Love, Not Retribution - Vince Brackett
I studied secondary education, which means my college experience ended in ::student teaching::. You may know, this can be a real trial by fire.
It definitely was for me. It was one of the hardest six months of my life. Every single day I was waking up to go to a place where I felt like a failure.
I felt like a failure because, well, student teaching is hard and full of opportunities to fail.
And unfortunately the way my cooperating teacher and my supervisor from my university (the people in charge of my experience) responded to my failures was to make me feel like I had to pay for or make up for them. They demanded retribution.
When I struggled in the classroom, I was not supported, or given encouragement on how to do better, my struggles were just called out and then I was told it was on me to improve.
When I had a misunderstanding with another teacher at my school, I was not asked for my perspective on what happened, I was labeled flippant and disrespectful, and actually explicitly told I would have to earn my way back into the good graces of the school and my university.
Even for something that was not my fault, I was told I had to make up for it: My university provided my supervisor with the wrong address for my school when he was supposed to visit for an observation (because, unbeknownst to me or to my university, my school had changed addresses the previous summer), so he was late and fuming upset when he arrived (wouldn’t be a huge deal for most supervisors, but this guy happened to be quite frail physically and walked with a walker, so he felt the inconvenience of more walking much more strongly). The first thing he says to me after we sit down to talk following my observation is: it was my fault for being careless about the school’s address, and that if I wanted to be considered for his top recommendation, I was going to have to prove to him I wasn’t careless.
There were many things hard about my student teaching experience, but it was being ruled by demands for retribution that I think was the hardest of all. Nothing I did could settle the score. Partly because (I believe) I was being treated unfairly and there wasn’t anything I could have done. But even if there was something that could have earned me back into the good graces of my school and my university and my supervisor and cooperating teacher, I felt so destroyed, so shut down, so trapped by being in a retribution-ruled situation at all.
But it was in that place in my life that I also experienced love as much as I ever have in my entire life.
- From my now wife, Keziah, whose apartment I ended up in crying most days after school.
- From my three roommates at the time, who listened to me and cared for me when I came home beaten down, and when I didn’t want to get up in the morning.
- And from one friend, in particular, who I remember going on a long walk with around the Rogers Park neighborhood where I lived, and on that walk he just relentlessly affirmed me for who I really was.
Do you know what I mean by “relentlessly”? When you’re in a stretch of feeling like a failure everyday, that starts to affect your sense of self. When you are living in a world where you can’t settle the score, that starts to affect your sense of self. And this friend realized that, and so he relentlessly countered the ways failure and demands to earn my way back into good graces were ruining my sense of self. He told me who he saw when he looked at me — what made him proud to know me, what he liked about me, the character and integrity he saw in me, even if my university and school didn’t see that.
He prayed for me in a way that made me feel close to God, and that was really something because I was feeling so down during that stretch that I had trouble feeling anything when I tried to pray on my own.
This friend, and Keziah, and my roommates:
- loved me when I hadn’t earned it or done something to deserve it.
- loved me when I was a mess and had nothing to offer in return.
- loved me to the point that it didn’t feel like I had to make up for my failures to feel okay
::Love is such a different response to failure than demanding retribution.::
Love opened me up to find God in the midst of that horrible six months, and to eventually be transformed by the failures of my student teaching experience, rather than shut down by them.
::And love begets more love.:: Do you know who I feel just overwhelming surges of compassion and love for now flowing out of me naturally? Teachers, and especially student teachers. Love has done that to me.
Taking this to life
But a hard reality is: so much of modern American life is retributive, isn’t it? You do wrong by someone else, you gotta make up for it. Someone does wrong by you, you have a right to compensation.
And, while love begets more love, ::retribution also begets more retribution.::
When it is demanded that we settle some score, and those demands weigh us down, life can feel so unstable that we inevitably feel tempted to turn to the scores we are in charge of keeping and demand retribution from those we can. Just to claw out some sense of control or power.
When all of the teachers and administrators and supervisors who were in charge of my student teaching experience were demanding retribution of me, it was so hard not to turn and do the same to the only people in my situation underneath me: my students.
Taking this to justice
The consequences of our retributive mindsets are far reaching.
Most notably ::how we think about justice in this country:: — it’s the very definition of retributive. You were bad, so you have to go to jail. Jail is not rehabilitative in this country, it is punitive. It is about punishment, not help or growth or change.
And it’s not just the powers that be at fault in this, this is how we all have learned to talk about justice.
When we say things like, “I want justice!” or, “it’s not fair!” what we usually mean is: “I suffered, and I want to make sure someone else suffers because I suffered”.
Tit for tat. Balance the scales. This is a retributive understanding of justice.
And it’s not a new mindset. Retributive justice was all over the social and religious tradition that Jesus came from (just like it is for us in America today, just like it has been for so many cultures throughout history).
::And Jesus’ critical response to it is one of his most memorable lines:::
“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ [in other words, retributive justice,] but I say, ‘if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.’”
Taking this to God’s justice
This brings me to another consequence of our retributive-mindsets: how we think about not just justice in general, ::but how we think about divine justice, how we think about God.::
Throughout Lent here at Brown Line Vineyard (today is the final Sunday of Lent), we’ve been looking at Jesus’ death on the Cross.
The message so many have absorbed about what Jesus’ death on the Cross is about is a message of retributive justice — Jesus’ death fulfills the punishment/violence quota that God’s justice requires.
But how can that square with Jesus, the God of “turn the other cheek” instead of “eye for an eye”? Personally, I don’t think it can.
But throughout the history of religion we human beings have projected our “I want someone else to suffer because I suffered” retributive-justice motives on to God.
As Jesus said, we have all “heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye.’”
And so we often say here at Brown Line Vineyard: Jesus’ death on the cross is about humanity’s demand for retribution and punishment and violence, not God’s.
In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire condemned him as a revolutionary, and the Jewish Elite condemned him as a heretic. And, in response, Jesus practices what he preaches in his “turn the other cheek” message — he chooses to be the victim, rather than make another victim out of someone else (even those doing him harm). Jesus chooses self-sacrifice to break the cycle of retribution begetting more retribution.
Because retribution and violence are never redemptive.
That feels true, right? Of course they never are. Love is redemptive. When have we ever seen a “war to accomplish peace” work in history? When has making sure someone else suffers because I suffered ever worked in a relationship? Retribution and violence cannot restore balance, cannot bring peace, cannot lead to positive transformation or growth or change in a person, or in a people. Only love can do those things.
And everything we’ve learned about human behavior from psychologists confirms this — love, not fear of reprisal, is what helps people grow.
Bringing it home
Now, when I read the Bible (and I’m guessing this is true for everyone here), here’s a hard thing: there are lots of things that seem to me to paint a picture of a retributive God, an “eye for an eye” God (not a “turn the other cheek” God like Jesus).
Like the book of Ezekiel for example is basically chapter after chapter of courtroom imagery, in which God is portrayed as an angry judge sentencing the Ancient Israelites to punishment for their crimes, and their punishment is usually death.
Super uncomfortable to read. And things like this can make many us want to toss the Bible out as an ancient relic of a crueler time that just believed cruel things about God and the universe.
And, if that’s where you’re at, I totally get it.
But what I’ve personally discovered is that, if I stay with the Biblical writers, they seem to, again and again, work through all that anger and demands for punishment and then, suddenly, they seem to experience interruptions to that human retributive mindset, and we see leaping into their pictures of God these counter messages of love and a different kind of justice: Redemptive Justice.
::Ezekiel has one of the most famous.:: In the midst of all its courtroom sentences of punishment, we get this:
I [God] will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
I love this bit about the new heart and spirit God gives us “wiII move us to do these things” — that makes me think of love begetting love. It’s not fear of punishment or reprisal that changes us. It’s being moved by love.
But just stepping back to consider how, again and again in the Bible (this is just one example), promises of love interrupt demands for retribution. In a strange way, this actually makes the Bible feel morerelatable to me than if it was just a neat and tidy bullet point list about God, without the narrative or emotion or human element.
Because I think about how badly I wanted to let my student teaching supervisor and my cooperating teacher have it. How I wanted them to get what was coming to them for all that they had put me through.
Who among us can immediately discard or move on from demanding retribution when we’ve been wronged or when we’re upset?
None of us. It is so normal to go there.
What gives us the ability to move past that, to not stay stuck there, is love. Love has to interrupt us.
It’s the only thing powerful enough. Feeling loved when we haven’t earned it or don’t deserve it, or when we can’t give anything in return. Feeling loved to such a powerful degree that we no longer feel like we have to make up for our failures or flaws because it just feels certain that this love is so real nothing would scare it away.
When we experience this sort of love, that’s where we find God, and what God is truly like.
That is how I found God in the middle of six of the hardest months of my life — by feeling love from my friend who went on that walk with me and prayed with me, and feeling love from Keziah in her apartment as I cried, and feeling love from my roommates each day when I got home.
::And so retribution didn’t beget more retribution. Instead, that cycle was interrupted, and the other cycle, love begetting love, started for me.:: And I was opened up to move on from and learn from the failures of my student teaching experience, rather than shut down by them.
And this whole story now is a pillar of an experience for me when it comes to the picture of God I have formed: God does not demand retribution, God is love.
Even more, God is self-sacrificial love — “turn the other cheek,” not “eye for an eye.” God would rather enter into my suffering and become a victim with me, than see me suffer alone. This isn’t a God who merely tolerates me, or sticks with me because he’s God and he really should. This is truly felt love — that can change us when we actually experience it coming at us from the God of the universe.
The power is in the fact that it does feel not right. The Psalms ask “who am I, a mere mortal, that you consider me God?” — The God of the Universe should not care for any one individual, that feels ridiculous, and so we try to make God out to be removed, at a distance, impatient, merely tolerant but not having time for us — And yet, according to Jesus, the God of the Universe does have time for us.
So I’d love to pray for us, and I can think of a couple ways that might be helpful…
If you are in the midst of a situation like what I’ve shared — weighed down by demands on you for retribution, and maybe feeling that temptation to let it flow through you to someone else, to start keeping score where you can because “I suffered and I want someone else to suffer because I suffered.” — If that is you, you are not a bad person. You are totally normal. But if you stay there forever, it will not serve you, and you will likely hurt others. Retribution will only beget in you more retribution. And so, what I want to pray is for you to feel God’s love change you, to bring you a needed interruption — maybe directly from God in prayer, or maybe through the love shown to you by another person. But my prayer is that that love would feel so real and consoling to you, that you genuinely feel transformed by it and the cycle of retribution feels broken, so that your situation does not shut you down, so that you get through this, so that you can even learn from it in time, and find it begetting love in your life, rather than retribution.
If you have been taught to look to a God who is retributive. I want to pray for you, because that picture of God is never going to serve you. A retributive God will only beget more retribution in you. And that God is not Jesus. Even if his name was used. It’s not. Jesus is restorative justice not retributive justice. Jesus is love.