24 January 2015

Substitutionary Justice

I was watching an episode of Lie to Me last night where a father learns that his teen daughter has committed a murder and he confesses to the crime in order to protect her from prison*. Then I also find this today (http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/americans-offer-to-take-100-lashes-each-for-saudi-blogger/2015/01/23/) where IRL a group of people are offering to take 100 lashes each as substitutes for a Saudi who's been sentenced to 1000 lashes. I doubt the Saudis will accept the deal and in the show Cal sees through the father's false confession and the real murderer goes to jail.

I think most people watching the show can understand and sympathize with that father. His gesture is loving and sacrificial, but we also feel it's misguided. After all, if his murderous daughter is still out in society then the risk she represents remains in play. We can look at the lash-takers and applaud the idea but it feels ultimately political as opposed to sincere. (To be clear, I don't know these folks at all and they may be perfectly sincere - I'm just reflecting on how the headline felt when I read it...call me cynical)

Punishing somebody for a crime that somebody else committed feels profoundly unjust, it offends some deep vein in my soul. And yet that kind of substitutionary justice is at the core of Christianity.

I'm certain this is at least part of what Paul meant when he aid the cross was an offense to some. It's also at the root of so many roadblocks. Whether in our futile efforts to atone for sins that have already been forgiven or our refusal to believe there is anything to forgive in the first place.

When I (rarely) can think of a crime as if it is actually a debt to society then a substitution seems fine. I don't care who pays the debt so long a it's paid by someone. But when I see it as something that incurs a punishment then it becomes personal and where a debt exists on its own a punishment is personal by its nature. Punishing the wrong person only adds one injustice to the other.

Perhaps this is the difference between justice and vengeance.

If Elsa shouted at me and was headed for time out only to have Odin step up and say "Daddy - I'd like to take Elsa's time out in her place."...how would I take that? How should I take that? Knowing that her offense was against me personally would I react differently than if she were caught drawing on the wall or something otherwise impersonal?

Somewhere in here I must wrestle with the fact that God accepted this kind "take me instead" gesture, the one offered by the father in Lie To Me, as legitimate. In fact, not only legitimate but MORE legitimate. And we're not only talking about Jesus. The entire sacrificial system rests on the idea that the debt incurred by sin is blood (life) and an animal's blood was an acceptable, even preferable, substitute for my own blood/life. I add to this the voice of my own deep heart that looked at the father's willingness to pay a debt he didn't owe as noble and good...as very, very Christian.

The more I see sin in terms of debt the more certain scriptures make sense I a very simple, practical way. As a debtor I have the unilateral right to forgive any debt owed to me. I don't need your permission, I don't need your help. It's my debt - I can discharge it however I will. Insofar as every sin ever is a debt owed to Christ then he has the unequivocal right to take whatever payment he deems fit to pay them off. If I think of it like money then the weirdness of the unfairness evaporates.

But even if I go there I'm still left with the part of me that can't help feeling like even if that's legal it still seems unfair. And I think that feeling is rooted in my desire for vengeance. Vengeance is a dirty word these days but I suspect we've overcompensated for misuse. God doesn't say vengeance is wrong - he says vengeance is his. And Psalm 149 suggests that there is a place and time where the saints are charged with "inflicting vengeance." Historically we see vengeance as a proper right of a wronged individual even given the possibility of abuse.

I think we can (and do) hold onto our claims for vengeance without being sinful in the strictest sense. But it's when we're willing to pass that claim up to the higher laws of grace that the transgression against our person becomes a transgression against God (we sell him the paper so to speak) and a personal offense becomes a corporate offense (a class action?). At which point it's just an impersonal debt where so long as it's paid then it doesn't matter who pays it.

In which case - the hinge remains with me. Can I let it go? Can I choose to live - and let live - by the rules of grace over the rule of law?


* Interestingly enough there was a second storyline in either this episode or the one before it where another father secretly pays off the gambling debts of his son who is getting married and in that case everybody takes this as kind, perhaps enabling, but kind - and totally legit.

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