God is not our retribution

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By Rev. Paul Graves

Since March 4, I’ve been distressed by a Donald Trump proclamation with toxic biblical implications. At a CPAC Convention, then again on March 25 at a Waco political rally, Mr. Trump declared, “I am your warrior, I am your justice…For those who have been wronged and betrayed…I am your retribution.”

It’s hard to miss his total misuse of religious images to manipulate a malignant kind of Christian ideology. Perhaps some religious advisors have coached him in a selective way on what is called Retribution Theology. That – not Donald Trump’s distorted view of himself – is what I want to explore here.

Biblical retribution has its passionate believers and its harsh critics. I don’t plan to resolve those tensions here (or anywhere). However, I do offer some biblical insights that may challenge the traditional prejudices about retribution. Let’s begin with a common phrase I hear many people too casually say: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”

You’ll find it in Romans 12:19. Paul warns his friends to channel their anger away from retribution and let God stay in charge. But in verse 20, Paul says our here-and-now task is this (vs. 20): “Instead, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Does that sound like a God who imitates our passion for retribution? I don’t think so! I’m left with this question: If God inspired Paul to say something like this, why would God’s kind of “retribution” be more punitive than how we are called to act toward those who have wronged us? Think about it!

Paul’s marching orders came from Jesus, not Donald Trump. And Jesus learned from his embrace of Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah. Consider Isaiah 35: 4-7, for instance. It begins by saying, “Say to those who are frightened: Be strong, fear not. Here is your God. He comes with vindication. He comes with divine recompense (35.4). It almost sounds like vindication is born out of destructive threats. 

But read on. How will God save Israel? “God comes to save you, God will open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, the lame will leap like a stag, and the tongue of the mute will sing” (35:5–6).

In his helpful commentary on this passage, Fr. Richard Rohr startles the retribution believers with this insight: “God doesn’t come with punishment—in fact, God comes to love us, heal us, and transform us.” 

I’ve read this understanding from Fr. Rohr many times. I fully agree: “People are not going to get what they deserve; they’re going to get much better than they deserve. God says, “The way I punish you—this vindication, this retribution—is actually going to be by loving you more and more deeply.” Controversial thought? Yes, to some.

Still, I hope you can reconsider the traditionally narrow biblical misunderstanding of retribution and turn toward a fuller understanding of God’s “judgment” that reflects a more Christ-like way. Jesus embodied love in his ministry and offered forgiveness from the cross.

But our fear-driven obsession with retribution does battle with love and forgiveness. Our disagreements about Retribution Theology are pretty much pointless. Our fights depend on many competing biblical passages. But which of those passages reflect the love, wisdom, and actions of Jesus?

The Bible isn’t always consistent in reflecting the full nature of God. But beginning and enduring with Jesus’ ministry does reflect God.


The Rev. Paul Graves is a retired elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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