lenten journal: forensic


I spent the better part of yesterday and all of this morning cooking with friends in order to serve lunch for Stigma and Mercy: Prison Re-Entry and Restorative Justice Conference, which was held at our church today. One hundred and fifty people showed up to talk about how we help folks get back into society after they have served time in prison. And they ate a lot of soup.

As we prepared for the meal, we could hear snippets of the speakers over the speakers in the Parish Hall, but I didn’t get to take in much of what happened, other than to overhear people talk about what stirred them as they shared lunch together and to hear some of the reflections from the steering committee who came by the house after it was all over. It did take me back to something I read several days ago in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Stone for a Pillow because it wouldn’t officially be Lent if I wasn’t reading something by Madeleine L’Engle. She was talking about going for jury duty and taking Nicholas Berdayev’s Revelation and Truth to read as she waited to see if she would be chosen to serve.

I opened the book, surrounded by my fellow jurors who were reading, chatting, doing needlework or crossword puzzles. There couldn’t have been a better place than a criminal court in which to read Berdayev’s words telling me that one of the greatest problems in the Western world today is that we have taken a forensic view of God.

The first image that jumped to mind for me was God on one of the investigative crime shows on television, and L’Engle, in the next sentence, confirmed my definition:

Forensic: having to do with crime . . . . And there I was in a criminal court, being warned by a Russian theologian that God is not like a judge sentencing a criminal. Yet far too often we view God as an angry judge assumes that we are guilty unless we can placate divine ire and establish our innocence.

As I listened to the folks who had worked so hard on the conference as they sat around our table this afternoon, one of the thoughts that crossed my mind is how little our justice system is aimed at helping people change. It focuses, instead, on punishment: making people “pay for their crimes,” which has an-eye-for-an-eye subtext. We have convinced ourselves that sort of payback is important, even though it doesn’t appear to work, which is why I am moved by the growing number of people who are working to promote restorative justice within our system where the point is to humanize and redeem. To make substantive changes in both our system and our hearts means not allowing things to stay the way they are. The same is true of our theology—back to Madeleine:

The human being’s attempt to understand the Creator is never static: it is constantly in motion. If we let our concept of God become static, and we have done so over and over again throughout history, we inevitably blunder into a forensic interpretation that does not work.

In a vain attempt to make people see God as an avenging judge, theologians have even altered the meaning of words. Atonement, for instance, a bad word if taken forensically.

Our journey of Lent takes us to the Cross, to the death of Jesus, and I struggle with the journey, in part, because I was taught a forensic view of God and the atonement growing up: Jesus died to pay the debt, to serve the sentence for my sin, for all of our sins. Since I was a kid I have never been able to figure out who was getting paid off. It made no sense that Satan was collecting the debt because that put him on a par with God that didn’t add up. If God was getting paid, it created a, well, forensic view of a God who had to kill Jesus to even deal with us. I find power and meaning in the Crucifixion in that Jesus blew the doors off of death and came out of the tomb. I also found resonance with L’Engle.

In forensic terms, the atonement means that Jesus had to die for us in order to atone for all our awful sins, so that God could forgive us. In forensic terms, it means that God cannot forgive us unless Jesus is crucified and by this sacrifice atones for all our wrongdoing.

But that is not what the word means! I went to an etymological dictionary and looked it up. It means exactly what it says, at-one-ment. I double-checked it in a second dictionary. There is nothing about crime and punishment in the makeup of that word. It simply means to be at one with God. Jesus on the cross was so at-one with God that death died there on Golgotha, and was followed by the glorious celebration of the Resurrection.

I am well aware that I could fill up my house with books written about the atonement and that I am not going to cover the scope of the discussion in a couple of paragraphs, and I find hope in L’Engle’s reminder that God is Love. This journey of Lent goes from Love to Love. Jesus’ death is a statement of who he is, and act of solidarity with both God and us: at-one-ment. Yes. Yes. Yes.

were the whole realm of nature mine
that were a present far too small
love so amazing so divine
demands my soul, my life, my all



  1. Thank you, Milton. I remember my dad making that same explanation of the word ATONE in a sermon. I thought he was just making a clever theological word play.

  2. I’m reminded, Milton, of James Gilligan’s book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic in which he talks about how the basis of our prison system is grounded in shame. I came across it in thinking about traditional school discipline, and was intrigued by it.

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