Crime, Punishment and Justice


Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Psalm 37:1-9

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
   and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
   and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
   and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
   strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
   and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
   therefore judgement comes forth perverted. Habakkuk 1:2-4.


Do not fret because of the wicked;
   do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
   and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord,
   and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:1-4.

So who are we to believe? The prophet who tells us justice never prevails or the psalmist who tells us it always does? The psalmist advises us not to get worked up over the outrages of the wicked. Habakkuk is nothing if not worked up. I have to confess that my sympathies lie with Habakkuk. I will not waste my breathe reciting how often in recent times I have seen, in the public realm and in my own personal life, wickedness rewarded and righteousness punished. And this from a white, straight, solidly middle class man who has lived and breathed privilege for all his days. Unless you are living under a rock, you cannot escape the reality of justice denied in the work place, in our schools and in our justice system to people of color, women and LGBTQ+ folk. So what are we to make of the psalmist who seems to think that the triumph of justice is just as sure and predictable as the next sunrise?

As it turns out, Habakkuk and the psalmist are not as far apart as one might think at first blush. The Lord finally answers Habakkuk, though what God has to say is probably less than what he might have hoped for:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
   Their spirit is not right in them,
   but the righteous live by their faith. Habakkuk 2:3-4.

In short, justice will prevail. But it will not happen with the clocklike regularity observed by the psalmist. Habakkuk might have to wait for God’s justice to be revealed. In fact, the “appointed time,” might come well beyond the horizons of the prophet’s life. The righteous, says the Lord, must live in expectation of justice being done even though they see no evidence of it. That means one can expect setbacks, miscarriages of justice, failed efforts at reform and preaching that falls on deaf ears. Every step forward might well be followed by two steps back. Forgiveness, compassion, speaking truth to power and non-violent resistance in the face of aggression may not yield results-or at least none that can immediately be seen. Yet it is possible to persevere under such conditions because we believe that what we can at best begin, God will finish in God’s good time.

That puts the psalmist’s words in the right perspective. The psalmist is not suggesting that the righteous should ignore evil and oppression, leaving to God the task of establishing justice. The psalmist does, however, warn the righteous not to “fret” or obsess over retribution for the wicked. That some people seemingly escape the consequences of their evil deeds is no concern of ours. As Paul reminds us, “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Romans 12:19. The psalms, of course, are filled with cries for vengeance. The psalmists are not shy about telling God exactly what they would like to see done to their enemies in cringeworthy terms. Yet, in the end, they leave the business of actually punishing the wicked in God’s hands where it rightly belongs. As the prophet Jonah had to learn, God’s determinations concerning who should be punished for what, when and how severely frequently differ from our own ideas on that score.

It is tempting to believe that we are able to “make the punishment fit the crime.” But I wonder if that is really so. We might conclude that a serial killer of innocent children deserves the severest sentence we can legally impose. Yet a killer’s depravity is seldom made in a vacuum. What about the parents who abused the killer as a child? What about the doctors, social workers and teachers who noticed the bruises and cuts on his body, but failed to report them? What about the neighbors in the next apartment who heard the noise of the screams and beatings, but didn’t want to get involved and so turned up the volume on the TV? What about voting people like us who don’t want our precious tax dollars wasted on social programs designed to intervene with dysfunctional families? To be sure, criminals bear responsibility for their actions, but are they the only ones responsible? Do we really want perfect retributive justice? Or is this a case where we need to be careful about what we ask?

Justice is not the same as vengeance, though we frequently speak of it as such. Vengeance does not result in justice. More often than not, it merely perpetuates and deepens ongoing cycles of retribution, giving birth to further injustice. God’s justice is not simply or even chiefly about punishment. In God’s view, justice is restorative. It aims not merely to redress wrong (though that is surely and indispensable piece!), but to make things right between the conflicted parties. In our justice system, a case is complete once the judge or the jury renders a verdict determining who is entitled to what. But God is concerned with what happens after the verdict and what the affected parties do in response. God’s judgment is designed to bring about repentance, restitution and reconciliation-in exactly that order. Thus, the people of God are encouraged to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” Micah 6:8. But the task of punishing the wicked lies with God alone.  

Reconciliation is the end product of justice. But justice, divine justice, restorative justice is a long process. Sometimes I believe that our resort to violence against our enemies is the fruit of our impatience with this slow justice, an attempt to make peace by skipping the hard work of justice. Here is a poem by Agnes Lee in which God’s justice appears to have been achieved through the sojourn from emnity to friendship.


For many a year

A sordid grudge we bore,

But now when he comes down the street

He lingers at my door.

For Time is closing in,

And age forgives its debts,

When family falls away like mist,

And memory forgets.

Now, as we sit and talk

Under the mulberry tree,

The only friend I have in life

Is my old enemy.

Source: Poetry, July, 1930. Agnes Lee (1868 – 1939) was an American poet and translator. She was born in Chicago, but educated at a boarding school in Vevey, Switzerland. Lee wrote a collection of children’s verse and published her first poem in 1899. She subsequently wrote several other books of poetry and translated Théophile Gautier’s Enamels and Cameos and Other Poems in 1903. In 1926, Lee received the guarantor’s prize from Poetry Magazine. You can read more about Agnes Lee and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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