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Felony Forgiveness

May 25, 2011

This morning NPR told me that the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that the overcrowded California prisons have two years to become less crowded, by whatever means necessary. And now everyone is freaking out over letting convicted felons out to roam among the populace. “We need a better solution!” they scream.

I have a good one. It came from this neat little book that was written about 7000 years ago. Some might call that archaic, but at this point I think we can just go with timeless. Anyway, the idea is this: instead of locking up felons like robbers, rapists, and murderers where they can network with each other at the expense of the taxpayer, how about we do something else? How about thieves make twofold restitution, rapists are castrated, and murderers put to death (Ex. 21:23-27; 22:1-4). A solution that is both just and cost-effective.

“But,” you say, “that’s the OLD Testament! What about that ‘turn the other cheek’ business that Jesus was always talking about??” I’m a big fan of turning the other cheek. (At least the idea of it. I’m certainly not very good at it myself. But I still think it should be done.) That said, it is not the government’s place to turn the other cheek by default (Rom. 13:3-4). There should always be room for grace and mercy on a case-by-case basis and the victim’s pleas for mercy on behalf of the accused should always carry exceptional weight, but you can’t have exceptions to rules without the rules themselves.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff put it, to forgive a person who as wronged one, is to forgo exercising some or all of one’s retributive rights, but we can only do so if we recognize our right to retribution in the first place and willingly give that up. To forgive with a true forgiveness an act of the moral will, says N. T. Wright; a refusal to let sin and evil get in the way of fellowship.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is the law. It is justice. Christ’s fulfillment of this law doesn’t negate it, but makes forgiveness, for His sake, a higher form of justice. Because there but for the grace of God go we all.

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