Darrin Belousek (Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church) wants to disconnect substitutionary atonement from the principle of retribution, the notion that “doing justice in response to crime requires ‘repaying’ the offender his ‘due’ in punishment for the crime and that making peace in conflict justifies using force in return for force” (29).
In an early ground-clearing chapter, he argues that the principle of retribution underlies both atonement theories and political practices/theories regarding capital punishment and just war, and he argues that Jesus renounces the principle of retribution: “Jesus renounces retribution/retaliation, both the philosophical principle (justice is to return ‘like for like,’ rendering good for good and evil for evil) and the popular practice (justice is to render good to friends and evil to enemies)” (31). I agree, but then Belousek goes on to say that in renouncing retribution/retaliation, Jesus also prohibits punishment as such. He regards Augustine as a half-Ciceronian for saying that Jesus does not preclude Christians in authority from inflicting punishments (41-43).
There is a sleight of hand here, as Belousek assumes without argument that punishment necessarily applies a principle of “evil for evil.”
Why should a punishment necessarily be evil? Because it inflicts pain? But many good things cause pain (preparing for a marathon, researching a book on the atonement, a rebuke, mowing the lawn). Because pain is inflicted by another? A football coach inflicts pain on his team as they ready for the championship. Because it involves force? But force is not necessarily harmful; it can be positively beneficial, as when I force my grandson to step back on the curb out of the way of a passing car. If I cause another small pain now (spanking my son, requiring someone to confess to a theft) in order to prevent greater evil later, doesn’t that count as a kindness?
It doesn’t resolve the debate by itself or justify everything Augustine says, but it’s worth noting that Augustine is following Scripture when he insists on a category of loving correction and discipline. Augustine has room for a rod used in love (Proverbs 13:24), for “faithful wounds” of a friend (Proverbs 27:6), for a rod that purges folly (Proverbs 22:15). Does Belousek? And if he doesn’t, what does that imply?