I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:36)
From the New York Times:
U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes – from writing bad checks to using drugs – that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.
Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences. (Adam Liptak, The New York Times, Wednesday, 23 April 2008)
How do we explain this phenomenon in the most Christian country in the world?
In Godless: The Church of Liberalism (2006), Ann Coulter explains how naïve the Left is for believing that every-one can be rehabilitated. Fair call. She observes that the fall in the crime rate can be explained by higher rates of incarceration. If crime is the problem, incarceration is the solution. Vengeance is the answer.
The cases that Coulter documents do demonstrate that the Progressives have made some tragic mistakes concerning convict releases. Regardless of this ineptitude, it does appear that they have more of a heart than their Conservative counterparts. They might not believe in ‘sin’, but they do believe in mercy.
In a country which is being divided by Christ like the two goats on the Day of Atonement, or the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 (generally speaking), the easiest political solution for the moral majority is to fix the blame upon a scapegoat.
James B. Jordan has discussed Rene Girard’s theory regarding the communal lust for a scapegoat in various cultures throughout history. He writes:
Job as king is the “greatest of the men of the east” (Job 1:3). He employed hundreds of people and fed the poor. The disaster that overcame his household was, thus, a disaster upon the entire realm. The poor were starving, and hundreds of people were either killed or out of work. The sores on Job’s body were a sign of the lesions on the body politic of which he was the head, a point no ancient reader would miss… Job’s position as king or leader of his people has been skillfully analyzed by Rene Girard in Job: The Victim of His People, translated by Yvonne Freccero and published by Stanford University Press in 1987. Despite the many flaws in this book, it makes clear that the attack upon Job came not because he was an ordinary person, but because of his preeminent position in this community, which had fallen into chaos seemingly as a result of God’s judgment upon Job, their “king”. (James B. Jordan, Was Job an Edomite King? Part 1,Biblical Horizons, No. 130.)
Once the blame is fixed and the scapegoat, whether innocent or guilty, is punished, things can go back to normal. This is the apparent goal of the accusations against Job. It was definitely the case with Jesus, as predicted by the High Priest. To avert a national crisis, one man would die for the people (John 11:45-53).
Seventy Times Seven
The story of human scapegoating begins with Lamech, the first real king, in Genesis 4. This narrative, like all of Genesis, follows the pattern of the Feasts in the Israelite calendar (Leviticus 23), even though these were instituted many centuries later. Lamech’s pronouncement appears at the ‘Day of Coverings’ point in the Cycle. This corresponds to the ‘Oath/ Sanctions’ point of the biblical Covenant pattern, which explains why Lamech’s act of judgment, bringing down a curse, is recorded as an oath.
Although Cain built his fortress as the first ‘city of refuge’, his own rejection of the mercy of God, as demonstrated in the rite of substitutionary sacrifice, meant that there was no covering for sin in the culture he founded. Lamech not only fixes the blame, but multiplies it unjustly as capital punishment, upon a young man who struck him. The man was guilty, certainly, but his crime was not worthy of death. In the usurped role of High Priest, instead of turning the other cheek and modeling mercy for his people, Lamech modeled an unrighteous vengeance. Not only are the seven sprinklings of atoning blood (Leviticus 16:14) multiplied into seventy-seven; here it is human blood.
Lamech’s speech, as the voice of a god, we might say, is the institution of a legal system without mercy. His personal sin as ruler became a corporate sin. The world was eventually filled with vigilante violence, a society full of ‘gods’. Nobody was willing to cease from their sins, but neither was anyone willing to be wronged and bear it, covering a multitude of sin with love, as the Lord does.
We see a similar situation in the first century. Among other things, Jesus called out the Pharisees for their lack of mercy. Note that he was not calling for an end to actual justice, but for the leaders to model the righteous and just, yet merciful, rule of Yahweh.
Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’ (Matthew 18:21-22).
This gives us a heavenly perspective on the pronouncement of Caiaphas, the High Priest, concerning the need for a human scapegoat. Like Lamech, the Herodian High Priesthood had usurped true atonement, and Jesus was the young man they would slay.
Perhaps this is the situation in America today. Where the Left fails in the ministry of justice, the Pharisaical Right scapegoats the weak. When good citizens call for mandatory sentences to curb growing crime, they are in fact part of a culture that is attempting to exorcise its own demons. Rich Bledsoe observes that this was most likely the situation with the demoniacs of Gadara:
A friend of mine who is a Christian clergyman, and is from India, and has demonstrated gifts of exorcism, tells me that the power of the witch doctor is the power of being able to command lesser demons to leave by the power of a greater demon. But the demons are never banished. They just transfer place or position. In the case of this text [Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-37], the demons of the village were all put on this one poor man who became a representative demoniac, and bore the pain and agony of the entire community in himself.
There are four descriptors around the demoniac that we need to look at.
Firstly, he is chained, but in his madness is so crazed that he breaks the chains and cannot be restrained. He is the recipient of the accusations of the demons of the village. The very character of the devil is that he is “an accuser” (Revelation 12:10, Zechariah 3:1). Accusation is the most galling of all experiences, and he is accused day and night by the devils who have taken possession of him who used to accuse the community. Now along with the demons, the whole village also accuses him.
Secondly, he is naked. (Luke 8:27, Mark 5:15) This is a symbol of shame, and he thus bears the shame of the entire community.
Thirdly, the text says that he cuts himself with stones (Mark 5:5). In the Greek, the term is “autolapsis”, which literally translated means “self stoning.” In other words, the madman executes himself by stoning, which in the ancient world was a ritual form of execution. Hence, he is executed on behalf of the community as well. Finally, he lives amongst the tombs, (Mark 5:2, 5) which as a fulfillment of the other curses on him means that he is already dead. He bears death and damnation in himself for the entire community. (Richard Bledsoe, The Dysfunctional Family of the Gadarene Madman, www.revbledsoe.wordpress.com)
The act of scapegoating is an act of ‘blame shifting’, that is, substitutionary atonement. This means that there is godly blame shifting and ungodly blame shifting. As Bledsoe describes, ‘shifting’ is the work of the witch doctor. In the accounting of sin, it is a form of ‘cooking the books’. The first person to shift blame was Adam (Genesis 3:12), and the second to shift blame was God Himself (Genesis 3:21). God offered a similar ‘covering’ to Cain but was rejected.
Perhaps the desire for a human scapegoat is the inability of fallen Man to take vengeance upon historical Adam, so one man must stand in his place. Of course, the time came when the Man standing in Adam’s place was the Lord Himself. This led to unfathomable mercy, but also to the avenging of all the scape- goats in the history of godly witness, beginning with Abel, in the destruction of Herod’s Temple and City.
In the end, it is only Jesus, the Great Medicine Man, who can ‘shift’ our sins as far from us as the East is from the West.
Cooking the Books
With so many in chains, neither more undiscerning ‘mercy’ nor more scapegoating ‘justice’ is the answer. The Left might be godless, but the Right has only the form of godliness (2 Timothy 3:5), with no true power. The only real hope is the Gospel, the mercy of Christ, the love of God displayed in His fulfilment of the Day of Atonement on Golgotha. And those of us who are transformed by His forgiveness, with our sins blotted out, are then called to transform others by this same forgiveness, establishing a culture of mercy sourced in the righteousness of God.