then notes that God sends sun and rain freely on all alike, whether so-called good or bad. Matt.5:45-48). Because, if we do not hold grudges, take account of faults, or demand payment first, then we are free to act generously to all alike. We are liberated from payback to be truly human. And this is what God is like, only infinitely more so. Not the grudge-holding, fault-finding, vengeful, payback-seeking retaliator of Christian theology.

Now Christians have learned to facilely use the term unconditional when referring to divine love and forgiveness but their theology of payback atonement undermines this term unconditional entirely. Note once again that unconditional means no prerequisite conditions need be fulfilled. No sacrifice has to be made, no payment made to satisfy so-called divine justice. Unconditional means just what it means in plain common sense. And you cannot defend the conditions of Christian payback theology by claiming true holy justice must be satisfied first then unconditional forgiveness and love can be proffered. This is confusing commonly understood terms altogether and it is a direct violation of the core teaching of Jesus. You cannot advocate authentic unconditional forgiveness and love in relation to some scheme of pre-required payback. You then violate the meaning of unconditional entirely and you deny entirely the view of God that was presented by Jesus.

From Jesus it is clear then that the heart of all reality is authentic love, generosity, and goodness. There is nothing of the threat of retaliation or demand for pre-conditions with such a God. Christians for two millennia, in abandoning this radical teaching of Jesus, have promoted the darkness of primitive payback thinking. Something Jesus (and his God) rejected entirely and fully.

The scandalous generosity that Jesus taught upturned all previous notions of justice as fair payment or proper consequence or just deserts. This key issue here is conditions. And in light of this what does forgiveness, love, and mercy really mean? Jesus took all these grand human values, clarifying them more than had ever been done before in all human history. He offered a distinctly new contribution to human thought and consciousness. It was a breathtaking new advance in human consciousness (consciousness of the humane). He cleared away all the darkening rubbish of strict conditions thinking and exposed the real scandal of genuine forgiveness and love. He got to the real, essential meaning of these primary human ideals and values. He taught us what they actually mean and that was offensive to many fair-minded people.

And because of his insights, he could tell people: “Don’t worry…don’t be afraid…don’t be anxious…cheer up. You are safe. You are loved, You are forgiven”. In an absolute sense beyond all comprehension as all issues related to a supremely humane God are beyond comprehension (transcendent) in their absolute goodness and perfection. There is no darkness, no suffering, no disappointment in a God who is infinite Love.

So those who defend traditional views of justice, just as the vineyard laborers and older brother did, are really maintaining the old darkness around love and forgiveness. They are advocating something quite opposite to what Jesus taught. And such conventional views of justice can never fully liberate people but will leave many never quite sure if they are really forgiven and loved.

Authentic love demands no payment or sacrifice before it forgives. Authentic compassion, mercy, and forgiveness have nothing to do with payback of any kind. Love demands no suffering, no blood, or death as pre-payment. It freely grants generous inclusion to all. When we acknowledge this fundamental truth of the universe – that God is love – we are acknowledging something that is entirely free of any taint of payback whatsoever. This is the scandal of God’s forgiveness, love, and justice. It is so opposite to the theology behind Christian love and forgiveness.

So there is no discrepancy between our intuitive sense of authentic forgiveness and love and the actual reality of the divine. The only confusion here arises from the Christian endeavor to embed a pagan belief – blood sacrifice to appease angry divinity – in its theology.

Wendell Krossa

Published in: on May 13, 2010 at 7:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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