What is it about our fallen natures that so thoroughly craves punishment and revenge?
A series of headlines about the New York crane accident that occurred last March have been re-surfacing lately, most recently (to my eyes) this one, discussing the criminal case against a contractor. Similarly, I was dismayed to hear of criminal charges being filed against the father of an Idaho girl who died after their car was disabled on Christmas Day. Why criminal? Why even sue for money? What will that solve? Will someone doing time in prison bring back the dead? Can we place a dollar amount on the life of a human being lost?
Apparently, we think so. In both of the cases I’ve listed above, there was negligence involved…it doesn’t require an attorney to see that. However, I fail to see the demand for causing pain in return as being of any comfort or closure at all.
We’ve all heard and read horror stories of American correctional systems. People who have done bad things go there to be locked away from society. There is no “correction” involved, only a removal of freedom as punishment. In these environments, bad people meet worse people and have years to learn how to be the worst people. Individuals are incarcerated for offenses that should never merit incarceration. Drug offences, for example; possession of a controlled substance can warrant long years in a “correctional facility” that does very little to educate or rehabilitate the offender. Then studies about high recidivism rates spark complaints and debates from activists and sociologists, nothing is accomplished, and the cycle continues.
I am not arguing that an individual who does something illegal should be free of consequences (although the large spectrum of what we consider “illegal” is a topic for another post). What is striking to me is the lack of grace that marks our penal system. Is it any wonder that legalistic, terror-filled views of God persist in a culture dominated by unforgiving punishment for everything from murder down to traffic offenses? This is a culture where we see police officers that are at best unable (due to circumstances) or at worst unwilling (due to callousness) to accept reasons for societal “misbehavior” when investigating an illegal act. This is a culture where “Don’t tase me, bro!” becomes a motto.
Permit me to propose a hypothetical scenario that is different from the way I perceive our justice system to operate: A teenager from an unstable home environment vandalizes a local mom-and-pop store. He is found guilty, or admits his wrong-doing. Instead of being incarcerated, he is taken under court supervision to apprentice under, for example, a glass repairman to learn how to (by working in the process) replace the window he has broken out of the store. He then works at a reasonable hourly rate to repay the store owners for what he has stolen. He is then released with knowledge of a vocation that makes him employable, a sense of responsibility, and connections that would assist him in finding employment, as well as having made restitution for his wrongdoing. This sounds much more like a concept of “corrections” to me.
I’m sure that the scenario I’ve described above has holes in the process…I’ve never claimed to be an attorney. I’m not arguing that there are offenses that, even Biblically, required the harshest of punishments…petit larceny is a long way from murder. From a spiritual standpoint, however, sin is sin. Old Testament Law appeared to focus on restitution for wrongs committed, not simply exiling the offender to a cell away from society in order, it seems, to attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff, as is the mark of today’s legal approach.
As wrought with difficulty as some of my logic may prove, I’m convinced that the concept holds, because it is a concept based on grace, not damnation. The legal system is merely the most obvious of realms from which I see grace notably absent. We should beware, I think, of desiring punishment and revenge for pain inflicted on us. Eventually, we will, in our human state, be the ones inflicting the pain, intentionally or otherwise.
In that moment, we will suddenly be yearning for the mercy we were once so unwilling to give. I suspect that our view of appropriate consequences would differ drastically at that point, don’t you?