The Last Judgment: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture

Andrew Skotnicki
Published by Routledge in 2017

Reviewed by Stephen N. Bretsen, Business and Economics, Wheaton College

The cover art on Andrew Skotnicki’s book The Last Judgment: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture is disconcerting. The simple black and white drawing, called Judge Jesus by Mike Gregg, depicts a hollow-eyed Jesus with a beard and long hair bearing the crown of thorns and the marks of the crucifixion on his hands. However, the robe that Jesus is wearing is a modern judicial robe over a collared shirt and tie, and he is sitting behind a judge’s bench with his arms crossed and a gavel by his side. The juxtaposition of these familiar ancient and modern images is jarring and opens the reader’s mind to the intriguing arguments that lay inside the cover. Judge Jesus serves the book well because the book serves as a wakeup call to Christians in the United States about how they have compromised biblical principles by supporting, either consciously or unconsciously, a punitive criminal justice system to obtain order and security in their pursuit of society’s goals of life, liberty, and happiness.

Skotnicki’s central argument is “that a univocal focus on the Christian narrative cannot countenance a judgment willing harm upon those found guilty of legal infractions” (xi). According to this argument, if the criminal justice system was based on a Christian ethic derived from the Old and New Testaments, the state would not have the right to punish criminal offenders via coercion, violence, or other forms of externally imposed punitive measures. Since inflicting state-sanctioned punishment is essentially returning evil for evil, the focus of Christians should not be on whether to inflict punishment but on how to restore the criminal offender to the community. The author notes that “the Christian ethic begins with repentance” (166) which must be “internal and self-imposed” (167). For Skotnicki, the state’s legal sanctions should be limited to what is necessary to bring the criminal offender to a state of contrition as a precursor to possible reconciliation. As a professor in the Religious Studies Department of Manhattan College teaching Christian social ethics and writing extensively on religion and criminal justice, Skotnicki is able to draw on a wealth of resources.

Skotnicki advances his argument by examining the biblical and theological principles that support a criminal law system based on repentance and reconciliation rather than retribution and punitive sanctions. In the Old Testament and more specifically in the New Testament, Skotnicki finds those principles rooted in a contemplative spirituality “that shuns division and dualism … and … that stands in awe of the infinite God, and the beauty of all that God has created, with nothing more than a quiet mind and a loving heart” (25). Skotnicki’s contemplation draws from the mystical and “ascetic practice of presence to the divine in each moment and each breath” (6). Contemplation leads to mindfulness, and “the stance of mindfulness to the presence of God in life’s daily routine can widen the conscious-ness and change the moral and spiritual horizon of the individual believer” (18). Instead of viewing the “law as an objective force that must be obeyed and … judgment as an analyti-cal determination of human guilt and of one’s rightful measure of pain” (18), the believer, through “loving attentiveness to all that one does and all with whom one interacts” (30), instead becomes aware of the unity of all creation, including of all humanity, and sees the law and its constraints as “reminders that there are no actions lacking significance” (30). For Skotnicki, the model for this contemplative approach to the law is Jesus Christ: both Jesus the teacher of the law and storyteller and the crucified Christ. On the level ground at the foot of the cross where all fall short of God’s glory and perfection, the criminal and accuser can realize the need for and receive grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. By imitating Christ’s suffering and love, the believer “overcomes anger, transforms the offense into a ritual of pardon, and invites imitation” (x) by the criminal offender. Essentially, Skotnicki wants to bring the spiritual discipline of contemplation and its associated breathing techniques to bear on criminal law and punishment to encourage grace and peace between both the criminal and accuser. 

Several of the theological underpinnings to Skotnicki’s contemplative approach to criminal law and punishment may be difficult for more evangelical Christians to accept. For example, while reviewing the Old Testament, Skotnicki notes that the law “must be viewed in light of a deity who speaks to the attentive heart in language that supersedes the literal language of the Torah” (11). This passage reflects the mystical strand of Roman Catholicism that underlies Skotnicki’s focus on contemplation and allows Skotnicki to sidestep difficult passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that link the reality of evil or the holiness of God to judgment and punishment through law. For example, the immediate and severe punishments imposed on Ananias and Sapphira for lying about the proceeds from the sale of their property as recounted in Acts 5: 1-11 seem far removed from the love that “judges no one” (xiii, 171). Skotnicki is aware of these difficult passages and notes that

one can locate specific passages in the New Testament that speak of the Christian ethic in terms of legal compliance and righteous judgment, but to provide them with primary significance would radically distort the message of Jesus, taking away his whole method of teaching and his way of reacting to human weakness. (172)

Watching Skotnicki wrestle further with these difficult passages would have been more satisfying than just having them dismissed. Another example is the concept of the oneness in Christ, which provides biblical and theological support for the unitive and relational elements of the contemplative approach to criminal law and punishment. As that phrase is used in the context of the mystical tradition from which Skotnicki is drawing, the question arises whether the oneness of Christ represents the sovereignty of Christ, which would be more acceptable to evangelical Christians, or is a form of universalism, which would be less acceptable to evangelical Christians. Finally, while reviewing the New Testament, Skotnicki repeatedly cites biblical scholars and theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, and Norman Perrin. For many evangelical Christians these individuals represent a more liberal and skeptical approach to the authenticity of the New Testament rather than a more conservative and accepting approach.

In addition to his prescriptive and theological arguments, Skotnicki provides a descriptive and historical survey of the development of criminal law and punishment in the West that extends from the early church to the twenty-first century. The survey focuses on two strands of thought. One reflects a criminal legal system based on the contemplative mind of Christ that Skotnicki envisions. The other reveals how and when Christians abandoned the contemplative Christian ethic for a criminal legal system “rife with economic adventurism, widespread violence and human degradation, class and racial disparities” (156) and other deficiencies, because it is based on worldly standards and values. As with the entire book, the chapters describing the two strands are extensively researched with numerous and rich citations to writers, theologians, and philosophers from ancient times to the present.

The more positive strand begins with the early church’s sacrament of penance in which private and communal dialogues and, ultimately, exclusion from the community based on the teachings of Jesus and Paul concerning disputes were practiced to create the conditions for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In monasteries, the practice of penance involved isolation in a cell to allow the power of solitude and contemplative prayer along with frequent visits by spiritual mentors to bring healing. As Skotnicki notes:

In the Rule of Benedict and commonly in other monastic literature, the emphasis is on neither judgment nor punishment, certainly not on the sanctity of law as such, but on the effort to bring a brother who has alienated himself from the community, and by extension from himself and God, into harmony with the divine order of creation. (58)

This positive strand continues with the way of the mystic, as represented by the writings of Francisco de Osuna, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich, in which a focus on God and the denial of self results in an abandonment of anger and judgment for unconditional love and forgiveness. The death knell for the contemplative ethic in criminal law punishment is represented by the decision in Western countries to adopt the Enlightenment model of the rational penitentiary with “its military discipline, its impersonal social arrangement (inmates referred to by a number), its corporal discipline, and its work regimen” (140) over the Quaker’s monastic-inspired penitentiary.

The more negative strand is primarily a history of an increasing dualism that allowed law to become an independent and even transcendent source of authority for inflicting judgment and punishment apart from God and in violation of the Christian ethic of love and forgiveness. Although the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason over revelation, the individual and the individual’s natural rights over the community and the common good, and the social contract theory of the state played its usual decisive role, Skotnicki emphasizes Christian antecedents that contributed to dualism. From the medieval period, these contributions include the rise of the Roman Catholic Church as a state and the linking of law and religion via the development of canon laws and the concept of criminal sin, the rise of nation states and their use of law based on canon law to judge and punish criminals, the pragmatic accommodations and cooperation between church and state, and the question-ing of the Thomist natural law synthesis by Marcilius of Padua, William of Ockham, and Francisco Suarez which led to “a political philosophy in which social control for the purpose of order replaced intervention in the life of the ‘criminal’ for the purpose of sanctification” (94). The Reformation’s contributions to dualism include a focus on individual salvation, an acquiescence to the state and the state’s use of law to judge and punish criminals based on Romans 13:1-5, a pessimistic view of the role of law as a necessary check on fallen hu-man nature, and the idea of the elect in which “the salvation seemingly bestowed upon the economically solvent and the sober-minded was invariably withheld from the economically destitute and those convicted of crime” (97). Dualism is the enemy of Skotnicki’s contempla-tive approach to criminal law because the unity it seeks is broken, and, as a result, “many Christians fail to see the image of God in criminal offenders, and judge human worth by legal or social standards other than those provided by Christ” (170)

Skotnicki is critical of many contemporary Christian scholars, such as John Stackhouse and Oliver O’Donovan, who want to fix a broken criminal legal system by applying Christian values, because he believes dualism keeps them from going far enough. The weakness of their approach for Skotnicki is assuming that punishments can be inflicted for violations of law and only trying to reform the nature of those punishments. Skotnicki disagrees with this underlying assumption because it results in “the loss of those essential Christian com-mitments of unconditional love and forgiveness that will never be comprehensible from a state of mind in which law functions on a plane independent of the gospel” (165). However, Skotnicki does not seem to go as far as Thomas Shaffer’s “jurisprudence of forgiveness” which appears to obviate both punishment and law.4 Skotnicki recognizes that humans need a “normative cosmos” (169) of right and wrong and lawful and unlawful but believes that law’s only legitimate function is to exhort and is authoritative only when that exhorta-tion is done in the context of unconditional love. In implementing this function, Skotnicki wants the criminal legal system to address the humanity and needs of both the victim and the criminal offender. Thus, law is needed for specific deterrence to separate the criminal offender from the victim and to recreate the practices of exclusion and isolation used in early Christian communities and monasteries to lead the criminal offender to repentance. The idea of applying Christ’s unconditional love via a contemplative ethic to criminal law and punishment is as radical as Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which makes the scant information in the book on how this approach can be put into effect all the more frustrating. Skotnicki acknowledges that the resources are not available for implementation and that existing correctional facilities need to be used to help criminal offenders come to a state of contrition, but other details are not forthcoming. Skotnicki’s approval of narrative theories of the law and, to a lesser degree, of restorative justice indicates that dialogue and settlement agreements between victims and criminal offenders may be a means of realizing the reform that Skotnicki is seeking. However, since a reform of the heart based on the gospel is central to Skotnicki’s argument, the reader is left to wonder whether public law, which governs the relationship between the state and the individual, must be converted into a form of private law and whether the contemplative ethic should be used to transform the criminal legal system or to provide Christians with a separate way of approaching judg-ment and punishment.

These criticisms aside, The Last Judgment: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture is a profound and thought-provoking book. Skotnicki deeply empathizes with the incarcerated persons who suffer injustices imposed by the criminal legal system, but he is equally concerned that Christians do not become active accomplices in or silent witnesses to these injustices by abandoning a New Testament ethic based on love of neighbor for a secular, punitive ethic based on fear and the desire for security.

Cite this article
Stephen N. Bretsen, “The Last Judgement: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 288-291

Stephen N. Bretsen

Wheaton College
Stephen N. Bretsen is William Volkman Professor of Business and Law, Associate Professor of Business and Law, Pre-Law Advisor