Karen Armstrong, in her 2014 book: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, repeatedly makes the point that ancient imperial rulers viewed punishment as a necessary glue to hold a society together. Civil society rested on the shoulders of violent physical sanctions employed most frequently against abusively exploited peasant classes. Religious institutions were integral parts of ancient civil authority; providing de facto and at times de jure validation for the suffering of the poor.
State retribution regimes are less obvious for some today. Unless of course, one lived in Afghanistan in the 1990s; or lives in Iraq/Syria Daesh controlled territory now (http://bit.ly/1Ukx4xP); or is an African-American living, for example, in Ferguson, Missoui. Armstrong writes that punishment is much less about religion per se, and much more about the means of control and expropriation used by powerful elites.
Jeremiah lived in a culture where personal physical punishment was an ever present reality. He also believed “historical calamity could be understood as God’s punishment for sins.” Do I believe this? No. But, does God involve God’s self with individual moral decisions? Perhaps. St. Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh.’ http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=305686794 may be one way God intervenes, one way God encourages moral discipline.
Here’s a personal example. Generally, I’m impatient when driving, even in laid-back Iowa. I learned how to drive in Chicago, so I find Iowa’s slow pace of traffic a constant irritant. The other day when parking I very slightly ‘dinged’ the car behind me; but it wasn’t slight enough not to leave marks on both vehicles. Fear of punishment played a part in my contacting the owner and reporting the accident to the police. My insurance paid to repair the other vehicle.
I chose to leave the ding on my car for a couple of reasons. Repairing even this minor scratch would be very expensive and below my policy’s deductible limit. Primarily though I left the ding on my pickup truck, because when I see it, then I think of it as a ‘thorn in the flesh;’ a constant irritant reminding me not to drive arrogantly, distracted by personal issues. Those reminders help me get outside of myself and think of the other driver first.
Choosing to avoid the potential future punishment of another accident makes me a better driver in the present. I don’t think it would be logical to generalize from my personal experience to Jeremiah’s position that God punishes nations for personal sin. But, I do believe that a loving God cares that we love each other as God loves us; and that God can remind individuals, and yes, I suppose also remind nations of the great privilege of loving and not punishing one another in personal and international relationships.