Deflategate and the purpose of punishment

Unless you have been under a proverbial rock of late (in which case you probably are not reading this), you have likely heard some chatter surrounding what has become known as “Deflategate,” involving NFL quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

The scandal began back in January when, shortly after Brady’s Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts in a 45-7 route, reports emerged that the footballs which the Patriots used were inflated below league standards. The Patriot organization, Brady included, vehemently denied any knowledge of an issue with the footballs. The league began an investigation, and the resultant Wells report, released last week, determined it was more likely than not that Brady had knowledge of the tampering.

The punishment is, among other things, a four-game suspension for the future Hall of Fame quarterback, a ruling that Brady has appealed. Mixed reactions have occurred, with some praising the league and others questioning how such a harsh punishment could be handed down when Ray Rice was only given a two-game suspension for domestic violence. Questions abound. Was the verdict just? Does the league and commissioner Roger Goodell render punishments arbitrarily? Does the evidence sufficiently point to Brady’s guilt?

The Bible provides a complex picture of punishment. The law given to Israel did not provide simply a list of arbitrary “dos and don’ts” with arbitrary punishments for offenses. The purposes of the law, or at least a few of them, were to bring order to God’s people, to distinguish them from their neighbors, to promote justice and to lead Israel to spiritual, moral and societal flourishing. We late-moderners may think the punishments overly harsh at times (such as retributive mutilation when mutilation occurs), but we should also recognize the punishments are designed to “fit the crime.” God’s law and prescribed punishments were intended to promote justice and order rather than excessive retaliation, which often was the case in other ancient legal systems.

God, in His judging activity in the Old Testament, concerns Himself not merely with punishment, but with ruling, bringing justice and creating order. God’s judgments are covenantal and relational. God judges rightly, not arbitrarily, and He expected His people to judge themselves as a reflection of His just character.

Divine judgment functioned not simply as a means to an end (i.e., punishment), but to bring repentance and correction. Jesus’ own teachings about judgment, such as His harsh words recorded in Luke 13, intended to spur hearers onto faithful commitment to God (“strive to enter”). Thus the judgment described is held out in hope of repentant correction or continuation in steadfastness.

This perspective is made explicit in several places in Scripture. Proverbs 3:11-12 affirms, “Do not despise the discipline of Yahweh, my child. Do not be weary of his reproof because whomever Yahweh will love, he will rebuke, as a father delights in his son.” The author of Hebrews quotes this verse approvingly and also informs that this purposeful correction intends to make God’s people sharers of His holiness and recipients of “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

It would be unfair, of course, to expect the NFL, or any human institution, to reflect the perfect justice of God. But we should urge human institutions to render right decisions. A little less arbitrariness (or at least perceived arbitrariness) in the NFL’s rulings would go a long way toward more positive public acceptance of their decisions. And likewise, we ourselves should seek to be people who are less interested in someone “getting their due” than in their receiving correction which will produce repentance. That is, after all, the message that Jesus proclaimed: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

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Chad, you’re talking about one of my pet subjects here, and so I simply have to give you kudos for your healthy biblical perspective here. It’s not easy balancing the obvious retributive justice reflected in the Law of Moses (and thus in some sense integral to the justice of God) with the generosity and grace of the Sermon on the Mount (which, thus, must also in some sense reflect the justice of God). Some less careful readers want to toss out the retributive elements of OT justice by saying Jesus did away with it; but that’s only partially true. Jesus was punished, and quite severely, let us never forget. But in his punishment mercy and grace were made available to the real offenders. Only—and I do mean ONLY—in Jesus was the “just made unjust” for our sake. And you’re right: even the OT standards of retaliation were a check against excessive retaliation; they were a restraint on human evil, not a prescription for the infliction of new evil. It’s hard to see that from this side of grace, however. Having been redeemed, we’re in the position of being commanded to show mercy and to sacrificially bear the burdens of others. But understanding that requires that we look to the cross. God only punishes justly. And if that’s true—which of course it is—then it ought to horrify us to see how God punished Jesus. And it ought to drive us to our knees in gratitude that we’ve been given the privilege of extending that same mercy God showed us to others. As for the case in question here…well, I’m not a sports fan, and I don’t have any sense of how “severe” a four-game suspension is, so I can’t address the appropriateness of it. But I do suspect the greater punishment is intrinsic: the public consequences to Brady’s image are probably far more damaging than any suspension will ever be to his career and to his chances of making the Hall of Fame.

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