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(Started some time in 2009)

There seems to be a huge contradiction between the way that professing Christians, from theologians to lay believers, treat what we call "sins" and what we call "crimes". I would like to consider these contradictions in this article.

The knee-jerk religious response to sin is built almost entirely around the concept of forgiveness. If someone is "only" guilty of blasphemy or sexual immorality or pride or greed or hate, then the cry goes up everywhere: "Forgive and forget!"

But let the same person break into your house, steal your car, rape your wife, or murder your daughter, and suddenly everyone goes silent on forgiveness. "Abide by the laws of the land" becomes the new answer. If you do the crime, then ("saved" or not) you are expected to do the time. In fact, it is often the most fervently evangelistic promoters of the doctrine of grace who also support the death penalty, harsher prison terms, and a strong military presence to wipe out our collective enemies if they encroach on our rights.

I will not deal with pacifism or the death penalty here, as they have both been dealt with by many others for decades. But what seems to have been overlooked by Christians of all shapes and sizes has been the overall topic of crime and punishment in the light of uniquely Christian principles, in an attempt to come up with a consistent approach to both sin and crime.

One exception could be extreme anarchists like Leo Tolstoy, who have argued that there should be no rules, no courts, and no government. At least they are consistent; but to my knowledge no one has ever been able to establish such a society. The closest (e.g. the Amish people of Pennsylvania) ultimately turn to shunning as a solution, with the threat of prosecution by secular authorities if they are ever disfellowshipped from the church.

So what does the average Christian say that we should do with rapists, bank robbers, terrorists, and murderers? In general, those who preach forgiveness say, "Lock 'em up." Some say, "Hang 'em!" But almost no one says, "Ignore them. God has forgiven them, and that's all that matters."

Surely this is a significant contradiction. Jesus taught that hating your brother and killing him are part and parcel of the same spirit, indicating that the same remedy is needed for both. And I would be so bold as to suggest that those who preach forgiveness on Sunday morning do not believe in their own message if they cannot preach it just as confidently at the local courthouse on Monday morning.

I am not talking about selective grace, where you defend your pastor or spouse from criminal prosecution, but don't offer it across the board. I am talking about what Christians demand from the government when we ourselves have been criminally attacked.

Unless you believe the extreme anarchists are right (and I do not) then the place to look for error is not so likely to be in a lack of mercy in the court as it is in a false understanding of grace in the church.

Even before a "sin" becomes a "crime", Christian believers often find themselves questioning blanket forgiveness as the answer; but usually only when the sin gets closer to home. What I mean is that we expect God to turn a blind eye to everything that anyone does to offend him, and to anything that people do to one another, as long as we or our friends are not the victims of the sin or crime.

If someone commits adultery with my wife, do I shrug it off? If someone tells lies about me, do I turn the other cheek? If a fellow Christian rips me off in a business deal, do I pretend it never happened? I suspect that in each of these situations we very quickly try to turn the "sin" into a "crime", so that we can "take action" against the person. If the offence clearly is a crime (and a serious one at that) then we simply cease to think of the other person (especially if they are a stranger) as a brother or sister in Christ at all. We instinctively call the police.

I am not saying that any of this is necessarily wrong. If the Bible is any sort of a guideline, God felt very strongly about the need for justice. There was no talk of doing away with the death penalty in the Old Testament, nor could anyone argue that it was unfair to expect one to pay for poking another person's eye out by having their own poked out in return.

The problem, as I see it, lies with the false grace teaching in the church, that fails to take into consideration the fact that Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, was literally tortured to death as payment for the sins of the world. God was, by allowing the death of Jesus on the cross, virtually justifying the death penalty. But he was doing it in such a way that he was trying to render it obsolete as well.

The concept of substitutionary punishment (one person, e.g. Jesus, suffering in the place of another) does not discard the need for justice. But it does allow someone else to take the place of the offender, for the express purpose of changing the offender. This has deep implications both with regard to our attitude toward sin (where we need to take the offence much more seriously) and with our attitude toward crime (where we need to be willing to consider alternative approaches, such as our own suggestions of Christians offering to take the punishment for others).

The concept of substitutionary punishment is a bit too long and complex to deal with in this article. But, we believe, it offers some hope for a consistent approach to both evils, and a strong hope of actually changing people instead of jumping between indifference and revenge, depending on the offence. For now, what I would like to say is just that there is a need for a more consistent approach to crime and sin if we are to make Christianity relevant to the real world.
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