Baby Hitler, Time Travel, and Retributive Justice?
The other day, at a gathering, I played a time travel game with friends which eventually, as all time travel games do, became an in-depth conversation about justice.
You know how it goes, someone in the room starts the game off by asking the question, “If you could go back in time just once, what would you do?”
After several obvious statements about buying stock in Apple and Google, and after the obligatory Flux Capacitor reference, and a joke about that street taco in Mexico City you wouldn’t eat again, and how you regret the hour and a half you gave to the movie God Is Not Dead, someone, let’s call her Lois, gets altruistic and asks the question, “What about baby Hitler, would you kill baby Hitler?”
There it is, a thoroughly enjoyable conversation hijacked. Suddenly the lives of over 70 million people are in your hands. But before you can say anything there is always one guy, let’s call him Hal, who blurts out too quickly, “Absolutely, wouldn’t think twice.”
Then Louis says what everyone is thinking, “But he’s an innocent baby?” Everyone nods thoughtfully as the conversation stumbles into a debate about morality and innocence.
Hal clears his throat, “While infants are born morally innocent, since it is impossible for them to be born any other way, all men have chosen to be sinners from their youth, so —” But Hal’s internet-stolen diatribe is quickly yelled down by everyone in the room even before he can get to the scripture verse he had memorized to prove his case.
Why, because this party is primarily made up of people who haven’t bought into total depravity in years. And also, because anyone who has ever held a baby, or has a spark of a soul, knows there is no scriptural minutia, no moral manipulation, to justify killing a baby. Even Hal knows this, if he’d just shut up long enough to think about it.
In fairness, Hal is young, single, and a long way from kids.
Then someone has a brilliant idea, “We can go further back and kill Hitler’s abusive father!”
For a moment everyone sighs in relief, the problem is solved until, of course, Lois asks a new but obvious question, “But why was Hitler’s father so abusive?”
Hall nods and then states the next obvious conclusion, “We’re gonna have to go even further back and kill Hitler’s grandfather.”
And there it is, time travel exposes the flaws of retributive justice like nothing else…
You see, Hitler’s father was once an innocent little baby, and so was Hitler’s grandfather, and so on and so on. The problem with a justice that advocates retribution is that it creates a cycle of injustice.
The “kill-baby-Hitler-to-save-humanity” time-travel game, it doesn’t end until we have traveled all the way back to Adam.
And then, of course, we realize, Jesus already did this when He died on a cross.
Except Jesus didn’t go all the way back to Adam to kill him, he didn’t go back seeking retribution, no, He went all the way back to Adam to restore him, to heal him, to transform him, to make him whole.
The “kill-baby-Hitler-to-save-humanity” time-travel game doesn’t work because retribution is a distortion of justice. You see, retribution is simply the fruit of an earlier injustice.
The fact is, a retributive understanding of justice is too small because it only focuses on the moment of injustice. But Jesus, on a cross, revealed God perfectly as love. Love is measureless, timeless. God is the ultimate time traveler, He exists in every moment all at once. So His justice spans the entirety of our days, and everything before, and everything after.
You see, bullies have been bullied, oppressors have been oppressed, and Hitler had an incredibly abusive father. So God’s justice must be expansive enough to restore the bullied and the bully, the oppressed and the oppressor because, over the course of time, it’s the same person.
If justice isn’t about restoration, it isn’t justice, it’s revenge.
Here’s some good news, Jesus, before the very foundations of the world, was on a cross restoring all things, and from Him, and through Him, and for Him are all things. (Rom 11:25-36)…
…Suddenly Hal has a thought. And because he’s Hal, he says it out loud, “What if God’s justice is better than we think it is? What if God’s justice is restorative? What if we partnered with Him in this type of justice? What would that mean for our families, our churches, our cities, and nations, what could that look like in our world?”
Hmm, that’s a good thought, Hal.
Maybe the next time we all get together, we should play that game.
For those of you who weren’t able to time travel with me but would like to know more about restorative justice, I recommend reading anything by heavy hitters like Mako Nagasawa or Chris Green on the subject.
Also, my friend Thomas Floyd noted this great 6 min insight into Restorative Justice from The Bible Project
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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