True Justice Is Distributive Not Retributive

True Justice Is Distributive Not Retributive September 1, 2017

Figures_of_'Justice'_and_'Mercy',_Parliament_House,_EdinburghThe call of the Christian, the call of the one who has received forgiveness in their own lives, is to spread that forgiveness to others. As we are forgiven, so we should forgive others, indeed, if we want forgiveness ourselves, we are told we must be willing to forgive others as well. We obtain mercy by being merciful. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:7 RSV).  Thus, as we recover the image and likeness of God in us, we find ourselves becoming merciful, for in this fashion we find ourselves becoming more and more like God. Yet, at the beginning of our journey it is important for us to remember that Jesus is the one who told us, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36 RSV), because at that point in our life, we tend to have the wounds of sin infecting us and influencing how we act. We have yet to become holy, but to be holy, we must seek to act like what the holy act and we will find by doing so, we will slowly see the imposition of sin dying in us and we shall become more and more like God the Father. To be holy, to be righteous, is to be merciful, for it is in mercy we find the grace which heals sins.

If and we seek vengeance upon others, we continue with the cycle of sin and destroying the goodness of being all around us. With vengeance in our hearts, we strike out too far and wide:  the good along with the bad finds itself harmed in our onslaught.

This is not to say there shall be no sense of justice, no judgment of sin. The harm done by sin needs to be healed, and with that, for someone who continues in sin, continues to bring harm to others, they need to be told what they are doing is wrong and stopped, if it at all possible. Nonetheless, such judgment must always be made with a sense of mercy. The desire, even with judgment, should be for the good of all, including the one who is doing harm. There remains good within, and judgment should be done for the sake of that good, to help release it from the selfish prison which has hid it from the world. James, therefore, was wise in warning us that we will have mercy in our own judgment only if we are ourselves merciful; it is with such mercy we will find the healing grace which is able to overcome that sin which needs to be judged and rejected. “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:13 RSV).

It certainly can be difficult, indeed, extremely difficult, to show mercy. When someone has done great evil, when someone has caused great grief to many others, the natural reaction is to reflect their evil back to them instead of being merciful. We often want retribution for the crime which they have done. We want revenge. The infection of sin spreads unto the victim of such evil when they react in this way, for they treat others with the very evil (even if it is moderated evil) which they decry. This is especially true in regards to the desire which establishes capital punishment. It takes on and uses an evil, the desire to wipe out some being in the world, and does it with the claim that such evil is actually good. The problem is that whatever evil which is being opposed is itself founded upon the same principle, and by taking a life in this fashion, it only justifies that evil which capital punishment cleans to reject. If we say a murderer should be killed because they have themselves killed someone, we tell the world the murderer is right on principle but wrong in application. And it becomes even worse if it is some lesser is punished by the death penalty, for the lesser the evil, the greater and graver the evil being embraced by the so-called justice system, until at last society shows itself embracing a greater evil than the one who is being punished.

The argument that capital punishment should be embraced as a mere deterrent in order to protect society is certainly better than one which engages retributive justice, but even then, it finds itself embracing the very evil which is being challenged. It ignores the intrinsic goodness and dignity found in everyone, even the evil-doer, removing from them their personal, subjective being, turning them merely into an objective tool.  Solovyov, in his denial of the death penalty, explained this well:

The moral principle assets that human dignity must be respected in every person, and that therefore no one may be made merely a means of or an instrument for the advantage of others. According to the deterrent theory, however, the criminal who is being punished is regarded as merely a means of intimidating others and safeguarding public safety. [1]

Such objectification is what evil does; it removes and limits the person and their freedom. The greater the evil involved, the more it depersonalizes those under its influence. To engage justice in this way is to justify the evil which is being decried, ending in a self-contradiction which cannot be supported.

And yet there is a role for justice, for something to be done to and with the one who has committed some grave wrong. While retribution is off, and the mere objectification of the wrongdoer as a means to deter others from wrongdoing is also wrong, protecting society and the person from themselves, as penance and satisfaction is made for the evil which has been committed, is not only acceptable but the proper and necessary consequence for grave evils. “Protection of individuals, public safety, and the subsequent good of the criminal, demand in the first place that the person guilty of a crime should be for a time deprived of liberty.” [2] Society does not have to accept being harmed by those who do evil. Yet, when it suffers from some wrongdoer, it must react and in its pursuit for justice, it must seek healing, it must seek to undo the harm which has been done and to limit more harm in the future. It should therefore help criminals repent. Then the wrongdoer can make restitution and help bring healing to the world through their conversion to the common good instead of being used to help further the cycle of sin.  In our part, we must do what we can to help them change their ways, to stop doing evil; of course, this can be extremely difficult, because the desire for revenge when wronged will be there in us, affecting us and how we think and react. The desire for vengeance is understandable, but we must not let it get the best of us and let the evil win; we must let go of the anger and forgive and work to restore the good which has been lost, for only then can the good be victorious and the evil truly stopped.

St. Ambrose understood that the way God dealt with Cain, preserving him from retributive punishment, is the example which Christians should follow when dealing with those who commit some grave evil. Cain was able to live out his life to its natural end, giving him time to repent, and like him, we should seek to help all who do some evil to repent. “From the point of view of our faith, no one ought to slay a person who in the course of nature still would have time for repentance up to the very moment of his death. A guilty man – provided a premature punishment had not deprived him of life – could well procure forgiveness by redeeming himself by an act of repentance, however belated.”[3]

The harm someone does to themselves when they are conscience of guilt was also recognized by Ambrose, showing that the fruit of such sin is found in the very lives of those who commit it: “There is no penalty more grievous than that which conscious guilt imposes.” [4] Cain suffered his whole life because of how he had murdered his brother. He was taken out of society. He felt fear when dealing with others, thinking they would treat him as he treated Abel. And yet, God’s response was not retribution but distributive justice. God protected Cain, making sure he continued to have a place for himself in the world, and with it, time to repent of his evil.  Cain was separated from others for his own good as well as theirs. Indeed, it was what he asked for and received from God.

St. Ambrose, therefore, shows us how in Genesis, from the beginning of Scripture, we are shown the error of capital punishment and why believers should avoid exercising it as an act of justice, for justice, true justice, does not seek revenge but healing the wounds caused by evil.  To act out of revenge is wrong, but to ignore justice is also wrong. We must seek justice, true justice, and so work to bring harmony back to the world through its establishment. To do this, we must distribute the true good to all. The one who has halted the just distribution of the good through their own evil acts must be encouraged, then, to restore that good, to help those who they have harmed by their acts of injustice. What they have taken which is not theirs to take must be restored, but on the other hand, by doing so they will themselves receive the good which they also lacked. We must, therefore follow that true good which is found in justice and mercy. God has shown us time and time again what this means, so that the prophet Micah wisely expressed, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8 RSV). Truly, if we want to be good, we will be good to others, we will share the goodness for it is only in that sharing that the good is itself to be found.


[IMG=Figures representing ‘Justice’ and ‘Mercy’ by Alexander Mylne; photo by Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good. Trans. Nathalie A. Duddington, M.A. (New York: MacMillan Company, 1918), 313.

[2] Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 323.

[3] St. Ambrose, “Cain and Abel” in Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise and Cain and Abel. Trans. John J. Savage (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1961), 437.

[4] St. Ambrose, “Cain and Abel,”  436.


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