In the Bible, Jesus addresses the question of how to deal with the impact that personal offences have on the fellowship of believers. He wants His followers to be known for their love and to be able to work out their differences while keeping the faith and their harmony… but how?
Instructions to ‘Alleged Offenders’
In the Sermon on the Mount He gives us some instructions about restorative interpersonal processes:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (from Matthew 5:23,24)
Here Jesus is identifying the kind of situation where we are aware that our brother or sister feels offended about something that we may have done. In other words, we are in the position of “alleged offender.” We may not actually have done anything wrong but our brother/sister thinks we have and we are aware that they have “something against” us. In such a case, Jesus tells us to make it our priority (ahead of offering religious gifts to God) to go and be reconciled to them.
Notice that Jesus describes the wrongdoing as a personal offence with the victim having “something against you.” He is not speaking in terms of breaking a Temple Law or a Roman Law. He Himself broke a small number of Temple and Roman laws where those laws offended against God (and “against the universe”.) But He kept all those good laws which pertained to essential respect and no harm to others. Secular laws typically and universally are mostly about avoiding offences against persons while promoting a certain (not necessarily very fair) orderliness of society. The Apostle’s Paul and Peter seem to enjoin us to keep secular laws because of their ordinary but vitally important role of maintaining peace in whatever nation we live in – Rom 13:1-6, Titus 3:1,2 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 & 3:8-17 ).
Instructions to ‘Victims’
Jesus covers another kind of situation in Matthew 18:15-18
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
I will discuss the broader application of this passage of Scripture shortly, but first I note that this passage can apply to situations where we feel we have been victimized i.e. when our brother or sister’s sinned and that sin has hurt us. However, regardless that in such a case we are victims rather than perpetrators, Jesus lays a similar obligation upon us as when we were the (alleged) perpetrator – we are to go and talk to the other party in the hope of “winning them over”, implying also that we would reconcile with them. Hence this text can make a neat flipside-of-the-coin to Jesus’ advice in the previous passage. Taken together, these instructions leave no room to stew endless on a matter of conflict – nor to gossip, seek revenge, or to involve others unnecessarily. Whether we are the alleged victim or the alleged perpetrator in a conflict (or both) we should, according to our Lord, go and talk to the other person to sort it out!
Instructions to the Church
Now to the broader meaning of the latter passage: Jesus seems to be addressing the question of how to maintain both truth and love within the Church when a brother/sister seriously compromises the truth of the Gospel, the love we are enjoined to live by or both. Jesus instructs that those who see the serious lapse (the sin) should speak up about it, firstly to the brother or sister sinning, and then if that doesn’t work, they should try again with the involvement of one or two others to witness the matter, meaning presumably to hear the allegations as well as the accused’s response. If this is unsuccessful (and I now assume that the witnesses have been able to verify the truth of the allegations and the inadequacy of the offender’s response) the next step is letting the church as a whole know. Then if he/she refuses to listen even to the church as a whole – presumably this means they continue to sin, to be unrepentant, or continue to hold anti-christian values – the final step is to treat them as a “pagan or tax-collector.”
What outcome does Jesus envisage for a former member of a Christian community who resists all counsel about their offences? It is that the former brother / sister comes to be regarded as some one who has never believed in the God of the Bible (a pagan) or as one that knows of the God of the Bible intellectually but has for personal gain chosen to identify with the nonbelievers instead of with the church (as per tax-collectors in first century Judea).
How should we treat such people these days? Obviously, we should love and share the gospel with them as we have opportunity – as we should do with each other and as the church is called to do towards all unbelievers. Importantly, therefore, this instruction is not about gaining maximum leverage to pressure wayward sheep to change their minds through sanction and punishment… rather, it is about how to accept people’s choices whilst protecting what is precious to us including the truth of the Gospel and love in the Church.
‘The Accused’ to avoid Courts!
Jesus’ preference for direct victim-offender dialogue is also found in what He urges us not to do. Specifically, He urges us to avoid the only alternative avenue for relatively peaceable conflict resolution – the courts:
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. (Matthew 5:25)
This text is the continuation of the first passage we looked at and Jesus’ is still addressing the situation where we have or are considered to have victimized another. He advocates a personal “settling of matters” even while we are being dragged to Court! He is recommending face-to-face dialogue now not just with other Christians but with everyone – note that He has broadened His terms of reference from just “brother/sister” in v23 to “your adversary” in v25. In other words, He seems to suggest that court processes are not ideal for dealing with any adversary (whether inside or outside the church) and that we do well if we can settle all disputes outside of all court systems if we can.
Victims to avoid Courts!
What about if the Christian is not the alleged offender but the alleged victim? We have the Apostle Paul succinctly providing the flipside in 1 Corinthians 6:7,8:
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.
Paul seems to suggest that lawsuits are to be avoided always, especially legal disputes between fellow Christians. To the victims he says “Why not rather be wronged?” To the perpetrators he says “you yourselves cheat and do wrong…!” ( shock, horror!) He seems to imply that involvement in Court whether as an alleged perpetrator or as an alleged victim is a “complete defeat” of the gospel in them, especially in the case of Christian versus Christian!
Jesus teaching about and example of non-violence
Does the previous Bible text mean we should allow ourselves, our truths and our values to be unprotected? Yes to the former, but No to the latter. Yes, we are to allow ourselves to be victimized and so to follow Jesus’ great example in that regard, who did not revile when He was reviled, but like a lamb before it’s shearers, entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). But we are not to allow the truth to be suppressed. Instead, we are to speak up against the sin as Jesus told us to do back in Matthew 18:15 (previously cited).
Such speaking up is especially effective when done on behalf of someone else who is being victimized, such as the woman brought to Jesus accused of adultery, who was being used to further others’ political machinations. Speaking up against sin can also be especially effective in changing world history when many get together for non-violent resistance, as per the Civil Rights movement in the USA in the 1960’s, the Ghandhi-led protests in India in the 1930’s(?), and many other examples. Ghandhi is considered to be the modern father of non-violent resistance, but he was inspired by Tolstoy’s appreciation of Jesus’ own teaching, (see Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You – available as a free audiobook at http://www.archive.org/details/kingdom_of_god_1004_librivox ”).
Speaking up against sin is also a following Jesus’ example since it was by speaking up – and not so much for anything else He did – that He attracted Humanity’s wrath and thereby exposed for us Humanity’s great problem with sin and injustice when the elevated and relatively inspired institutions of Greek Culture, Roman Government and Jewish spirituality all conspired to get rid of Him… which then lead directly to His resurrection and to His Gospel being proclaimed throughout the world. It is directly from Jesus that the world-changing precepts of non-violent resistance to evil, restorative justice and radical peace-making with even our enemies, flow.
Inherent weaknesses of Court-type processes
While neither Jesus nor Paul condemned the worldly practice of those with authority imposing outcomes for interpersonal offences (especially for those who can’t or won’t reconcile) they both taught that court-type processes should definitely not be Jesus’ follower’s preferred way of handling conflict! The reason for their strong stance I suggest is not just about the virtues of victim-offender dialogue but also about the inherent weakness of court-type systems…
Most court-type processes, involve at least these four things: an apportioning of blame and retributive punishment… by a third party…. who is qualified to arbitrate by virtue of being outside the dispute and by…. being aligned with the ruling authorities. In each of these ways, I suggest, Courts are oriented in a direction contrary to the Gospel:
1) God’s justice is not about apportioning blame and retributive punishment although it has often been seen that way by those who twist the Scriptures according to worldly conceptions of justice. God’s justice, in contrast to secular criminal justice, is about setting the world to rights, peace on Earth and goodwill to all. A true understanding of God’s justice results in social justice and restorative justice movements, neither of which have anything to do with retribution or revenge. The Bible speaks of the vengeance of God because this is what human ears want to know about … but the vengeance of God is His love and power poured out not just in tough discipline but also in mercy to transform the evil and pain of this world – see Is 35:4- 10, Is 61:2-8.
While the world sees justice and mercy as opposites – one requires punishment and the other foregoes it – there is no such contradiction when God’s justice is understood as His putting things to rights. Hence, neither is it not contradictory for God to require us “to do justice and to love mercy..”! (Hosea 6:6).
2) God is on about direct personal relationships – communion between a person and Himself, and between that person and other persons. The law of love is a law of freedom, and He will in the end accomplish His will “not by power, nor by might, ‘but by my Spirit’ says the Lord.” Hence in the Kingdom of God third party authorities are unimportant – perhaps non-existent entirely.
3) The truth is that we can never be wholly outside disputes. We are our brother /sisters’ keepers. None are of us are islands; if the “bell tolls” it tolls for all of us. If the toe hurts the whole body is affected. Not only so, but it takes a lot of work and personal formation to “have dealt with the log in our own eye” enough to reasonably attempt to “remove the splinter in another’s.” (Matthew 7:3)
4) The Kingdom of God is unaligned with the governments and ruling authorities of this world and at core is actually antithetical to them!! Hence Jesus prediction that all who follow Him – or in Paul’s words “who desire to live godly lives” – will be persecuted not just by individuals but more significantly by governments (e.g. John15:18-25, 2 Tim 3:12).
These weaknesses inherent in the court-type systems diminish people’s humanity and communities’ harmony. Courts, the rule of law, police, judiciary, prisons and correctional systems form the best solution the world (without Jesus’ inspiration) can offer. Certainly such systems are much better than people “taking the law into their own hands”, practicing “survival of the fittest” or “the law of the jungle.” When humanity is without the faith of Jesus, without the assurance of eternal life, and without the strength and willingness to die or to suffer injustice through the grace of God, then court-type systems are the only option left and the only thing standing between relative peace and unrestrained vengeful and escalating violence, as we see in parts of the world where strong rule by government has broken down and factional violence has broken out. But the Church – and indeed the world – is not without God if we would only grasp the revelation of the goodness of God (epitomised at the Cross of Christ).
However before we get to practicing Jesus’ faith and methods with our national enemies, let’s do it in our societies – and if not in adult affairs, at least in schools with our children! It’s not a matter of applying a strange religious dogma; it is about extending what we naturally do in our families…
Restorative justice in families
How do married couples resolve tiffs and offences? Is it not by applying Jesus common sense recommendations of avoiding the courts and talking face to face, regardless of who is ‘victim’ and who ‘offender’? Or, in the case of a child being punished by a parent, is it discipline or retribution? I think reasonable parents would unanimously agree that punishment of children needs to be disciplinary, i.e. instructive and constructive to help the child learn better attitudes and behaviours – and that when parents punish children vengefully or retributively that is abuse. Court-type processes I would argue almost always have a deliberate element of retribution – in order to acknowledge and to at least slightly address desires of primary, secondary and tertiary victims for some kind of retribution – some forcing of the offender to somehow share the victims’ distress. It is widely believed that unless a punishment is sufficiently painful in some way that “justice” is not served. But in families, parents are not hankering for “justice” but for harmony and for well-functioning partners and children.
Another stated function of court-type processes is for the deterrence of repeat offending by the offender or copy-cat offending by others. For this is another reason it is widely believed that punishments must be sufficiently painful in some way to be effective – sadly, fear and pain are seen as the great motivators, resulting in a very low view of human nature. Not only so, but research into the effect of harsher sentences in the criminal justice system repeatedly show the opposite effect – harsher punishment leads to increased not decreased propensity to commit crime! It seems that the alienating and hardening effect of harsh punishment comes in time to outweigh the pain and fear factors. We see the same in families – harsher punishments equate not to well functioning children but to abused and abusive children.
In families we see that conflicts and problems are not properly resolved by retributive punishments being dished out. We also see that the deterrence factor of punishments tends to operate only when the parents are actually present and on watch. In families we see that people change their attitudes and behaviours only when there is a new, deeper understanding of the negative consequences, meanings and impacts of one person’s behaviour on another. Such understandings are achieved mainly through respectful but honest communication between parties i.e. victim-offender dialogue.
Only two basic options
People may be surprised about the modern application of Jesus’ ancient teaching as outlined here… but we ought not be so surprised! The problem of keeping order in communities and societies is an ancient problem and human nature and human societies have not changed much at all in regard to it!
Both the problem of conflict and the resort to courts are in fact much more ancient than Jesus’ advice. The two alternatives available to humanity to resolve conflict have in all times and places been the same – either to use authority backed by force and impose solutions, or to rely on dialogue, negotiation and goodwill agreements.
One is a win/lose method, the other win/win. One prioritises an imposed resolution over the harmony of conflicting parties; the other prioritizes the relationship believing not only that reconciliation is always possible but that reconciliation will in turn lead to a homegrown resolutions. One is used in the wider world of business and public life; the other is used in families and traditional societies. Which one will we choose for our schools?