Reconciliation vs Retribution, Part 2

Reconciliation vs Retribution, Part 2

We need to bury once and for all those fear-and-punishment scenarios that got programmed into so many of us during our childhood. There is no monster out there; only love waiting to set us free. Cynthia Bourgeault[1]

In order to feel better about ourselves and our own perceived shortcomings, we often build ourselves up by tearing others down. “If only she (or he) were more like me,” we think; or “If only I were more like him (or her).” We do this automatically and subconsciously for the most part, but we do it nonetheless. This is the inevitable result of two universal misunderstandings: (1) that I am to be perfect in and of myself, and (2) that others are to be perfect in and of themselves. These are, of course, the same misunderstanding and they grow out of the even greater misunderstanding that we are individual beings, separate and apart from all other beings. In other words, we mistakenly believe we can and should be self-sufficient in all or even most things. We fail to realize that our expectations of ourselves and others, as well as the expectations of others of ourselves and others, are simply out of touch with the reality of our created and interconnected nature. Whatever perfection is, it is not attained by individuals; it can only be attained by collectives.

The result of our misguided perception is a need to assign blame. We default to the belief that we (or others) are somehow inadequate or deficient in some (or many) ways. We (or they) are too old, too out-of-shape, too dumb, or too unskilled to be what is needed at any given moment. In Christian belief systems, our imagined deficiencies come to be labeled as sin. In its purest sense, sin is separation. It is the false belief that we are individual, separate beings that is the original and overarching sin. It is a sin we all commit because it is a natural outgrowth of being thinking, self-aware human beings. By the time we enter school, most of us have completely bought into the illusion that we are independent. This sin does not make us bad; it makes us human. It also makes us blind to our interconnectedness.

When we label the sin of perceived separateness in ourselves and others and its consequent suffering as bad or evil, the natural conclusion is that there must be punishment. Someone must be at fault, and they must pay the price for their indiscretion. This misunderstanding is what has led us to teach and believe that Jesus came to die for our sins, which is true, but not in the way most people believe. The sin Jesus came to reverse was the sin of separation and not for any behavioral sins we confuse with imperfection. Retribution, making someone suffer for the suffering of the world, seems like a biblical response to sin because the biblical authors mistakenly attributed the misfortunes of their people to apparent punishments meted out by God. Certainly the Jews of Jesus’ day believed they had to spill blood – usually that of an animal – to appease God and to earn God’s forgiveness. What we miss in these interpretations of past events is the understanding that we reap what we sow. What we usually interpret as punishment is simply the result of past actions, in the same way that wheat grows from the planting of wheat seeds.

Most of what most of us do that is considered sinful is not necessarily bad – it is human! Yes, we act in selfish and self-centered ways. The consequences of our selfish behaviors are what teach us, eventually, to attend to the needs of others. We are blind to our intimate interconnections with everyone and everything around us not because we are bad and deserving of punishment but because we are human. Most of us are fighting a difficult battle with the consequences of our narcissistic tendencies, particularly those of us who chose to follow the example of Jesus. What we need is patient understanding and encouragement, not condemnation and punishment. We need reconciliation, not retribution.

Some have come to label our God of love as a God of retribution not because there is any evidence that that is God’s nature, but because of their own feelings of inadequacy. They hope that by undergoing some sort of sacrificial punishment – or imagining a Savior to do it for them – that God will welcome them into their concept of heaven when they die. This is a gross misunderstanding of God, the life of Jesus, the nature of heaven, and of the nature of our lives on earth.

This is the 29th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.


[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, Shambhala Publications, 2008, p. 107.

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