The following homily was published with the Huffington Post on April 12, 2016, and is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) on April 11, 2016.
The 2nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel holds a most horrific story, as it shares a section of Scripture that many not only detest, but simply wish did not exist. As this marginalized portion of the Christmas narrative reveals, when King Herod learns that a threat to his power was born in Bethlehem, he subsequently orders all male infants under the age of two in and around the area to be killed. This is, of course, a segment of the Christmas story that we so often suppress while cozy with our gifts around the Christmas tree. The vicious depiction is simply too agonizing, too awful, and too authentic.
Shortly after Jesus was born, when King Herod devised his plan to commit genocide as a means to protect his empire, an angel in turn warns Joseph, who subsequently removes the infant Christ from danger. Tragically, countless others would not be so fortunate, and as a result, an incalculable amount of lives were so painfully taken so painfully early. This is one of the most gruesome portions of the entire Bible, and as we consider this dark massacre of holy innocents so brutally brought to light, there are numerous important lessons to consider, and as a result, many disturbing questions to ponder. One such question surrounds the scandal of God’s criminal justice.
As we examine the nature of God’s criminal justice, we recognize that it is not difficult to be anguished, or even outraged, by what happened in this often ignored text from Matthew’s Gospel. The mass-murder of small children is beyond sickening. However, the source of our collective distress is not only the horrific sights and sounds of violence and terror, but deep down, through such dreadful disasters we also struggle with our common conceptions of a loving God. While we wonder where God is in the midst of such tragedies, and while others question why God does not (or perhaps cannot) prevent such bloodshed from taking place, we are ultimatley troubled with our basic and longstanding beliefs of where God’s love is placed in the unfolding aftermath. We wonder: What exactly is God’s justice in the context of such terrible catastrophe? Furthermore, the question that lies beneath such a question is whether or not there are any limits to God’s forgiveness. Which, in turn, leads us to consider if there is anything - or anyone - that is beyond the scope of God’s so-called amazing grace. Is there anything simply too awful, and is there anyone simply too evil, to receive God’s love?
If we explore such existential inquiries through the lenses of the Risen Christ, we are quickly left with a bit of a prosecutorial problem.
In our current day and age, as well as thousands of years ago, as people with a model of justice that is so often based upon “get back” and trying to even the so-called scale, we are presented with a spiritual and social puzzle that is by no means easily solved. For those of us that have caused great harm, God’s criminal justice does indeed look merciful and compassionate. However, for those of us that have survived great harm at the hands of others, God’s criminal justice often looks anything but just. Because, God’s criminal justice - which is modeled through Jesus’ death and resurrection - leaves the survivors of harm among us - in some ways - rather unsatisfied. While we have a God that seems to despise our human offenses, this God seems to honor the humanity of both the offended andthe offender, which in turn means that we are both comforted and confronted as we consider the exploits, not only of King Herod thousands of years ago, but of those in our current day and age that are responsible for great pain and terrible human suffering.
We are disturbed with the details of such a scandalous Gospel, as God’s criminal justice, grounded in grace with a kenosis trajectory that resists retribution and moves us toward restoration, is far beyond our most common public policies and unimaginative personal practices. God’s criminal justice is about restoring community through radical hospitality, rather than dividing communities through retribution and brutality.
On a personal note, a few years ago I volunteered at a high security juvenile detention facility, a rather intimidating and trying assignment, as the location housed young adults that made some very unfortunate, and yes, very violent choices. While the courts labeled these young and incarcerated people as criminals, and some even as monsters, I was given the opportunity to learn their names and stories. In doing so, I soon realized that with every offense, it is not difficult to see both offender and offended as victims. Among other things, what I learned was that, despite the common “tough on crime” claims to the contrary, the young people I met were beloved Children of God, who both created and experienced severe suffering. The opportunity to accompany those labeled as delinquent was an experience that - to this day - grounds and guides my understanding of who God is and what God does.
In light of it all, God surely knows that we all make our share of mistakes, and we all have helped to create great harm. Despite our best of intentions, we all commit crimes against humanity, countless times, each and every day. But of course, unlike the far majority of those caught within the cruel cycles of the correctional system, the mistakes we make are often shielded by a swath of social institutions and fortified with unwritten communal codes. These associations and administrations protect us from both surveillance and prosecution, and in doing so, we are shielded from receiving the label of criminal that countless others not born into our privileged situations so sadly receive.
In all of this, it is not to say people should not be held accountable for their actions. That is not the point.
The point is that, ultimatley, who among us actually gets what they deserve in life? There are those that get more and others that get less. Which means that, just as we should hold others accountable for their actions, we should also hold ourselves accountable for the actions of others. We all ultimatley belong to each other, and our current system of grossly over-individualized prosecution and punishment is simply a means to relieve ourselves of community responsibility in general, and excuse ourselves from personal guilt in particular. This collective consciousness and shared responsibility, on our best of days, should prevent us from self-righteousness, even in those moments when we are tempted to join the crowd, grab our moral pitch-forks, and seek mob justice when crucifixion seems most convenient.
When Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow him, it was not in order for us to nail others to the crosses we carry. This is the comfort and challenge of the Gospel, for God embraces the humanity in both offender and offended, as each of us is both offender and offended, thus we are called to resist the temptation of retribution and engage the process of restoration. Because, ultimatley, the scandal of God’s criminal justice is forgiveness.
The scandal of God’s criminal justice is forgiveness.
It does not mean that we should accept all things, nor does it mean that we should forget all things. It does not mean that we should simply give out a free pass, nor does it mean that reparations should not be sought. Yet it all does mean that we are called to forgive as God first forgave us. Why? Because resentment is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die, and forgiveness allows us to let go of our false hopes for a better past. In walking this way of the Risen Christ, the aim of God’s criminal justice is not to put offenders in chains, but to release us all of our own.
We receive an example of such restoration from across the ocean in Zambia. In the Bemba tribe, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, they are placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. We can imagine the scene. In response to an injustice, all work ceases, and every man, every woman, and every child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then, each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, not to offer words of judgment or condemnation, but to recite the good things that the accused has done in their lifetime. Every life-giving experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted, and shared publically, for all to hear. Why? Because such affirmation is a reminder of who that person truly is. This ceremony often lasts for days, depending upon the severity of the offense, and at the end, when the circle is broken, a closing ritual occurs, and the accused is symbolically - and literally - restored, back into the fullness of the community.
This is how God’s criminal justice works.
When we are at our worst, we are reminded that, at our core, with the Crucified and Risen Christ as our guide, we were created to be connected as community, which means, when the bonds are inevitably broken, the goal is to intentionally restore, repair, and to the best of our cooperative abilities, even resurrect. For as difficult as it may sound, accountability and absolution can join together, as justice and mercy are mutual partners in the grand dance of life in its fullness. Although reaching for such restoration may not quench our steadfast thirst for revenge, this is our path to sustainable peace, for it is the example we receive in Jesus, and our key to unlocking the beauty and freedom of God’s criminal justice.
As people of God, both offenders and offended, the scandal, the beauty, and the freedom of God’s criminal justice is forgiveness. May we receive it, when the fingers of the community are pointed at us. May we share it, when our fingers are pointed at others. This day and always. Amen.