The Cross and the Court

A just before 12:30 AM EST on September 30, 2015, the United States Supreme Court failed to administer justice.  In executing (read murdering) Kelly Gissendaner, the local, state, and federal governments demonstrated that their concept of justice is decidedly perverted and entirely about maintaining a status quo of political power.  More bothersome than the actions of government(s) is the number of Christ followers who have adopted a “Luther-esqe” ethic, supporting the death penalty by separating their ethic of personal life from their concept of social ethics.

Before I go further, let me be clear on two points.

First, Kelly Gissendaner was guilty of conspiracy to murder her husband.  She openly admitted this, so – unlike the disturbing case of Richard Glossip – there is no question of innocence.  Interesting in this specific case is, while Kelly was executed, the man who actually stabbed her husband to death will serve only a life sentence.  The difference?  The state prosecutors wanted to convict Kelly, so they cut a deal with the actual murderer to guarantee a death sentence conviction.  This, in and of itself, ought to give Christians pause.

Second, I want to be clear, I am not advocating a Kim Davis style ethic.  It is not the job of the Christian to forcefully impose their ethics on secular authorities.  The issue, for me, is not whether the state has the legal authority to execute a prisoner as they see fit.  Instead, the problem is whether legality equals justice, whether condemning someone to death is consistent with the ethic of the cross.

Often, when we think of justice we assume the point is in some way retributive.  In the West, and especially within the U.S., we operate on the assumption that the “punishment must fit the crime”.[1]  This context has bled into our atonement theory.  This has led many scholars and pastors to advocate the flawed theology of penal substitutionary atonement.  They us3 modified categories learned from Anselm’s engagement within a feudal context to argue that our sin has offended God and, in order for the necessary punishment of humanity to be avoided, a worthy sacrifice had to be made to satiate God’s wrath.  God’s holiness, justice, and wrath demand that all sin be punished in kind before he can act in mercy and grace.  God in his absolute providence thus condemned Christ and arranged for the crucifixion of Christ and poured his wrath upon his own son, satisfying his wrath, enabling him to forgive.

This, however, is a God made in our image.  This can be seen by looking at the origin of such thinking, Anselm of Cantebury.  When Anselm initially conceived the categories adopted for Penal Substitution, he described God as a feudal lord.  His honor was most important, thus anyone who offends him offends his honor.  The only way to restore this honor was to demand recompense on the part of the offender.  Since no created being could ever satisfy God’s honor, and God could not restore his own honor without recompense, he sent Christ as a created being – God capable of satisfying honor, man capable of recompense.  Anselm looked at his own context and sought to make God a logical part of it.

The question is, does the justice of God reflect our context or critique it?

I would point out the justice described above involves God being at odds with himself.  If God cannot abide sin, but he wants humanity to follow him, justice becomes God exercising wrath and doling out the full, unmitigated punishment for sins upon his son.  This, however, is problematic biblically.

Beginning even in the OT – long before Jesus- we are told that God prefers mercy above all else.  He does not desire that any person should perish, and he is grieved by the death inherent to sin (Eze 18:32).  Likewise, a commonly overlooked theme of the Levitical law is reconciliation.  It is common in evangelical thought to separate this law into moral, ceremonial, and civil law.  What is overlooked is that the entirety of the law falls under the same category, preservation of covenant.  In Exodus 19, Israel is called at Sinai to be God’s chosen people. If they choose to continue to covenant of Abraham, they must be a nation set apart.  Thus, God gives them a set of laws which will set them apart from the nations, God’s holy nation and royal priesthood (v. 6).

However, just as the keeping of the law allowed the people to live in the presence of God, the breaking of the law isolated a person or persons from God (cf Lev 1-7).  Thus, there was built into this law a way for people to be restored before God (2 Chr 7:11-22).  There was also, according to Deuteronomy 28, a curse built into the law, certain rules which when broken caused full isolation from God.  This could either be death, an eternal banishment from God’s presence, or exile, removal of God’s localized presence and protection.

What was at stake, though, was not God’s wrath precisely, but access to God’s presence (cf Ex 33-34).  Moments referred to as wrath in the OT were ways in which people were cut off from God by their own actions, sometimes even causing God’s divine intervention.  Yet, this wrath was not who God is, nor is it God’s mission (cf. Ez 33:1-20). 

According to Isaiah 2, God’s purpose was to establish an earthly kingdom where all the nations would exist in his presence, at peace with one another.  Repeatedly we are told that God’s wrath is avoidable, but a simple sacrifice is not necessarily enough to avoid it (Hosea 6).  Instead, what God desires is that his people should imitate him, to be a holy people as he is a holy God, and remain faithful to the covenant to which they have been called (Ex 19).

As one moves into the NT, Paul states that Jesus is the fulfilment of this covenant.  A look at Galatians 3 will help to see how this is conceived.  According to Paul, on the cross Jesus fulfilled the covenant by embodying the curse.  He became the curse of the covenant, a righteous man, God himself convicted of blasphemy and hung on a tree.  As such, God himself embraced abandonment, God himself became alienated, God incarnated the human story.  According to 2 Corinthians 2, Jesus became the embodiment of sin itself.,_Tempio_Malatestiano.jpg

In doing so, Jesus defeated sin, its entirety was spent on the blaspheming, abandoned Immanuel.  Yet, because Christ had been faithful to his calling, he was raised as firstborn of the dead by the Spirit.  Sin and death were defeated, God himself absorbed the blame and shame of sin, that making might step forward fully justified and the kingdom of New Creation might be begin to be made manifest (Col 2:15-23).  This, Paul calls, the dikaiosyne of God (cf. Rom 3).

To be brief, dikaiosyne is the Greek word for both justice and righteousness.  In Paul, righteousness is the right standing one has in relation to another.  Justice, then, becomes the act or state of setting things to rights.  In Jesus, God proved himself righteous, faithful to his covenant to redeem all humanity through Israel by presenting Jesus as the Christ of OT prophecy, the faithful Israel[2] – God’s suffering servant as described in Isaiah (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).

Justice, then, looks precisely like the crucified Jesus.  It is the God who has every right to be offended, instead absorbing the offense into himself.  It is a God who is dishonored, defeated, and lifted up in mockery seeking to honor and glorify his derelict creation, to give them victory over the occupying forces of Sin and Death (Matt 27; Rom 8; Rev 5).  The cross is the weakness and foolishness of God that exposes our own futile attempts at exerting power and privilege (1 Cor 1:18-30).  It is the embodiment of Christ’s teaching that the first shall be last, the leader shall be a slave of all (Matt 29:25-27).  The choice, then, is between retribution or grace, condemnation or mercy, the cross of Christ or the court of Caesar (Rom 8:1, 37-39).

A common objection to this lies in certain interpretations of Romans 13.  Some people emphasize that Paul says the Roman state had God-given authority to wield the sword against wrong doers.  However, there seems to be within this school of thought a trend of dividing verses 1-7 from 8-14.

In my opinion, it is always dangerous to separate any Pauline argument from Jesus.  As Paul states to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthian 2:2, his theology is focused on “Jesus the Christ, and him crucified”.  In fact, as Paul sees it, the cross of Christ exposes the foolishness of worldly powers (1 Cor 1:18-30).  These powers crucified Christ, they sought to shame and defeat him, yet he was exalted in his kenotic death, raised up to his status as Yahweh, and declared victorious (Phil 2:1-11).

This brings us full circle to Romans 13.  In verse 5-6, the Roman church is told that they are to obey government not because of fear of retribution, but from an ethic rooted in God’s providence.  Specifically, Paul says that they must pay their taxes.

The reasoning for this is quite simple. There were tax riots taking place throughout the Roman Empire and Paul was warning his audience that if they riot, they can expect Rome to respond in force.  However, he roots this not in obligation to state, but obligation to God, the source of their conscience and identity.  In a fashion similar to Jesus telling the Pharisees to “render unto Caesar” (Mark 12:17), Paul tells the Roman Christians to pay “taxes to whom taxes are due [and] revenue to whom revenue is due” (v. 7).  However, just as the Pharisees were told to “render unto God” that which bears his image, the Romans are told to render respect and honor to whom it is due, God.

They are then reminded that love and faithfulness toward God by keeping covenant is not rooted in strict adherence to legal codes, it is entirely about loving neighbor in all we do.  It is about placing the “other” above “self”. ” Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (v.10).  As Paul saw the kingdom of God in breaking, the Roman Christians were reminded that they serve a different kingdom, that the hour for deciding where allegiance lies is at hand.  If they hold onto money and riot over taxes, they have chosen “mammon” over God (Matt 6:24).  Placing anything above the kingdom of God is sin, leads to sinful lifestyle.  They are to put on Jesus Christ fully, to make them their entire identity and ethic (vv. 11-14).

As such, if our entire ethic is the crucified Jesus, we can hardly disregard the image of God in another person.  We cannot claim to follow Christ, to take up our cross and follow him (Matt 16:24) if we set up ourselves to decide who ceases to get a second chance.  We cannot take a life without recognizing that, in doing so, we may very well extinguish that person’s image bearing potential, cut them off from God for eternity.  Likewise, we cannot claim to love our neighbor while standing in condemnation of them.  We cannot claim to love a person while ending their life.  Instead, to the extent we issue judgment on another person, we can expect judgment in kind (Matt 7:1-2).  As Paul states it, if we insist on strict adherence to law, we all stand condemned for the law is death (Gal 3:19-29).  Or as Jesus states, if we condemn our neighbor for a speck, we only expose our own sinfulness, the plank which disqualifies us (Matt 7:3-5)

A final thought will demonstrate our own obligation in the face of retributive justice.  In John 8:1-11 Jesus is confronted by a woman caught in adultery.  She is dragged from her home, shamed, and prepared before Jesus for certain execution.  The injustice of this situation is fairly evident – there is no male condemned,  despite the fact that adultery, by its nature, requires two persons only one stands judged.  It seems the Pharisees had no regard for the woman or her sin, but were only a utility for establishing their power and status before Jesus.

Likewise, the Pharisees are not simply concerned with the law here.  Under Roman law, occupied territories were allowed to carry out a great deal of local justice, but they were typically not allowed to exercise the death penalty without permission of their Roman prefect.  It is entirely likely they are not only trapping Jesus in relation to the law. They are also – as with the tax questions in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 – pitting Jesus between Jerusalem and Rome.  If he sanctions the execution, he can be considered a usurper of Roman authority.  If he declines he is breaking the law.  If he opts for a sanctioned trial, he is a Roman sympathizer.  They have set him up for failure.

However, Jesus does not simply turn them away.  Neither does he stone her.  He stares down his opponents and states that only the sinless have the power of life and death.  He puts the concept of plank and speck into radical action.  He exposes the Pharisees’ intentions, undermines their claim to authority, and offers forgiveness where he was entitled to dole out death.  Where the Pharisees saw the woman as a utility, a vehicle by which to dramatically demonstrate their power and authority, Jesus sees a human being, made in God’s image, and calls her to be reconciled before God.  As he always does, here Jesus reveals to us the heart of the Father (John 14:5-14).

So, where does this leave us?

As I see it, we as Christians cannot participate in or support a power system which makes claims against the authority of Christ.  We cannot cast a stone unless we are first sinless.  We cannot condemn another without exposing our own fault.  We cannot abandon the marginalized, the condemned, the prisoner of this world without abandoning the crucified Christ and the mission to which he has called us (cf. Luke 4:14-21).  Our king is not Caesar, our leader is not POTUS, SCOTUS, or any other government body – we must be the body, with Christ as our head, his cross as our ethic.  We must embrace the heart of the Father, a heart which is grieved by the death of the wicked, who waits patiently desiring that none should perish apart from him (Eze 18:32, 33:11; 2 Pet 3:8-10).  To murder one’s neighbor – explicitly or implicitly – for the sake of our comfort, to maintain a level of privilege, or to preserve our own power system is to deem the cross an irrelevant event.

In the court, we are all guilty, but in the cross of Christ the “guilty” are declared innocent and the “innocent” guilty.  In recognizing our own guilt, we can humbly approach our neighbor in love.  But first, we musts choose, are we people of the court or disciples of the cross?

[1] The irony of this is not lost on me, as numerous studies have shown that our court system hardly applies consistent consequences across ethnicities and socioeconomical classes.  See and

[2] For a much more in depth explanation of this, I suggest reading N.T. Wright,Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009).

**Cover image from**

Thanks for taking the time to read and engage. I look forward to your feedback.

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