Divinity,  Love,  Peace,  Unity

Retributive Justice and Atonement – The Bondage of Beliefs

There’s a story I’ve often heard told among Latter-Day Saints of a school boy, named Tom, who took the licking for a younger and weaker boy, named Jim. I’ll share the version included in the Ensign…

Years ago there was a little one-room schoolhouse in the mountains of Virginia where the boys were so rough that no teacher had been able to handle them.

A young, inexperienced teacher applied, and the old director scanned him and asked: “Young fellow, do you know that you are asking for an awful beating? Every teacher that we have had here for years has had to take one.”

“I will risk it,” he replied.

The first day of school came, and the teacher appeared for duty. One big fellow named Tom whispered: “I won’t need any help with this one. I can lick him myself.”

The teacher said, “Good morning, boys, we have come to conduct school.” They yelled and made fun at the top of their voices. “Now, I want a good school, but I confess that I do not know how unless you help me. Suppose we have a few rules. You tell me, and I will write them on the blackboard.”

One fellow yelled, “No stealing!” Another yelled, “On time.” Finally, ten rules appeared on the blackboard.

“Now,” said the teacher, “a law is not good unless there is a penalty attached. What shall we do with one who breaks the rules?”

“Beat him across the back ten times without his coat on,” came the response from the class.

“That is pretty severe, boys. Are you sure that you are ready to stand by it?” Another yelled, “I second the motion,” and the teacher said, “All right, we will live by them! Class, come to order!”

In a day or so, “Big Tom” found that his lunch had been stolen. The thief was located—a little hungry fellow, about ten years old. “We have found the thief and he must be punished according to your rule—ten stripes across the back. Jim, come up here!” the teacher said.

The little fellow, trembling, came up slowly with a big coat fastened up to his neck and pleaded, “Teacher, you can lick me as hard as you like, but please, don’t take my coat off!”

“Take your coat off,” the teacher said. “You helped make the rules!”

“Oh, teacher, don’t make me!” He began to unbutton, and what did the teacher see? The boy had no shirt on, and revealed a bony little crippled body.

“How can I whip this child?” he thought. “But I must, I must do something if I am to keep this school.” Everything was quiet as death.

“How come you aren’t wearing a shirt, Jim?”

He replied, “My father died, and my mother is very poor. I have only one shirt and she is washing it today, and I wore my brother’s big coat to keep me warm.”

The teacher, with rod in hand, hesitated. Just then “Big Tom” jumped to his feet and said, “Teacher, if you don’t object, I will take Jim’s licking for him.”

“Very well, there is a certain law that one can become a substitute for another. Are you all agreed?”

Off came Tom’s coat, and after five strokes the rod broke! The teacher bowed his head in his hands and thought, “How can I finish this awful task?” Then he heard the class sobbing, and what did he see? Little Jim had reached up and caught Tom with both arms around his neck. “Tom, I’m sorry that I stole your lunch, but I was awful hungry. Tom, I will love you till I die for taking my licking for me! Yes, I will love you forever!”

This is a heartwarming story of a rogue turned savior, and it’s intention was to point us to Christ. I find, however, that this classic narrative of retributive justice has flaws which actually keep us from better understanding the nature of God, and ourselves. Hear me out. I want to discuss retribution and punishment for a minute, because our Latter-Day understanding of God and redemption are much more beautiful than we allow them to be.

Retributive justice is the idea that there is something in the Universe which demands a repayment for any wrongs committed, that there is some cosmic balance of good and evil and if we contribute to the evil side of the equation we must pay for that evil through suffering a punishment. That is the only way to restore the balance. Of course, logic would say that if there really is a universal balance that adding more evil to the world through violent retribution (as inflicting suffering on someone is inherently violent, regardless of their deserving it) would not actually balance the scales. Only good can balance evil. I don’t want to get off into the weeds of this legalistic interpretation because I’m not convinced balance is a thing.

What if God isn’t just the light to Satan’s darkness? What if God and Satan are not competing sides of the same coin? What if God is all things, a completely whole person who can include both the light and darkness and through his very nature emanates only the loving light. He can absorb all sin, all pain, all suffering, because his goodness is perfect. God is the light which shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not (Doctrine and Covenants 10:58). He does not destroy the darkness; his light includes and transcends it. It is up to the darkness to comprehend that or not.

So, balance isn’t really a thing. God’s light tips the scales forever towards the good. Where Satan does come in is that he proposed a plan which still plagues us today. His belief that he could somehow exalt mankind without mankind choosing to exalt themselves through profound spiritual transformation is deeply flawed. Whether you believe the narrative of Satan’s fall from heaven to be literal or a figurative representation of our own ungodly beliefs, the truth remains that the greatest lie ever told is that we do not have any inherent power to choose and save ourselves. Even our concepts of atonement have been tainted by this thinking. If we can create a version of Christ that pays the prices for us, that becomes the whipping boy, then we can muddy the waters of our own divinity and we will believe that we will always fall short of perfection. We will always be Jim. I don’t believe God’s children are so weak and so flawed as to never be able to return to him. Why would God create such beings?

God called forth on matter unorganized and it obeyed. It chose to exist. We chose to exist. From then on, God’s plan was to help us reach the same exalted state he enjoyed. The entire plan of salvation is a story of God taking our first choices and teaching us more and more until our last choices would bring us eternal joy and light. No, we aren’t going to get it right all the time, and that’s okay. There is nothing keeping us from turning back towards God and trying again. Nothing. Not time. Not space. Not even justice.

You see, justice isn’t that there must be a payment for every moment of darkness. God’s light already takes care of that. Justice is simply the expression of our own choices. There is a place prepared for everyone, and justice is that which defines our placement in relation to God’s. If we’ve made ungodly (or “wicked”, because that’s all that wicked means) choices, then we are naturally in a placement not with God and not experiencing exaltation. This is typically referred to as a punishment in scripture because all prophets throughout all time have perceived an un-exalted existence as feeling like punishment, especially when one knows there is a better placement which can be had.

What if you didn’t know that there is a better placement? Could it feel like punishment? Wouldn’t it just feel like, well, normal reality? So those that don’t have a testimony of Jesus Christ have a placement which feels even more exquisite than this estate, and we call it the Telestial Kingdom. We don’t talk about the Telestial Kingdom as some sort of punishment typically, but according to the words of the prophets that’s exactly what “punishment” would feel like to them. It’s a bit subjective. Being that we all have our own unique covenant path to walk, and God is personally concerned with our salvation, subjectivity is perfectly acceptable.

Justice is a definition of our placement as it is. Punishment is a state of being, comparing what we are choosing to the possibilities of godhood. It doesn’t even make sense at this point for there to be some retribution for what we do. There is no need to introduce some sort of violent recompense for sin. Our choice of placement takes care of that all on its own. And therefore, mercy does not rob justice, because there is nothing to rob. God can pour out endless tender mercies upon us because his work and glory is our exaltation. As we choose to accept those gifts of love and change our placement we define a new state of being and justice is still met, given that justice is just the description of our placement.

Going back to our classroom story, we know that Big Tom is supposed to represent the Savior, we are Jim, and, wait… who’s the teacher? Who’s the one enforcing the laws? God is only light and love. It isn’t in his nature to be violent, no matter what us students say he should do. Clearly, God is not the teacher. And universal justice is a placement paradigm. It doesn’t dole out violent retribution, so clearly justice is not the teacher. Who’s the teacher?

Well, who made up the rules? The students themselves. They looked out upon their reality and saw that there were certain things which seemed to be bad, and then created rules to punish those things. The students are the teacher. We are the teacher. As we grow and progress, our own divinity begins to describe the state of things, and we begin to see more clearly and discern between that which is godly and that which is ungodly. Sometimes we jump the gun and make up rules, but if we are patient then we get to see the Law. When we see, then we choose, then we are. This is exactly what progression towards godhood is. And we try to help each other by using language to describe what we are seeing. If we are patient and stick with godly description, we get law. If we rush things and try to come up with cause and effect with our finite understanding, we get rules. Rules that will hurt Jim.

Law is a mirror, reflecting our placement in relation to God’s so that we can make informed choices. As muddled as it is being processed through human language, law can do a lot to help us progress. If seen as a tool of discovery in determining placements and then inspiring loving ways to improve those placements, law is profoundly useful. But Satan, the great usurper, would not let this stand. Being the father of all lies and bent on causing misery, he has taken this concept of law and twisted it beyond recognition. He created a hierarchy of sins to confuse and distract us. He has diminished our godliness until we can only see ourselves as poor boys deserving of a good whipping, and the law as a just and impersonal God, or universe, determined to balance the scales by adding evil to evil. Rules and punishments. All lies.

If we are capable of choosing to sanctify ourselves as we walk towards exaltation, then what is the role of the Savior in all of this? Is the atonement some act of repayment? The punishment of a perfect being for the sake of the wicked? Is it merely a transaction required to cover our mistakes? All of these ideas seem a bit odd now.

Satan wants us to believe that we aren’t divine. It was his first message to Adam and Eve, to tell them that they didn’t inherently know godliness from ungodliness, that they are naked in the presence of God and should hide. He definitely doesn’t want us to know that we have the power to include our past as we transcend our present and live into our future. The atonement is the ultimate merciful act of Jesus Christ by which he profoundly experiences each of our just placements and overcomes them so that we might, individually, be able to see through Satan’s lies.

Jesus Christ shows us the way. That exaltation is possible. We are not hopelessly lost. The law does not seek to punish us, we do that all on our own. We are not poor boys deserving of a whipping. Jesus declares that we are gods (John 10:34). He gives us access to the full potential of our own agency. And he teaches us how we can live as gods here, right now. We don’t have to wait for some future crown of glory to be placed on our heads after a job well done. We can be godly now. We can see our placement, absorb the darkness, and shine forth in light.

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16–19).

God’s plan does not include losing any of his children. He’s got all the time in the universe to help us reach exaltation. All the time, the patience, the understanding, and the light. The idea that we can be lost is a lie that Satan tells us to make us miserable. We listen when he tells us that our present placements mean something about what we can achieve. We listen when he tells us that our prior placements will forever keep us from the presence of God. We are plagued by the idea of “once a sinner, always a sinner”, that what we do keeps us forever fallen. He turns the law into rules to be used against us, to beat us down and make us suffer.

Christ descends below it all, and suffers everything we could possibly ever suffer. Every misapplication of law, every vain imagination, every miserable belief that we are worthless. He suffers the pain of our infirmities, not the mistakes we make as those can be easily repented of, but the beliefs we hold. The darkness of any of our individual actions is swallowed up by the light of the Father. He’s got that taken care of. But it is the darkness of our beliefs about ourselves which comprehendeth not the light. And if we don’t learn to change our beliefs, to recognize our divinity and live into it, to repent, then we will suffer. A suffering of our own making.

Christ descends below it all and then rises triumphantly to prove, once and for all, that Satan’s lies won’t hold water. If we repent, if we see our placement and then turn towards God and change it, we can rise above the suffering. We aren’t lost. We aren’t hopeless. If we don’t repent, these delusions of our minds and the subsequent anxiety will cause suffering. Christ says, “Don’t worry, I’ve been there. I’ve suffered it all. We can overcome this.”

He will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:12).

He’s prepared the way, if we’ll believe and repent. And once we believe, it is our responsibility to tell others the good news. It is our responsibility, as the teacher in the story, to make sure we don’t create Jims out of each other. That we don’t turn law into a weapon. That we don’t perpetuate the violence of retributive justice. Because not only did Christ suffer all of our infirm beliefs for our sake, he taught us how to make sure these infirm beliefs wouldn’t hurt others by giving us the fullness of his gospel, on the Mount by Galilee and the Temple Hill in Bountiful.

When we live as he taught, we become Big Toms for each other. We take upon ourselves Christ’s name and are a light unto the world, the saviors of men (Doctrine and Covenants 103:9). Our work becomes the same as the Father’s. Absorb the darkness, shine forth the light. The gospel is the good news, freeing us from the bondage of our beliefs about sin, so we can then save others by proclaiming the gospel to the world.

The words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.

O my son, do not let us be slothful because of the easiness of the way; for so was it with our fathers; for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look we may live forever.

And now, my son, see that ye take care of these sacred things, yea, see that ye look to God and live. Go unto this people and declare the word, and be sober. My son, farewell (Alma 37:45–47).

 

2 Comments

  • Ronald Schoedel III

    A beautiful expression of how my own thought and belief journey has progressed over the decades. God loves us so much and it’s our own feelings of unworthiness that keep us from experiencing and really knowing God’s love. I think if we knew even a fraction of how much God loves us we would be even more determined to not willfully keep ourselves from his grace, through our own insistence on submission to a dead taskmaster that cannot save, but that we would throw ourselves onto God’s grace with such joy and thanksgiving that is unimaginable in our frail human state.

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