A King's Wit, the People's Judgment, and a House Harmonious: Three Models of Early Christian Criminal Justice


Dismal, Preliminary Considerations

[1] Eager to be useful to the church, biblical scholars sometimes forget the difference between interpretation and shopping.[1] And so it was as I rummaged through the writings of the New Testament looking for the ideal system of criminal justice. I was hunting for bargains. I wanted straightforward answers. I wanted the Bible to solve our problems by offering a basic principle or two which might, with just a few minor alterations, fit our time and place. But I found no bargains. Instead, in the early Christian writings I found models through which Western societies have for centuries conceptualized crime and punishment.

[2] Looking for bargains I found instead ancestors, and their vaguely familiar faces were, for the most part, not reassuring. Take 2 Peter for example. Written quite late in the first century, certainly not by Peter, this little letter was intent on keeping one Christian group safe from the influences of another Christian group. Such infighting within the Christian movement was common in the late first century. Christians troubled each other like cats and dogs. Only Christians, unlike animals, had for their weapons teeth, claws and language. With language comes the ability to destroy the dignity of your opponent. Western societies are the inheritors of this intramural vituperation and it has shaped the way we think about criminal justice. In the case of 2 Peter, the other Christian group, which in the author's estimation did not even deserve the name Christian, is nothing but a pack of criminals. They deserve the punishment they are soon to receive in God's system of criminal justice.

[3] What makes these rival Christian missionaries criminals? Insubordination. At the root of their bad behaviors is bad attitude: "They will even deny the Master who bought them (2:1)." "They despise authority (2:10)." Their refusal to think of themselves as slaves of the Lord Jesus makes them licentious, greedy, and ready to exploit, malign, slander, and deceive. Not knowing their place, they revel in the daytime, get high in public, and adulterate marriages. They are less than human. "These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed (2:12)." In fact, they aren't even animate: they are blots and blemishes, waterless springs and mists driven by storms.

[4] How did 2 Peter's God take criminals in hand? The ancient world offered few options. Before the invention of prisons in the nineteenth century, there were jails – spaces for isolation, nothing more than holding tanks. Rehabilitation was not imagined (except by Plato). Jails kept the accused safe until trial or execution. Lesser punishments like fines, branding, public humiliation were indeed tried but if they failed to correct the behavior the only option left, it was thought, was extermination.

[5] Such was the criminal justice system of the ancient world. The God of 2 Peter abides by this penal practice, even down to the detail of torturing criminals to present them daily with a foretaste of their bodies' fate: "the Lord… knows how to chastise until the day of judgment (2:9)." The author tells us that God has already passed sentence on the "blots and blemishes," and he ranks them with the worst offenders in cosmic history: "Their condemnation, pronounced long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into Tartarus in pits of gloom to be kept until judgment…" I will spare you the grisly details, but the angels were headed in the same direction as that of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah – extinction. But first, of course, burning.

[6] One final comment about the criminal justice system in 2 Peter. It did not come from the Old Testament, despite the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. Tartarus was the Hell below Hell in the ancient mythology of Greece. Hades was the home of the unremarkable dead whose reward at death was to be stripped of self-awareness, something like late stage Alzheimer's disease or the experience of Sheol of the Hebrew Bible. But really bad Greek people, the insubordinate ones, when they died went to a pit deeper than Hades, Tartarus. And they went with their powers of perception intact so as not to miss out on an eternity of torture. What were the crimes that got you sent to this deep, deep pit? Sleeping with the wife of Zeus, as Ixion attempted, or serving up one of your sons at a luncheon for the gods, as Pelops did. Affronts like these to a god's dignity could get you Tartarized.

[7] Initially, 2 Peter appears laughable for its awkward attempt to pass off Greek mythology as Christian theology. But then the history of incarceration hits home. Horror, not humor, is at work here. Church leaders and social policy makers through the ages have believed that 2 Peter is God's revelation to humankind concerning crime in two of its most critical aspects. Crime's aetiology: insubordination. And crime's remedy: isolation, torture, and, finally, extermination. This is what crime and punishment looks like from the perspective of the gods – or elite and powerful mortals.

[8] An even more troubling aspect of the pseudo-Petrine criminal justice system is its indifference to the victims of crime. When criminal behavior is equated with insubordination, only one victim is remembered, the ruling power whose dignity has been offended. Real victims whose bodies bear the pain of invasion or the loss of the things and people they desire – they don't seem to count. Furthermore, when punishment is thought to deter crime by isolating and finally silencing the criminal through death, the gaping whole left in the victim's soul is left on its own to heal in a sort of isolation that strangely mirrors the criminal's own incarceration. So, we have run into some very bad ideas in 2 Peter. What is doubly troubling is that many people in our society still embrace these attitudes toward crime and criminal justice: "They are animals, lock 'em up and throw away the key."

A King's Wit

[9] But do not be dispirited. There's more to the New Testament than 2 Peter just as there is more to ancient Greek culture than its mythology. We don’t have to settle for 2 Peter's vision and we don't have to believe in his God. So enough of these dismal, preliminary considerations. I want to turn now to three further aspects of criminal justice in the writings of the earliest Christians. 1) The first Christians were preoccupied with crime and punishment; 2) they borrowed heavily from Greek practices of performing justice; and 3) there was no agreement among the writings of the New Testament about what constituted crime and how a criminal act was to be remedied.

[10] The first point, that of early Christian preoccupation with justice, tells us that we will find stimulating conversation partners in the New Testament. 2 Peter is just one voice among many, some of whom have something profound to say. The second point concerns the dependence of Christian thought on Greek models of conflict resolution. I suspect that you will be very interested in the ways the Greeks dealt with such issues as disagreement, injury, anger, social inequality, restitution – especially when you see the Greek practices re-appearing in the New Testament. Finally, the diversity of New Testament views on criminal justice can be traced back not only to Greek theories of conflict resolution but also to irreconcilably different Christian understandings of the identity of God.

[11] I will spend most of my efforts on the second point, Christian dependence on Greek models of conflict resolution. Conflict was resolved and justice performed in three different social contexts in the ancient world: in the presence of kings, in the deliberations of juries, and in the harmony of households. I will briefly describe each of these models in their original context and then show how authors in the New Testament framed their thinking about criminal justice and God in terms of traditional Greek methods of bringing conflict to an end or, as in the third model, avoiding it altogether.

[12] In the twenty-first century we do not readily associate kings with the resolution of conflict. Today, judges acting as mediators occasionally play this role. We are far more likely to think of kings as rulers of nations. High atop the State they are far removed from the daily round of social life with its pickpockets, adulterers, and rustlers. These monarchs are patterned after the successors of Alexander the Great (died in 323 BCE). They divided his vast conquests into regions over which they exercised monarchical power retaining the old name for king (basileus) but changing the function of kingship forever. It is not the Hellenistic monarch we should think about when we hear the New Testament talk about the "kingdom of God" or when the early Christians proclaim Jesus as king. God's kingly activity is quite unlike that of Alexander's successors; and Jesus is no king like Louis the 16th.

[13] The New Testament did an end run around Alexander's successors and retrieved the basileus of ninth century Greece, when the main characters of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey had their day in the sun. Into what social context ought these kings to be placed and understood? Don't think of bustling cities with thousands of inhabitants. Think rather of hamlets and villages with up to five hundred dwellers. And think of these little towns quite far removed from one another. Though small by our standards each settlement was a kingdom. And each had a basileus.

[14] Now what did the king do all day long? Out in public, within earshot of the village's inhabitants, he employed his wit. Here is the scene: two disputants approach him. One states his grievance ("my neighbor has killed my prize bull"), while the other offers up mitigating circumstances ("I was throwing a rock at a crow, but missed and hit the poor beast right between the eyes, what are the chances of that?"). Then the king, in whose memory resided the history of the small community, would close his eyes and think of the present conflict in light of dead-bull-lucky-crow stories from the past. None fit exactly, but with his wit he would lay the old stories over the new incident and the villagers, if not the disputants, would marvel at the resolution he brought to the conflict.

[15] Although you may not be familiar with ancient Greek kings, you know well a king of Israel who truly deserved the name basileus. Solomon. When he began his reign he prayed to God: "give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" (1 Kings 3:9) Two prostitutes each claiming the same infant as her own child stand before him and demand justice. Quick as a wink Solomon has a sword produced and proposes a very fair solution: cut the baby in half and give equal pieces to each woman. Well, you know the rest of the story and how Solomon secretly imagined a justice that goes beyond justice, a justice that arises from a parent's heart. King Solomon's wit did not go unnoticed: "All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice." (1 Kings 3:28)

[16] What enabled Solomon to perform so brilliantly? Two words are important: "justice" and "judgment." First, justice. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosunē. This word occurs throughout the New Testament, although you would never know it because modern translations have often rendered it "righteousness." What is the difference between the two words? "Justice" has to do with relations between persons. To be "just" is to be devoted to the fair apportionment of material goods or intangible items such as honor. The root of the word, dik, is probably related to the Greek deiknumi, which means to point out a boundary or a portion. "Righteousness," on the other hand, is a characteristic of individuals. A righteous person is one whose behavior measures up to some norm. If you had the misfortune of being shipwrecked on a desert island all alone, you might be righteous but you could never be just.

[17] The other word for understanding ancient kingship is krinein, to judge. It is to tell the difference, to say what a thing is and what it is not. Solomon's kingly activity consisted of his knowing the difference between things. He knew what mattered in his cultural tradition. Children mattered greatly to mothers. And finally, he had that something extra that boosted him out of the ranks of the ordinary into the truly royal. He had wit, the capacity to turn an intractable conflict into one that solved itself. What made him a king in truth was that "I wish I had said that" reaction his pronouncement elicited from the bystanders.[2] His wit empowered him to judge justly.

[18] Let's turn now to the New Testament and look at examples of criminal justice under the influence of royal wit. We have many instances to choose from, since most writers of the New Testament believed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. Jesus himself kicks off his public ministry in the Gospel of Mark saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." (1:XX) Now, keep in mind that "kingdom" is not a place but what a king does. A king resolves conflict in an awe inspiring manner. That is what the early Christians were so excited about. They thought God was about to show up and name what things are (that is, to judge) and to distribute fairly or restore what rightfully belongs to people and to God's own self (that is, to perform justice).

[19] Unfortunately, many early Christians also believed that God's wit served only one end, vengeance. God's virtuosity expended itself on the devising of exquisite punishments. 2 Peter is a perfect example of this waste of divine time and talents. Remember that the author borrowed from Greek mythology the deepest of pits, Tartarus. There the punishment cleverly fit the crime: Ixion, for example, had lusted after Zeus' wife, so it was fitting that he be strapped to a wheel and spin head over heals for eternity. Or, in the book of Revelation, we read "Great and amazing are your deeds, lord God Almighty! Just (dikaiai) and true are your ways, King (basileus) of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glory your name?" (15:3-4). A little later with reference to persecutors of the faithful an angel sings out: "'You are just (dikaios), O holy One, who are and were, for you have judged (ekrinas) these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!'" (16:5-6). God's wit amounts simply to reversal, the turning of the table. Yet, this is not so very clever at all, and most significantly, what good does it do victims?

[20] Another example of flat-footed royal wit is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. These verses do indeed reflect concern for the poor, and so I am reluctant to find fault. And yet, this performance of justice suffers from the same lack of imagination as the earlier examples, though some scholars have approvingly called this plot "The Great Reversal."


In Hades, where the rich man was being tortured, he looked up and saw Abraham far way with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.


Notice that the structure of injustice has remained in place; some consume conspicuously, some go needy. The only change is that the thirsty and starving one is now satisfied and the formerly banqueting, rich man thirsts.

[21] I admit that there is wit in the story the Lukan Jesus tells. But it seems petty and mathematical in comparison with the awe Israel felt for Solomon's solution. Solomon's justice took its cues from a parent's love for her child. The Great Reversal, on the other hand, is too mean spirited to inspire us in our deliberations concerning today's criminal justice system. We might settle for it, but if we did our energies would be spent on devising punishments that ironically mimicked crimes, or worse yet the Great Reversal would help us fantasize about the eternal punishments God has in store for criminals. And in our dreams or we would forget victims.

[22] I have described the kingly model of criminal justice to show what a powerful influence it had on early Christians. It shaped their thinking about punishment, how they viewed Jesus as king, and what they imagined the kingdom of God to be like. The problem is that the model degenerated in the writings of the early Christians. What explains the impoverishment of royal wit by the time of the New Testament? Perhaps Solomon was one of a kind. Or perhaps it is too much to ask of one person that he or she alone perform justice through royal wit. No single human being can know what Solomon knew: what mattered to his people, what was really at stake in the conflict before him, and what imaginative solution would cause the people to gasp and wish that they had said what the king said.

The People's Judgment

[23] The failure of the first model of ancient criminal justice to imprint itself nobly in the early Christian writings leads us to the second model, the one based on jury deliberation. This model was in fact a spinoff of the first. From the moment democracy took hold in ancient Greece in the sixth century BCE, citizens found themselves participating directly in the life of the city. No longer did a single king resolve conflict in small towns. Now citizens of major cities (Athens, most famously) gathered together in a deliberative and legislative body called the Assembly (ekklēsia), the term the early Christians would later choose for their gathering together to worship Christ and to exhort, comfort, and reason with one another. Ekklēsia and "people power" (which is what democracy means) went hand in hand. It is not the case that democracy eliminated kingship; rather, in it every citizen became a king.

[24] In addition to the passing of laws in the Assembly, Athenian citizens were required to take turns sitting on juries. In this way the power of the people extended from legislation to determination of guilt of the accused and even to the sentencing of law-breakers. As if they were ancient kings, the citizen jurors were expected to bring to their deliberations knowledge of what mattered to the people and insights into the human heart so that motives of the accused and accuser might be discerned. As you might imagine, direct democracy like this gobbled up time. No wonder then, that the one requirement for participation in the Assembly and the sitting on a jury was that the citizen own at least one slave, whose labor in place of the master created time. The Greeks called this leisure for politics "freedom."

[25] I have just told the dirty secret about the origin of democracy in Western culture – it was built on the labor of slaves. We will deal squarely with this monumental injustice when we consider the third model, a house harmonious. But first, let's explore what Greek democracy's invention of juries would mean six hundred years later in the time of the New Testament. What did it look like when the people's judgment, rather than a king's wit, stood at the heart of the Christian criminal justice system?

[26] Paul took this question very seriously and it is to two passages from his correspondence with the church at Corinth that I now turn. But first a word about authorship. Paul wrote seven letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. 2 Thessalonians is debatable. At the heart of each of these letters is Paul's understanding that the church is an ekklēsia, an assembly of equals who have the right to speak their mind. This freedom was won by Christ's voluntary shouldering of humanity's sin and death.

[27] After Paul's death, a number of letters were written in his name: Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. The writers of these pseudonymous letters reformulated Paul's vision of the church. Although continuing to use the word ekklēsia, they radically changed its meaning. They transformed the church as an assembly of equals into a household (oikos). In an ancient Greek household unity depended on inequality. As I will explain more fully in the final portion of this paper, the oikos was a system of three asymmetrical relationships centered on the male head; husband rules wife, father rules children, and master rules slaves. I can not sufficiently emphasize the significance of the transformation of the church from assembly to household for the development of the church and for Christian attitudes toward criminal justice. There is a deep flaw running through Christian history to this day. The real Paul saw the church as a place of freedom, equality, and participation for all the baptized. The Paul created by the writers who appropriated his name saw the church as a place of submission, subordination and the silencing of women, slaves, and children.

[28] One more thing about Paul's vision of the church. Paul despised the way that elite Christians in Corinth were using church gatherings as opportunities for the display of their social class. In the ancient world it was common for banquets, parades, theatre-seating, and other social gatherings to be marked by visible reminders of the social rank of the persons in attendance. At banquets, for example, the important persons sat closest to the host and ate better food. These were visible signs meant to reinforce the class system. And they angered Paul like nothing else. He had staked his ministry on the belief that each and every gathering of the church was an anticipation of the way things will be when Christ returns. The Christian assembly is a foretaste of the feast to come. For the elite to inject social class distinctions now meant that God's future for the world would include such differences forever. And Paul would have none of that.

[29] Besides, Christ died for all. For all he bore death and sin, and to Paul's way of thinking Christ became our slave. It is his labor that makes us all free for being in the assembly together. To introduce class distinctions into the church is to deny the freedom-making power of Christ's death.

[30] 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 is the first passage we will mine for information about criminal justice from the perspective of the people's judgment. The translation is the NRSV with modifications:


When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unjust (adikōn), instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge (krinousin) the world? And if the world is to be judged (krinetai) by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge (krinoumen) angels – to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, establish for yourselves those who are counted as nobodies in the church. I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide (diakrinai) between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court (krinetai) against a believer – and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged (adikeisthe)? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong (adikeite) and defraud – and believers at that. Do you not know that the unjust (adikoi) will not inherit the kingdom ("ruling activity" basileia) of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, malakoi, arsenokoitai, thieves, the greedy (pleonektai), carousers, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom (basileia) of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified (edikaiōthēte) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.


There is a lot of talk in this passage about the "unjust" ones, the adikoi. Paul has the officers of the Corinthian law court in mind here. They are the unjust ones who will not inherit God's ruling activity. They are the ones described by the list of vices in verses 9-10, all of which name specific instances of injustice. They are the unjust ones in 6:1 before whom a few members of the Christian community appear for the resolution of a conflict pertaining either to reputation or to property. Why did Paul despise the court system and bad-mouth its officials?


[31] In the Roman period, courts had become locations of social status display. Consider this: these courts chiefly handled conflicts pertaining to property or reputation. Who would be most likely to use these courts? To suffer fraud you had to own property. To suffer slander you had to have a name worth protecting. Or go at the question from court procedures. If we look at the way witnesses from the lower economic classes were treated, our initial impression of status display is reinforced. Slaves, for example, were roughed up before they gave testimony in order to insure that they would tell the truth. And if sentencing were in order, the elite criminal was often offered exile or simply fined; the poor free were taken to a ravine and tossed in. There were, of course, no prisons where rich and poor alike could be sent.


[32] So there is a reason for Paul's anger. One elite Christian has broken a contract or brought another into public disrepute. That's bad enough. Yet, instead of putting the grievance in front of the community and seeking a resolution from the gathered believers, the two parties rush off to the law court thinking, no doubt, that only persons of their own social station could possibly understand what it means to own property or to possess a reputation.

[33] Paul was deeply concerned about the message sent back to the poor, slaves, women, and everyone else who had been judged by the exodus of the elites not to be qualified to perform justice. That is why he begins with two statements that can only be understood if we recall the first model of criminal justice, the king's wit. "Do you not know that the saints [that is, all the baptized] will judge the world?" The word for judge here is krinein, the same word we ran into in Solomon's case. It means to call a thing what it is.

[34] By virtue of the Spirit of God, each and every Christian no matter what their background has and will continue to have the power to judge. In Paul's eyes, there is no limitation; the saints will judge the world. And then Paul turns up the volume: "Do you not know that we will judge angels?" I ask you, did you know this was in your future, to look upon even upon angels and to discern their worth and their reason for existence? Why, it is almost as if we were to inherit God's kingly activity – and that is exactly what Paul implies in verse 9. The unjust will not, but the saints will indeed receive from God God's reign and they – we! – will perform justice like kings by judging all people and judging all angels. Then Paul gets quite nasty, taking the elites precisely where they do not want to go. He tells them 1) to keep their conflict within the Christian community and 2) to identify those Christians who in the outer world are regarded as "nobodies" or "nothings," and 3) to establish them as judges. It is as if Paul were saying to the people of higher social station, "Seek from the marginalized the wisdom that can resolve your petty disputes. They can do it. Just hurry up and get a court date, since they soon will be busy performing justice on the world and on angels!"


[35] Why have I brought this passage forward for our consideration? It very seldom gets any attention aside from the last two words of verse 9 which, when mistranslated into English as they most often are, are used as Bible bullets to wound the consciences of gay men. You will notice that I have left them untranslated, since I don't have time to present them in their original cultural context. The interesting thing about this passage isn't sex; it is Paul's allergy to the law court. Even more interesting is the ancient model of justice that he retrieved. Conflict resolution is the people's business, not the private concern of the privileged. Paul reached back to Classical Athens and the transformation of kingship into people power starting with the invention of juries in the sixth century. On the matter of conflict resolution, Paul aligned the Christian church with the democratic ekklēsia.


[36] Paul wrote at least four letters to the church at Corinth. Two of them survive as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. Between these two letters a crime took place. The case involves Paul himself, whom 2 Corinthians 7:12 identifies as "the one who was wronged (o adikēthōn)." The individual who injured Paul is not named but was a member of the Christian community in Corinth; in the same verse he is referred to as "the one who wronged (o adikēsas)." Although it cannot be determined in what respect Paul was treated unjustly, the root of the word, dik, takes us immediately into the realm of justice. Whether it was criminal justice or civil justice is a modern distinction largely unknown to the ancients. One thing is clear, Paul's person was violated – and justice required that the community recognize Paul as a victim of crime, that the perpetrator be identified and held accountable, and that some remedy be applied to right the wrong.


[37] The Corinthians at first turned a blind eye to Paul and the injury he had suffered at the hands of Mr. X (a more convenient name for o adikēsas). Paul fled Corinth and from a distance rebuked the community for ignoring the injustice that had been done to him. Titus, one of Paul's associates, took this letter to Corinth while Paul made his way through modern day Turkey over to ancient Macedonia where he had agreed to rendezvous with Titus and find out how the church reacted to his demand that they take his injury seriously. At this point Paul himself picks up the story:

For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way – disputes without and fears within. But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you, as he told us of your longing (epipothēsin), your mourning (odurmon), your zeal (zēlon) for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I grieved (elupēsa) you with my letter, I do not regret it.
Though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly. Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led into repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation (aganaktēsin), what fear (phobon), what longing (epipothēsin), what zeal (zēlon), what punishment (ekdikēsin)! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong (tou adikēsantos), nor on account of the one who was wronged (tou adikēthentos), but in order that your zeal for us might be made known to you before God. (2 Corinthians 7:5-12)


[38] I have no idea whether the members of the Corinthian church experienced the repentance and the wide range of emotions that Paul attributes to them here. This text's value is not as a witness to an historical event but to a vision of how a community ought to respond to criminal acts. Here Paul demonstrates his conviction that criminal justice must begin with the victim.


[39] The community must identify with the victim. In an ideal world, the church experiences the following emotions toward and on behalf of the person who has suffered the injustice. The most important, since it is mentioned twice (7:7 and 11), is longing (epipothēsis). This word has erotic connotations. By erotic, I, along with the Classical world and the Christian writers of the first thirteen centuries, mean "desire for communion."[3] This is larger than a desire for sexual union. It is a desire to share life, to co-mingle destinies, to exist outside of oneself in another as room is made within one's heart for the other to exist in you. Paul's language takes us to eros, the desire for communion with another in the other's presence. Pothos, from which Paul's term epipothēsis is derived, is desire for communion in the absence of the beloved. Pothos is a loving emotion, one that is painfully aware of isolation, distance, and impediments to the embrace of the beloved.


[40] What is going on here? Why would Paul make the community's longing for the victim the first move of the ideal criminal justice system? Because victims of crime suffer a triple injury. Not only do they experience the wrong done to them by the perpetrator but they also feel targeted by forces larger than the malefactor. And they feel shunned by their community. For this reason, the community must begin by reaching out to them. It must seek communion with the victim at the same time recognizing the sense of isolation unjust treatment evokes.


[41] The community must begin with its own emotions. Prior to words spoken to the victim, before suggestions of remedy are offered, the church must long for the victim. This emotion can not be fabricated. To reinforce the need of the community's genuine desire for communion with the victim, Paul used another term twice, zeal (zēlos), which like pothos had erotic connotations in ancient Greek literature. Finally, Paul mentions the Corinthians' mourning (odurmos). To understand this term you need to witness Greek, ritual lament over the dead. The term designates the unintelligible vocalizations known as keening. Mourners in Greek antiquity and even now in the small villages of the Peloponnese scream out their suffering to involve the entire community in their loss. Their screams witness the injustice of Death carrying their beloved away.


[42] So far I have described emotions of compassion. This is where the community begins. The ideal response goes beyond this, however. After longing comes anger directed at the perpetrator and a desire that the doer of the crime experience the same shame and emotions of isolation that the crime has worked on the victim. Paul names these emotions with the terms indignation and vengeance. I will comment only on the first term. The Greek word that stands behind indignation is aganaktēsis, which was understood to be a variety of anger (orgē).


[43] The way the ancients understood anger is highly significant for our interests. Anger is caused by an insult to one's dignity. It festers in the suspicion that one has been publically disrespected. But anger has a second aspect to it as well. Anger is the desire that the person who has caused you shame experience the same shame he or she has caused. So there is an element of revenge in anger, and that explains Paul's pairing aganaktēsis with ekdikēsis.


[44] I will summarize Paul's description of the ideal response to crime. It is victim-centered. It begins at an emotional level, naming and sharing the shame and isolation the victim suffers. The community goes on to long for communion with the victim, and does so with zeal. At the same time, in the manner of ritual lament, the community publicizes the wrong-doing, testifies to its reality, and counters any suggestion that it is only a fantasy of the victim. Finally, the community identifies with the victim and regards itself as the bearer of injustice. It reacts therefore with anger, desiring that wrong-doers experience the same shame they have caused victims.


[45] Now remember that I said all of this was Paul's idealization of response to injury. I remarked that it is not possible to know whether the Corinthian community ever had these feelings. That is not quite true. We know from 2 Corinthians that the church did in fact perform vengeance. In fact, they did so with gusto. Apparently, they excluded Mr. X from the church at Corinth.


[46] Let's look at 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 and watch Paul develop the other side of an ideal criminal justice system. We have seen his approach to the victim. How did he regard the perpetrator? Does the perpetrator's isolation from the community suffice? Is that the end of criminal justice?


But if anyone has caused grief (lelupēken), he has not grieved me, but to some extent – not to exaggerate it – to all of you. This punishment (epitimia) by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed (katapothē) by excessive sorrow (lupē). So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the face (prosōpō) of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be bullied (pleonektēthōmen) by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

This passage begins with familiar motifs from the victim centered approach just outlined.

[47] Notice that Paul acknowledges that the community has taken on his grief as its own. The pain that Mr. X caused is borne by the church on Paul's behalf. Notice too the judgment of the people. They have gathered in assembly, deliberated, and either came to a consensus or acted by majority vote. And finally, there is the matter of punishment. The Greek word here is epitimia. The root of this word is tim, which refers to "honor." Because theirs was an honor/shame culture, the Greeks were sensitive about public rebuke, and so they devised a graded scheme of moral exhortation beginning with the mildest encouragements of behavioral change to castigations which aimed to shame the wrong-doer into better behavior. The term epitimia is at the shame-inducing end of the continuum.


[48] And that is precisely the emotion Paul fears will overcome the excluded wrong-doer. The shift from victim to perpetrator in this vision of criminal justice occurs when the community's anger, it's public recognition of the crime, and it's vengeance have brought the perpetrator into the victim's emotional hell. When the punishment has taken hold, the community's task is to make sure the one who committed injustice does not commit suicide. There were numerous stories told in antiquity, particularly of young men, who hanged themselves after receiving public rebuke. The translation "overwhelmed with grief" is not adequate to the Greek phrase which literally goes "such a one being drunk down by excessive grief." "Drunk down" was a common way of talking about shame-induced suicide.


[49] Notice how the community's dedication to leaving no one isolated moves beyond the victim and includes the repentant criminal. In this respect, the model of the people's judgment is enacted, and perhaps surpassed. For the people to make their judgment they must open their imagination to one who is radically different, the one who has harmed them. Paul directs the Corinthians to affirm love, encourage, and forgive. Unless they do this, they run the risk of losing the wrong-doer to that great bully Satan, faceless in the shadow of the church ready to kill all the isolated, shamed, and self-haters.

[50] But opposing Satan is Christ. Christ, who is in deepest communion with both victims and criminals, who is himself every victim and at the same time the worst wrong-doer who ever lived, this Christ has a face.[4] And faces are instruments of communion. Taste, touch, smell, hearing, talking – portals between our inner selves and outer selves and the selves of others – they are there on the face. Staring at Christ's face pushes Paul to push the community where it is uncomfortable to go, where victims and their loved ones by themselves often simply can't and should never be blamed for not going, but where communities, in love with Jesus' face, just might: to the criminal's side. If grace means anything, it means that finally no one should be left to themselves, cut off from the very thing that makes us persons – other persons.


A House Harmonious

[51] And that brings us to the model of Christian criminal justice that I have called "a house harmonious." We will see that the advocates of this model forbade faces. That is, what counted in the third model were not relationships between persons but the efficiency and perpetuation of a system. I will not hide my contempt for this way of thinking. I question whether it rises to the level of Christian morality. And though I know that its advocates among the writers of the New Testament speak of God, I question whether they speak truly about God. As I will try to show, within the house harmonious are the seeds of the bad ideas and destructive practices that plague the criminal justice system today.


[52] The ancient household was a social system selling itself in the later writings of the New Testament as the will of God. Actually, it was invented by the male elite of the ancient world for the preservation of their position and privilege. The most illustrative passages are Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ephesians 5:22-6:9; and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7. Beginning with Aristotle in the fourth century and continuing right up to the writing of the New Testament, the household (oikos) was a system of three asymmetrical relationships, as I mentioned earlier. The male head of the household exercises authority over wife, children, and slaves. The household functions properly when the one head rules the wife for their common benefit, the children for the children's benefit, and the slave for the master's benefit. For their part, wives, children, and slaves are to be subordinate to the male head.[5]


[53] Now what does this all have to do with justice? We have learned that justice in antiquity was broadly defined as persons receiving what is due to them. In other words, fair apportionment of material or intangible goods. Yet if this is the definition of justice, then it is very difficult to see how justice could exist in the oikos. And so, instead of reshaping the household according to justice by abolishing slavery and improving the status of women and children, some intellectuals in the Hellenistic period changed the definition of justice. Building on Plato's Republic, they said that justice describes a social system in which there is a harmony of interests. Justice happens when naturally inferior persons recognize the rule of their betters and subordinate themselves willingly, sincerely, and even cheerfully. Not surprisingly, crime is defined from this perspective as refusal to recognize one's place. To rehabilitate criminals is to persuade them to subordinate themselves.


[54] Take a look at Colossians 3:18-4:1. The subordination of wives (v. 18), children (v. 20), and slaves (v.22) to the male head is obvious. But two subtler points are worth making. First, I think it is remarkable how averse this author is to anger. Elite males knew that anger is the one emotion that had the potential of disrupting the household system. Anger, it will be recalled, originates in an insult to one's dignity and is satisfied with vengeance. Nothing is so disruptive to the harmony of a household than anger. Husbands are not to embitter their wives, fathers are not to provoke their (presumably male) children, dispiriting them and rendering unable to enforce subordination when as adults they become heads of their own households. Masters are to be just and equitable to slaves. Ephesians and 1 Peter go on to will tell us why: lest anger grow in the slave population and lest there be revolt.


[55] The second point is theological. Notice how God protects the harmonious house. Those in inferior roles are told that their access to God passes through subordination to their rulers. "As is fitting in the Lord," "as is pleasing to the Lord," and "Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for the masters." This God is committed to preserving a smooth running system. The English translation of 3:25 ("and there is no partiality") hides what is really going on. The Greek of this verse says literally that in the way God operates "there is no face-taking." The God of Colossians is completely dedicated to system maintenance. This is not the God whose face motivates forgiveness and affirms the personhood of criminals.


[56] Now turn to Ephesians 5:22-6:9. Same set up with wives, children, and slaves in submission to the male head of household. Same denial that faces are important to this God (see 6:9). Same God that protects the system and same offer of Himself to the inferiors only through their happy and sincere obedience to superiors. Same fear that anger will overtake the system and ruin a very good thing from the perspective of the male elite. One thing new here, however, is the ideology of rehabilitation. This innovation we need to examine in detail, since seventeen hundred years later in Britain and in the United States the idea caught on that if the criminal could be made the object of discipline, he might be conformed to a law-abiding life. The theoretical foundations for this hope were laid down in Ephesians and the way the Christian church had organized itself as a disciplining body based on the passage we have before us. What I am claiming is this: the prison reform movement of the nineteenth century drew its inspiration from the hierarchical forms of the Christian church. And these, in turn, were outgrowths of Ephesians 5:21-6:9.


[57] Incarceration in eighteenth-century Europe in some instances took the form of the harmonious house. The warden was called father. His wife was called mother. Their aim was to teach the inmates the self-control they had failed to learn as children and the lack of which had prompted them to crime. A century later in the United States two prisons, Auburn Prison in the state of New York and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, sought to isolate, discipline, and reform. As rival experiments in prison reform they used different methods. Nevertheless, their approaches were reminiscent of Ephesians with its emphasis on maturation based on a therapeutic program.


[58] I need to be more specific about Ephesians' fateful introduction of therapy into the church and ultimately, if indirectly, into the prisons of the nineteenth century and beyond. Assume, as the author of Ephesians did, that women, children, slaves, and criminals are all defective in the same way: emotion rather than reason rules their bodies. They are tossed about by their passions. They are like weak-willed dieters, who may have good intentions but stand before the open refrigerator door and cannot help reaching in for a snack. They need discipline imposed from the outside. And so they are made the objects of a disciplining power. The way the author of Ephesians describes the husband's love of his wife would eventually become the model for reforming criminals: "… husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but feeds it and warms it." (5:28-29)


[59] I want to emphasize here the process of objectification that makes itself acceptable by the word "love." Who can criticize love, especially Christians whose God is love? But notice that the wife as a person disappears as she is being loved. She is first likened to the husband's body, which needs to be exercised and regulated in matters of food, drink, sex, and elimination. Next, she is erased by his narcissism: "He who loves his wife loves himself."(5:28) And finally, she becomes his body; she as his body stands in waiting for a regimen of feeding and warming, the standard practice for elite males in antiquity to prolong their lives under the guidance of their physicians.


[60] If you can imagine prison reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries unconsciously substituting "convicted felon" for "wife," then our criminal justice system needs radical reform. Why? It seems very unlikely that a responsible self can ever be drawn out of a disciplined self. Just as the objectification of women, slaves, and children in the Greek household was aimed at preventing them from ever being free subjects who spoke their minds, rationally defended their ideas, chose their goals, and took responsibility for their actions – the very traits of a citizen, so we should worry that the effect of incarceration today stunts rather than nourishes free, other-regarding and self-respecting souls.



[61] It is time to conclude my remarks. I won't restate the three models of criminal justice. You have seen my preference for the second, "the people's judgment." This model does two things well: first, it looks directly at faces, both the victim's and the perpetrator's. The second thing this model allows us to do is speak truly about God. Through it we can challenge our own beliefs by looking on God's face in the body of the one who is injured and in the body of the one who injures. And if we peer at God through these two bodies, which reason tells us to keep far apart, then we will have joined the company of the church's most profound seekers after God who have found God entirely in the flesh of Jesus, whom the church confesses to be both innocent victim and the worst of criminals because he bore the sins of the world in his body and regarded our crimes as if they were his own. This Jesus – our executed God – is Lord.


[62] What I am talking myself into is this: the cross of Christ has to make a difference in our proposals for reform of the criminal justice system. No person outside the Christian faith would trust us if, as Christians, we speak about jails, prisons, victims, and perpetrators yet fail even to mention Christ's manner of death. At this point I am not ready to say what the difference will be. This is an insight that arises from conversation, not individual reflection. But I do know that as a Christian I am obligated to see the world through a Lord who is both victim and criminal. To start each day confessing to know only one thing was good enough for the Apostle Paul: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2) Perhaps, it is good enough also for a Task Force which looks squarely at profound, human suffering – and refuses to blink.


[1] I wish to thank the other members of the ELCA Task Force on Criminal Justice whose experience and integrity establishes the standard of truth for this essay, which is the refinement of a presentation given to them in May of 2009.

[2] Vincent Ferenga (Citizen and Self in Ancient Greece, Cambridge University Press, 2006) has written on, among other topics in ancient political theory, Solomon's Homeric counterparts. What I am calling "wit" he calls "virtuosity." I am wholly dependent on his research into pre-democratic conflict resolution in Greece in the Early Iron Age (1100-700 B. C. E.). His treatment of the origin and political significance of juries in the sixth century informs the portion of this paper on "the people's judgment."

[3] See William Countryman, Love Human and Divine: Reflections on Love, Sexuality, and Friendship (London: Morehouse, 2005).

[4] For Christ as a criminal, see Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 1535 in Luther’s Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963) 26:277-278.

[5] See David L. Balch, "Let Wives Be Submissive": the Domestic Code in I Peter (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1981).



© September 2009

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 9, Issue 9