Belt on Anselm’s View of the Atonement, Justice, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation

‘When Anselm says “justice must be seen to be done,” I sense there is an important truth being expressed though I’m sure this rarely gets expressed truthfully, especially when we interpret it as requiring an offering of proportionate value and magnitude to the crime; the idea being that we’ve offended an infinitely worthy God and so an infinitely valuable consequence suffered is how justice is satisfied. Does it make sense to calculate the magnitude of our offense as infinite because God is of infinite value? I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I think not. God is infinitely valuable, of course. But does the severity or magnitude of a finite agency’s offense derive from the value of the offended party? Get caught stealing from a poor beggar and justice is satisfied with you’re being reprimanded. Get caught stealing from the King and you pay big-time. How much you deserve to suffer is proportionate to the value of the one you offend. That’s certainly the sense of justice in the Middle East I lived in for half my life. Steal from me, do public serve. Steal from King Hussein, go to jail. So, as the logic goes, steal from God and suffer infinitely. I think this is wrong-headed. (…) I sense something amiss here, because what is also “common human expectation” regarding justice is that forgiveness is not part of the deal. What’s expected is that those guilty for the most heinous crimes ought to suffer the equivalent to what they’ve done to others. This is no different than (lex talionis) ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ justice Christ calls us to not participate in. He calls our “common human expectation” and “blood boiling” into question. It is also not a part of our “common human expectation” that someone else suffer what I deserve to suffer on my behalf, even if such suffering is freely chosen. So there’s good reason to check our common human expectations. (…) Forgiveness – if it’s real at all – suggests an entirely different economy of relations, and so must the justice we embrace challenge our shared expectations, especially if those expectations require our blood to boil or ask us to make proportionate compensation of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. (…) Justice is only finally satisfied when victims and victimizers transcend the distinction between justice and mercy in the gratuitous gift of Christ. (…) The world is set right wherever the guilty confess, take responsibility for their choices, and are reconciled to their victims. The Cross makes this possible not by satisfying the deserved punishment, but because God in Christ suffers victimization and forgives. As James Alison says, Jesus becomes the “forgiving victim.” This “rectifies” the world. How? By creating space for both victimizers to be forgiven and victims to extend forgiveness. There’s no suffering that compensates for wrongs. What compensates, if we must speak in such terms, is the beatitude of Christ’s sufferings where victimizers and victims meet each other within an the impassible economy of God’s delight. What we need, then, is not proportional justice, i.e., victims seeing that their perpetrators are suffering a pain equal in magnitude to their crime, but proportional forgiveness, i.e., the consummate Innocent One forgiving his perpetrators and so empowering both victimizers (to take responsibility for their actions) and victims (to extend forgiveness in Christ).’

Excerpts taken from Tom Belt, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, cross for cross?” (anopenorthodoxy).

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