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Is Life Cheap in Norway? (Reflecting on Anders Breivik, John Piper, and Justice)

September 24, 2012

John Piper, a notable pastor/theologian from Minnesota, writes this:

Anders Breivik’s sentence for killing 77 people in Norway on July 22, 2011 is outrageous. He was deemed sane and sentenced to serve 21 years in prison “in a three-cell suite of rooms equipped with exercise equipment, a television and a laptop.” That’s 100 days of posh prison time for each person he murdered, with a legal release possible at age 53. Life is cheap in Norway.

I disagree.

And I realize I’m not just disagreeing with John Piper but also with C.S. Lewis (whose essay “The Humanitarian  Theory of Punishment” Piper draws from in the above-quoted article). And if disagreeing with C.S. Lewis was not bad enough, I am also probably disagreeing with many Christians and many, many more Americans who would have called (or who did call) for the death penalty for Breivik.
But I have to disagree because all our attempts at justice – whether it be community service hours, prison time, or the death penalty – fall short. And they don’t just fall short because we lack complete knowledge over the situations we’re judging. They fall short because our attempts at justice are rooted in fear and vengeance. To speak of “justice being served” is nothing but a myth on this side of redemption.

This is not to belittle the work of lawyers, judges, police officers, etc. I have friends and family who diligently and faithfully serve in often-thankless no-win situations. But there are limits to what we can accomplish in our “justice system.”

Back to Norway. When the Breivik sentence was released, I was terribly impressed by the interviews and reactions from the Norwegian people. Heard with American ears, their commitment to a system with an end-goal of rehabilitation was highly unusual. Even with such a high-profile and costly crime, those I heard respond seemed to feel this was a fair and adequate sentence. Even in a situation, like Breivik’s, where rehabilitation may be unlikely, it was still held up as the ideal.

There can be no “justice” rendered by humans for the murder of 77 people. There is nothing we can do to balance those scales. The Norwegian system recognizes that and instead aims for the loftier and much more difficult goal of rehabilitation.

Justice is us trying to play God.

Rehabilitation is us trying to leverage our skills, abilities, and talents towards God’s kingdom coming more fully on earth (as it is in heaven).

What do you think?

I realize I’ve weighed into some areas outside my expertise – i.e. the legal/judicial system of a foreign country…so if you feel I’ve missed something, please let me know!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruth permalink
    September 24, 2012 8:37 am

    Thank you Dave, for putting up with a Norwegian’s frustration all the days through the trial, and for taking on Piper. As you acknowledge your shortcomings, it makes you credible. Piper’s lack of the same makes him sound ridiculous to any Norwegian ear (he hasn’t even understood the sentence). He present an ignorant american Christianity to the secular Norway that desparately needs to see the better version (that you and so many others represent).

    Life is not cheap in Norway- it is rather so precious that we acknowledge that noone is ever allowed to take it,-especially not the government!

    Thanks for a great post, from someone that is sad that Piper didn’t stay silent in this case.

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