The difference between reparations and retribution

Reconciliation isn’t “satisfying” in the way we’ve thought

You can’t reconcile with unrepentant people, but you may forgive them, hard as it may be.

I told our leaders that last week, and I’ve been thinking about it more and more ever since. We talk about reconciliation a lot in Circle of Hope. It’s right in our vision statement. We say we are a people called to reconciliation, and that reconciliation isn’t just a matter of engendering peace, but demanding justice.

Reconciliation is a two-way street, though. It takes two (or more) people to get together to forgive one another. It’s hard to forgive without repentance, but I think that’s a Christian command to do that. But that’s not the subject I want to address in this post. I want to talk about how reconciliation, even after repentance, doesn’t taste the same way as retributive justice in the way that we conceptualize it.

Reconciliation is asking us to do something that isn’t satisfying in the same way retribution purports to be. It’s asking us to let go, let someone’s repentance be enough. It doesn’t heal our wound in the same way, but it moves us from dwelling on it, deepening our rage and desire for revenge.

I was recently confronted with this when I received an email from an enraged person, someone who said explicitly they didn’t want to make amends with me but just wanted to tell me off. I’m not sure exactly what the point of his message may be besides expressing his anger and hoping that he might feel better after (and hoping that I would piss people off less than I did him apparently).

Anger isn’t a good path to healing, nor is violence, even violence against evildoers. It is tempting to want to offer equal retribution to evildoers, but I fear that doing so makes us as evil as they are. I think God demonstrated compassion and acceptance to repentant evildoers and asks us to do the same. It doesn’t feel natural though. It feels wrong.

Jonah learns it the hard way, grace can sting

My friend was talking to me about the story of Jonah the other day. He suggested that Jonah had a prejudice against the people in Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city, and that is why he resisted God’s call to minister to the people there, in particular. I told him it was deeper than bigotry; the Assyrian Empire was the most brutal empire of all of them. They committed unimaginable war crimes to maintain their power in the region. Cruelty was their specialty. They burned, skinned, and cut the heads off of their enemies. They overzealously conquered their enemies, paying them with much more than their misdeeds deserved. Entire cities were destroyed and burned. This level of cruelty was dominant among all of their kings in the New Assyrian Period (early first millennium BCE).

Jonah is a prophet who God sends to Nineveh to preach against all of the evil that was happening in that city. But Jonah famously fled to Tarshish instead. On his way there, the Lord “hurled a great wind upon the sea.” This startled his shipmates who were praying to their gods for safety. Finally Jonah told them his God was the God of Israel and reassured them that if he was thrown overboard the storm would subside, since he knew God was trying to get him. It worked and then those shipmates worshiped Jonah’s Lord.

Nevertheless, as the story goes, Jonah is swallowed up for three days and nights by a big fish. Jonah offers a psalm to the Lord in gratitude and the Lord liberates him from the belly of the fish.

Jonah finally goes to Nineveh to preach against their evil and warn them of God’s judgment and retribution, which is delivered through conquest, like it is in much of the Old Testament. Through Jonah’s preaching, they repent! They fast and wear a sackcloth as a sign of their repentance. My friend said that was hardly a fair payment. But it moved God, who “changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10).

Jonah is furious that God preserved Nineveh, and admits the reason he didn’t want to go in the first place was because he knew God would be merciful and true to God’s character. Jonah is in a murderous suicidal rage at this point, so he flees again. This time, God provides him with shade, through a bush, and that brings him joy and comfort. But then God curses the bush with a worm and Jonah suffers under the immense Middle Eastern heat.

Jonah became entitled to the care of God and when it was robbed from him, he got enraged. The point of the story here is that the mercy of God isn’t something that we deserve, but something that is given to us in moments of our own repentance. Nineveh received the same grace from God. God is a God who is gracious to an entire city despite its rulers’ evil behavior. God rhetorically asks Jonah in the final verse of the short four-chapter book, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Is forgiveness just enabling oppression?

God’s forestalled retribution. My friend wondered about the justice there. My friend wondered if that’s what heaven was like, “That the oppressed have to deal with the trauma of oppression and never get to deal with the ‘satisfaction’ of a retributive justice?” I agreed with him that fasting and sackcloths weren’t exactly punishment for Assyria’s extensive crimes. He also acknowledged that when Israel allied with evil powers and did evil things, God spared them. I appreciated that nuance. But it still leaves a lingering question, especially around justice.

And that brought me back to where I started this post: repentance and reconciliation is never going to feel as satisfying as we think retribution is. But reparations aren’t supposed to do that. And retribution doesn’t ultimately feel satisfying at all.

If Israel committed the war crimes that Assyria did they would be just as guilty as they were. War crimes done in retribution are still criminal! I suppose brutally murdering and pillaging Assyria could be retributive justice, but we are better off forestalling justice and moving toward forgiveness and reconciliation.

True repentance means changing our behavior

The Ninevites repented and moved toward changing. Their repentance triggered God’s grace. Our oppressors and abusers need to repent to seek reconciliation. Short of repentance, we may forgive them, but we can’t demand peace, without justice. Repentance isn’t just saying the right things either, it’s demonstrating that you are changing. It’s the start of a journey. Reparations can be part of repentance and reconciliation.

When we think of modern reparations, we are thinking more of righting wrongs than punishing wrongs. Even the notion of reparations for descendants of racialized chattel slavery are not retributive in nature, but rather restorative! I don’t think black Americans should enslave white people, and no one wants to do that. Everyone knows that would be evil. But it’s also true that turning the other cheek is not satisfying in the same way we imagine retribution is. I think that is a conditioned myth, though, and I think the way of Jesus is better. Complete retribution makes the oppressed the oppressor. God will divinely restore things, in God’s way. There has been much speculation about how that will happen, and we can talk about some ideas later, but I’m at peace with God’s answer to Jonah for now. I’m a recipient of God’s grace, even when I act as an oppressor. And in reconciliation, God will transform the repentant, and in our own forgiveness, God will transform us.

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