Process and Punishment (Bruce Epperly)

What is the nature of justice and does God care about it?  That is a question that I raised last week as a way of starting a conversation about the way God's love is present in the world.  Since Bruce Epperly has been writing about Process Theology, I asked him if he would focus his attention on this subject.  Last week he wrote about the quest for justice from a Process perspective, noting:

 Just actions and social structures enhance beauty of experience, while unjust actions and social structures deface beauty of experience and limit personal possibilities. Accordingly, we can assert that God is on the side of beauty and justice and seeks relationships and institutions that promote creative, intense, meaningful, and beautiful experiences.
Following up on this topic, Bruce looks at the question of punishment -- whether God's justice requires punishment and what that might look like.  I think you'll find Bruce's ponderings thought provoking!


Process and Punishment
Bruce G. Epperly

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama proclaimed that justice was done.  While I recognized the necessity of this action (or the punishment and trial of bin Laden) and approved of it, the President’s words open the door for reflections on the nature of justice as punishment or retributive justice, especially from a process perspective.  Does God punish offenders? Should we use punishment as a deterrent or primary motive for relational justice-making?  What role does punishment play in a universe aiming at beauty of experience?

I will briefly ponder the following: 1) the role of God in punishment, 2) the “punishing” actions of nature, and 3) punishment in the justice system.  I will no doubt raise more questions than answers, some of which I may return to after my hiatus of lectures and retreats.

Many people claim God punishes us for immorality and misbehavior.  They base their position on selected bible stories – Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian plagues, the Great Flood.  Typically they see God acting through natural causes to bring misfortune upon evil doers – Katrina and New Orleans and the Haitian earthquake, for example.  God punishes sin, period! You get what you deserve, maybe even better than you deserve, at the hands of a righteous God.
After all, God is the potter and we are the clay, this position asserts.  God owes us nothing and is completely justified in destroying a misshapen pot.

Process theology would oppose the identification of God’s will with natural disasters.  While we may limit the nature of God’s presence and the effectiveness of God’s actions in our lives by our actions and values, God still seeks the “best [possibility] for that impasse.”  Our turning away from God has consequences in terms of personal and community life, and this may feel like divine punishment (or absence), but God’s intent is always wholeness and beauty at every level of life.   Here, punishment may be seen as “self-punishment.”  We have, in some way, brought unhappiness, disease, and even weather changes upon ourselves by our habitual actions.  However, even our self-punishment is limited; 1) God still seeks our well being and 2) our quality of experience is determined by many factors, not just the impact of our actions.

Process theology recognizes that there is a type of justice-making in a nature. This is the law of consequences.  Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans was not the result of divine wrath, but a variety of factors, including natural causes such as the severity of the hurricane.  Yet, the severity of hurricanes has been identified with changing weather patterns, partly the result of human actions. Further, the destruction of New Orleans is also related to our nation’s failure to maintain the infrastructure of levees.  We are partly responsible for this disaster in the chain of cause and effect. Neither God nor humankind intended Katrina as punishment but the hurricane’s devastation emerged from human as well as non-human causes.

The question of punishment in the justice system is more complicated.  Process theology tends to oppose retributive justice simply for the sake of catharsis or to punish evil doers.  Acts have consequences and this may lead to the restriction of certain freedoms: 1) to protect others and 2) to teach a lesson.  But punishment for its own sake goes against the global quest for beauty.  Somehow retribution must be shaped by reformation.  Incarceration apart from a commitment to nurture growth in skills and personal responsibility serves neither the inmate nor the wider community.  It also betrays a failure in imagination and care.  While incarceration severely limits a person’s possibilities, it may also be the catalyst for new possibilities for personal and vocational growth.  In the spirit of positive parenting, and here the justice system is serving as a type of parent, “time outs” can be sources of education in terms of acts-consequences.  But, their goal in both cases is to encourage behaviors appropriate to the social context.

Incarceration may still be a necessity in certain crimes, especially those which involve violence and destruction.  Here limitation of freedoms serves the greater good of protecting innocent citizens.  We may forgive the offender, but we still must act on behalf of potential victims in the future.  Dependable security and appropriate (and flexible) order is necessary for the flourishing of both persons and society. 

Punishment is never the goal.  Even the punishing God of certain biblical passages is willing to change course, if behavior changes, and often regrets the severity of punishment and the pain inflicted.  Still, even from a process point of view, there are times in which freedom must be restrained among adults to achieve personal growth and social well being.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at


Gary said…
Nonsense. Unbiblical, human philosophy.
John said…
Punishment as retribution is commonly perceived as a core accomplishment of justice. For a graphic example, a parent seeks the conviction and execution of the murderer of their child. Or, a widower of a 9/11 victim seeks death of Bin Laden as justice for the death of his wife. Often the survivor doesn’t want mere incarceration and rehabilitation, for the wrongdoer, but punishment and retribution. They want a balancing of wrong for wrong, of loss for loss, of injury for injury. They attend to the news of capture, trial and execution with grim determination to see the matter concluded, and will not see the matter as properly concluded until the evil-doer is dead. "Closure." Such survivors care nothing about motive, nothing about rehabilitation, nothing about protection for future potential victims, only personal justice in the form of retribution. For them the Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye has a very personal meaning, and for them justice has nothing to do with restoration or reconciliation.

I understand from Bruce that process theology teaches that God is not interested in retribution but in beauty and reconciliation. Are we then to say to these survivors that God is unconcerned with your desire for retribution; that your notion of justice is merely a human need for vengeance, a need to which God is either repulsed, or merely indifferent.

Retributive justice is often viewed in terms of a “balancing”, which expresses a certain kind of beauty, similar to karma, a value which is communicated in the terms “equity” or “equitable”, a correction to a twisted imbalance which has happened on earth such as the Holocaust, and evil which must be countered. This is a notion of fairness, suggesting that somewhere along the line one gets what one deserves, either by way of redress or payback or retributive punishment of the wrongdoer. The notion suggests that no one sins with impunity, and all suffering is compensated. Christians and Muslims often speak in terms of heavenly rewards and punishments, which balance out the unfairness of this life.

All of this, Bruce suggests, is abandoned by process theology as irrelevant to God. Instead God seeks a termination of sinfulness and a restoration of relationships between God and God’s wayward creatures. Balance, equity, fairness, compensation, and retribution are human concerns, about which God has little regard.

Am I reading this correctly?
Robert Cornwall said…
John, I can't speak for either Bruce or Process Theologians in general, but I do believe that you have caught the gist of the message. Thus, for Bruce whatever justice is, it isn't the same thing as punishment/retribution.

Justice is instead distributive and restorative.
John said…
While I too have concluded that God has little regard for human notions of retribution and reestitution, I do so with disappointment, I guess because I have invested so much in the notions of balance, fairness and equity. It is very disconcerting to have to accept that such ideas are merely human predeictions having no value except as between humans - a human diversion as it were.

But I have to ask how it is that process theologians reach the conclusion that "beauty" has significance to God while "balance" is a mere human fancy.

Justice issues aside, I see that "balance" is a natural law. Throughout nature, (designed by God) there is a constant imperative towards balance. Beauty seems to me a mere fancy. While I am not advocating against the abandonment of retributive justice, "balance" seems more supportable than "beauty" as an operative principle for God.

Likewise, in the sphere of life (animate, as opposed to inanimate, aspects of creation) survival, reproduction and adaptation (dynamism and change) appear to me to be the most significant operative principles, as is divine opposition to internecine violence - survival success are challenging enough without having to fear being murdered.

Popular Posts