This paper explores the concept and practice of Retribution and Forgiveness akin to the Biblical concepts of Law and Grace—the two faces of a coin, and affirms that forgiveness, like the New Testament grace, does not cancel retribution (law) but complementary to it. It also asserts that lawlessness is the permissive effect of an abuse of forgiveness just as an overdose on grace has begotten decades of abuse of law.
The substance of the paper hinged on the dogma that all components of the universe have unwritten laws governing their operation, known as Natural laws, from which all written laws of human governance derived their substance. This makes the foundations of human rights and the history of the natural law to be one under the same universal law of cause and effect or of sowing and reaping. Every effect has a cause. The violation of this natural law brings consequence, known as retribution. This law remains constant and consistent.
This exploration posited that forgiveness has never existed as part of the natural law of the universe. Unlike retribution, forgiveness is not a law. Therefore, nobody is required by law to forgive, it’s a choice, a self-catharsis. If forgiveness and retribution are therefore the two faces of a coin, then the purpose of the coin is to get what one pays for, or be paid back in one’s own coin. The paper concluded with the argument that retribution is much more efficient in enforcing and preserving order than forgiveness, owing to the fact that man, by nature, through ages has never wanted to be held accountable for his actions.
The Universe exists to support all life. Whatever exists as part of the universe is natural and must conform to its purpose, otherwise, there will be chaos. Gravitational law for instance, simply explains that an object that goes up must come down.1 This same object may float on the other planets, but on the earth, the object must obey the universal gravitational law according to Isaac Newton. Violation of the universal gravitation law brings consequences and nature works by law of an ideal order. Every material, tangible and intangible, waits for its manifestation. The moon and stars shine in the night. The sun shines in the day. The rain falls in its season. Everything therefore, must exist to follow order. Every season must come to pass: summer, winter, autumn and spring and natural law is a compact between the universe and its components.
It is also an established statement of fact that the human life exists in the universe to serve a purpose; to preserve a happy race, and reproduction is the basic feature that ensures the continuous existence of life. Every living creature reproduces after its kind, whether sexually or asexually, which abides by biological law. “And babies we are told, are the latest news from Heaven.” Even the cell, the smallest unit of life, has a structure establishing that nature has an ideal order. It is also thinking in congruence that makes same-sex marriage and abortion, though arguably, a violation of natural law.
Natural Law, Natural Rights and Human Law
It is a statement of fact that the earth, as a unique planet, enables the natural rights of humans, animals and the vegetation. Natural rights are man’s inalienable birthrights. According to John Locke, an English political philosopher and Father of Liberalism, all individuals are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights. That is, rights that are God-given and can never be taken or even given away. Among these fundamental natural rights, Locke said, are “life, liberty, and property.”2 Locke pressed further that these three basic natural rights “have a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society.” Thus, an encroachment on these basic natural rights by fellow moral agent or government is an encroachment on the dignity and identity of man, and justice demands remedies for the consequences of any action. Christopher A. Farrell wrote about how the “the first bill of human rights” or “the first declaration of human rights” called the Cyrus Cylinder, helped to enrich the constitution of the United States. He said “ the greatest discovery for many people,’ […] is the importance of Cyrus to those who wrote the constitution of United States. […] Jefferson not only studied the book [Cyropaedia] in detail, but also advised his family to read it.”3 This affirms that any law guiding the activities of man must proceed from the applications of the principles of natural law and divine law that operate as based on the ethics of morality, otherwise, such law becomes an unjust law, and as St. Augustine remarked, “an unjust law is really no law at all.”5 Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Classical Natural law theorist opined that “[e]very human law has just so much of the nature of law as is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law”4 Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” defended Aquinas’ concept of human laws as derivatives from natural law:
[…]a just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law. […] To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. […] An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.5
Therefore, the foundations of human rights and the history of the natural law are intertwined under the same universal law of cause and effect or that of sowing and reaping. The violation of human law brings a consequence, known as retribution.
Retribution is ‘blind’
Retribution is a natural reaction to an infraction of one’s fundamental human rights. It is an innate retributive urge that surges immediately at the violation of one’s rights, prompting revenge. The fact that one feels this retributive urge does not mean it should be acted upon. Otherwise, personal retribution or revenge may go out of proportional to the offence and the result may not be palatable. The word, retribution comes from Latin word, retribuere; which means ‘to pay back for a wrong done to you by another’. Jimmy Myers described retributive justice as “a personal or collective/institutionalized desire for and practice of retaliation that is aimed at punishing the wrongdoer because it is what the wrongdoer deserves.” 7
Retribution can be divine justice or karma, which is “a payback in present life or a future life or reincarnation.” It can happen immediately like a lightning strike or may be slow in coming, as the phrase from Henry Wads-worth Longfellow’s poem Retribution puts it:
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.6
Karma obeys universal timing and can happen in current lifetime, or afterlife, and woe betides those that learn it harder in the afterlife. Most, if not all religious scripts, affirmed that the world has an order put in place by God. This divine order or law is Natural law that states how society must govern itself in this modern world. Thus, Henry ward Beecher’s remark that “nature is God’s tongue”, shows that God works behind, with and through Nature. That is why any natural disaster beyond human control is seen as an Act of God, establishing that retribution can come in form of natural disaster, earthquake, storm, flood or tsunami. Arthur Pink said that, “Magistrates and judges were never ordained by God for the purpose of reforming reprobates or pampering degenerates but to be His instruments for preserving law and order, and that by being a terror to the evil.”7 The Bible believes that political leaders are ordained by God to punish evil, and as such, any punishment by a constituted authority of a nation is equally a punishment from God.
Retribution can be ‘poetic justice’. This is a literary device credited by Thomas Rymer, an English historian and literary critic who said that plots of a story should focus on rewarding virtue and punishing evil in the end. The application of this phrase, both in literature and in daily life, shows how literary writers use literature to set a revolutionary course in the world by exploring different characters in a story and enforcing poetic justice at the end.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”8 is a masterpiece of crime and retribution. The poetic persona, a Mariner going on a voyage with 200 sailors in their ship comes across a friendly Albatross, whose regular visits had become a source of comfort to them until the Mariner shoots it with his cross bow for no reason. The sailors spend the rest of the poem paying for the sin of killing the bird. The sea becomes salty and their lips bake black in the sun. They are left to starve and eventually die. Their souls either flying to heaven or hell. Moreover, the dead Albatross is wrapped around the Mariner’s neck, and such guilt prompts his remorse for his sin and this leads to the redemption of his soul and others.
Retribution can be human or legal justice. The preservation of a society requires justice, and justice is obeyed by following the rule of law through the court system. Thus, the concept of retributive justice is maintained through court system to ensure fairness because personal retribution may be out of proportional, if done outside the court system. Retribution is the symbol of justice: a blindfolded woman holding a scale and wielding a sword. There is no mercy or pity in the symbol of justice. The court of law is not established on the basis of pity, but for justice. The scales represent judgment and fairness, the blindfold represents impartiality and punishment. This affirms my assertion that retribution is blind, not like “love is blind” but in the concept of “justice is blind”. The idea that “justice is blind” does not mean inability to see, but that justice should be the same for all, no matter one’s background, class, skin color, or creed. But the term “love is blind” is a decision to keep overlooking or ignoring faults, and this is the mostly abused, by those who want to continue to justify their acts of infidelity. Thus, retribution must be blind so that the offender’s eyes may be open to see his faults. When people are aware that justice is blind, the victim will not seek personal revenge because he is sure of justice at the end and the offender will think twice of the consequence of his action. Justice is a good sense of deterrence. Even as parents, we discourage our children from fighting, rather we want them to report any injustice to us so that justice can be properly measured out. In a situation where a child discovers that his parent always forgives his abuser, such child will be forced to seek personal revenge.
Forgiveness may mean being vulnerable again.
Wonder why it is easy for a child to forgive? There is hardly a child who is not active, except a sick one. Inactivity is a sign of old age. A child’s simple heart lacks the capacity to carry weights of pride, ego and arrogance that descend into inactivity and selfishness. A child’s heart, as empiricists expostulate, is a clean slate, called tabula rasa that develops from impression. It may not be easy for an adult to go back to this original child’s slate of mental blankness, but there must be judicious effort to daily overwrite all offences that have been imprinted on the heart with new, intentional acts of kindness and love. Everyone has the freedom to rewrite his destiny and overwrite his or her own soul. The human mind, naturally, is always reluctant to let go of the past. The human brain stores every event, whether good or bad, in our memory such that, if a person or an event or a similar event that caused pain in the past resurfaces, the brain automatically sends warning to the body to remember the hurt the person or event once caused and to avoid the repetition of it. What is in the mind, the memory ends up bringing out. This memory, if not properly managed, can spread un-forgiveness beyond the offender to innocent people. Many couples are hurting in their new relationship because they keep visiting the offence of the past on the new person. Nelson Mandela knew it when he said “as I walked out of the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’ll still be in prison”9. Thus, un-forgiveness boxes us in a prison of bitterness and hatred. The way out, is what Jimmy Myers explained about Forgiveness that involves “(i) a recognition of the evilness of the crime, (ii) overcoming personal anger and hatred toward the wrongdoer, (iii) desiring the good of, and thus loving, the wrongdoer, and (iv) manifesting that love in such a way that offers forgiveness and effectively frees the wrongdoer”10. Thus, forgiveness frees the victim from hurt and pain that the offender had caused. Forgiveness brings own healing.
The practice of forgiveness became prominent with the outgrowth of religions. Almost all scriptural citations reveal that God’s law is comprehended in one word—love—love towards God, and love towards neighbor. Jesus became prominent as the Son of God because He forgave those who would later kill Him. He did not only command His followers to love their neighbors, but also chose to forgive the woman caught red-handed in adultery and asked her accusers, “he who is without sin, should cast the first stone.”11 They dispersed immediately. The hardest of man’s witness to interrogate, is his own soul when he has become the judge of his own character. Stories of forgiveness abound in the Bible. From the story of the Prodigal Son, to how Joseph forgave his brothers, to how Esau forgave Jacob, and to how God still forgives repentant sinners.
Forgiveness, as divine as it seems, alone does not rid the society of evil. If every act of forgiveness leaves nothing happen to the offender, soon or later, there will be no obedience to law. In nature, offender will keep breaking laws and keep coming to court to shed crocodile’s tears for forgiveness owing to the fact that humanity is frail and human nature is perverse. That is the principle that the court of law is not established by emotion but by laws. Every nation has a constituted authority that ensures laws and orders are obeyed, and even when an authority of the State engages in open forgiveness in the name of Amnesty, it does not nullify the law of the State. In interpretation, the doctrinal appeal of choosing only forgiveness over retribution is unbalanced as many times, we accord God’s forgiveness with man’s forgiveness. They are two separate acts. President Vladimir Putin once said, “to forgive the terrorists is up to God, but to send them to Him is up to me.” No man can do God’s forgiveness. Yes, God commands every man to forgive, but not the God’s kind of forgiveness that can change a sinner. Man’s forgiveness most times does not change the offender. If the purpose of God’s forgiveness is to make the offender leave off his evil work, then anything that can make an offender stop his crime should be considered as forgiveness, especially if the offence requires reporting the wrongdoer to the law enforcement agent. Minor offences can be settled amicably on one on one. Nigerian government publicly announced that repented terrorists, Boko Harams, who have killed, maimed, and destroyed lives and properties would now be given scholarship to study abroad. This is a misconception of forgiveness. The result is what David Smock noted, “the downside of it is the impunity that it implies; that people can commit atrocities and say that they will only stop if they are given amnesty.”12 It is an act of ignorance to forgive a predator to prey more on the vulnerable. Forgiveness shouldn’t stop a victim from calling out evil, and bringing it to judgment, otherwise such forgiveness will lead an offender back to his offence if he had not been made to experience the pain he caused others. Let the offender face the consequences of his acts. Thus, sending him to a correctional center is an opportunity for the offender to go through rehabilitation, and take a break from societal negative influences like gangs, drugs, alcohols, and others, and be returned back to the society a sane person.
Retribution and Forgiveness as Law and Grace.
Retribution, properly understood, is the ability to get justice. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic changes. Genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice that will serve as a means of controlling society to ensure that majority remains safe. In this sense, retribution is not only preferable but also essential in order to implement the demand of justice. One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of forgiveness and retribution are usually contrasted from diametrical and polar points of view where forgiveness is identified with a resignation of retribution and retribution with total repudiation of forgiveness. This reason is not far fetched, sight attraction sometimes limits our consciousness of reality because people so much concentrate on one thing to the negligence and detriment of the other. What is needed is therefore an understanding that retribution without forgiveness is reckless and abusive and that forgiveness without retribution is sentimental and anemic. Retribution at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is retribution correcting in love and everything that stands against human dignity. Correction is best achieved in love, not hatred, and this does not preclude justice. Let’s take for instance, as parents, if there are no consequences in the behavior of our children, they will never learn what it means to live right.
It can then be put in peroration that Retribution and Forgiveness are like Law and Grace—the two sides of a coin. The Law, like retributive justice, defines human behavioral boundary, and grace provides forgiveness to live up to that standard. Grace doesn’t cancel the Law, but complimentary to it. Forgiveness is like rain that comes from heaven to water the earth, which alone, cannot make seed on earth to grow until it mixes with the nutrients (laws) of the earth. There is humanity within the law. Human laws are not made on the Mars but on the earth and for the earthly. The rains truly may come from Heaven, but nutrients must surely be from the earth. Retribution is not the harsh, hard earth without rain. Retribution is not as blind, wicked, unmerciful, and unsympathetic as Shylock demanding his pound of flesh from Antonio because the latter “disgraced me and hindered me half a million […] laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.”13 Retribution is not as unkind as jealousy of betrayal that consumes Euripedes’ protagonist, Medea to kill her children in order to hurt Jason, her husband who marries another woman. Retribution is not the emotional rush of anger that consumes spouse to shed blood because of cases of infidelity. A punishment for revenge should justify the crime. That is why court system is a necessary desideratum to getting justice. Personal retribution towards vendetta may not be fair. The rush of emotion towards revenge has deprived and caused many their rights to life and fairness to correct hearing.
It is therefore instructional and practical to conclude that retribution administered within a legal framework will bring justice, thus, retributive justice will focus on the wrong, devoid of personal vendetta, and derives no pleasure in watching others suffer. When the rule of law steps in, even King Solomon will not be able to “split the baby” in revenge between the mother and the murderer. Retribution may not repair the exact, actual wrong, in the same sense as no one can un-ring a bell, or no one can un-slap a slap; but it will see that justice is done at the end, and the society will be compensated by not releasing the offender to the vulnerable.
- Tuckness, Alex: “Locke’s Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/locke-political/>.10
- Farrel, Christopher.: A New Greek Myth: Thomas Jefferson and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia L King’s College London page1 https://www.academia.edu/3701308/
- Knight, Kelvin: Forgiveness and Retribution: Politic Matters. Covenant College Philosophy Club: 2017, 9. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2095.htm
- Carson, Clayborne (ed.): The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warmer Books, New York: 2001. p. 193.
- Hugh Rawson; Margaret Miner, eds. “God, 8”. The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations. Oxford University Press: 2006. p. 289.
- Pink, Arthur: “An Eye for an Eye” August 12 1979. https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/2223/an-eye-for-an-eye-part-1
- Williams Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge: Lyrical Ballad 1798. The Project Gutenberg EBook. www.gutenberg.net
- Gross, Jessica: “Leadership Lesson from Mandela.” The Leader Maker; a blog about senior executive leadership: May 29, 2019. https://www.theleadermaker.com/leadership-lesson-from-nelson-mandela/
- Myers, Jimmy: Forgiveness and Retribution: Politic Matters. The Online Journal of the Covenant College Philosophy Club’14, Covenant College. November 24, 2014. Apostolos 1, no. 1 (fall 2014).
- The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998. John 8: 7
- Maddux, Catherine: “Amnesty Offer for Ugandan Rebel Kony Raises Controversy.” 01 August 2006. Voice of America Nov. 1 2009
- Geddes and Grossest: The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice, Act III scene I, Geddes and Grossest: 2010. p. 228