In college, I took a class on the history of punishment and criminal justice. It’s amazing how far we’ve come from the original intention of the prison system. The reason we have “state penitentiaries” is because at one point it was thought that convicts could spend time in prison as an offering of penance, so that both the offender’s and the offended’s needs could be satisfied. The offender would serve jail time as payment of penance, and be received back into society, while the offended’s demands for justice could also be satisfied.
Today, in any trial situation where someone is convicted and sentenced under the death penalty, people always proclaim that “justice has been served.” Or, even if the person is “shown mercy” and given a life sentence, justice has still been served. But, contrary to roots of our justice system which offered a chance for penance for the offender, our justice system today is driven completely by retribution – we want those who offend our dignity/property/loved ones/etc to pay a price so that we [have the impression that we] are restored, even if the price paid is the life of the offender. This system of retribution is almost entirely selfish – there is little, if any, consideration for the value of the offender’s life or dignity.
I just finished writing a paper about John Calvin’s defense of predestination. The paper focused on Calvin’s argument that predestination is just. I’ve always fallen somewhere in the middle of the free will vs. predestination argument, but I really appreciated reading Calvin and hearing his take on the disconnect between what we think is just and what God does justly.
I found myself agreeing with Calvin in many respects, and the more I think about it the more I am glad that our understanding of justice is not the same as God’s. While I appreciate the ideals of a penance-based system above that of retributive justice, I’m glad that God doesn’t work on either of these human-constructed systems. Calvin says that we aren’t able to fully comprehend God’s justice, and I’m okay with that. I’d rather have faith in God’s goodness, though I may not always understand or like it, than have a god who acts like we do, with a selfish and unforgiving understanding of justice.