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REPENTING OF RETRIBUTIONISM Britton W. Johnston Westminster Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe Retributionism refers to the universal common-sense beliefthat the wicked will suffer and the righteous will receive reward. "Theodicy" is the problem ofthejustification ofGod in the light ofthe fact that retributionism is not borne out by our experience. These two concepts have so scandalized the church that theologians can think oflittle else; and as with most true scandals, we have been unable to resolve them, in spite ofour best efforts. Yet, also as with most true scandals, the solution to the problems they present lies in simply choosing not to be scandalized. It is entirely reasonable and faithful to abandon our retributionism. In so doing, we find that the scandals ofretribution and theodicy simply evaporate, and new horizons for theological exploration suddenly open up for us. Happy are those who do not follow the advice ofthe wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law ofthe Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams ofwater, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaffthat the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation ofthe righteous, but the way ofthe wicked will perish. (Ps 1,1-6) 162Britton W. Johnston We read these opening words ofthe psalter with a mixture ofcomfort and scandal. We are comforted to read these assurances that there is order to the cosmos God has created; but we are scandalized by the nagging awareness that our experience contradicts the psalmist's claims. In fact, the psalter itself reflects this awareness: "....Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches" (Ps 73,12). The biblical wisdom tradition, as it matured over time, reflected a growing awareness and a deepening disturbance over the breakdown of retribution. Since God is the obvious enforcer of retribution, the failure of retribution becomes an indictment against God: "Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)" (Job 31,35). This never-quite explicit indictment against God gives rise to the classic problem of the justification of God, also known as the "theodicy problem." It consists ofthree incompatible affirmations: 1.God is righteous (conforms to retribution and is committed to maintaining it); 2.God is powerful (powerful enough to enforce retribution); 3.Injustice exists in creation. Any two of these claims can coexist, but it is logically impossible to maintain all three claims at once. The trouble of course, is that we are committed by faith (our faith in retribution that is) to the first two points; and our experience requires us to acknowledge the third. Therein lies a scandal. All the strategies to resolve the scandal of theodicy are based on attempts to weaken one or more ofthe three affirmations. Strategy one: Relativize our experience of injustice There are basically three versions of this idea. First ofcourse is the claim that in the afterlife there will be punishment for the wicked and reward for the righteous. This approach discounts our lived experience as secondary to a postulated retribution that is beyond our experience. The (second) Eastern version ofthis is reincarnation, the notion that retribution is fulfilled by the working out ofkarma in the cycle of rebirth. Ifyou're bad in this life, you'll be reborn as a goat or something; ifyou're good, you'll get to be a yogi. Third, there is the apocalyptic view that there will be a break in time, Repenting ofRetributionism163 or a future time, when retribution will be fulfilled, but the present time is merely preparation for that day. The trouble, ofcourse, with attempting to relativize our experience is that experience keeps intruding. We see how postulates ofafterlife, or the next life, or the apocalypse, are used to excuse murder. Krishna does it directly; in the Baghavad-Gita, he explicitly instructs Arjuna to kill the Kauravas, assuring him that they'll be reborn to...


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