Sacred Justice, Part 1

We live in a culture that is hierarchical — that is, in which people have power over other people. We accept this as being normal and natural, as if there were no other way to live. We create spaces — classrooms, offices, courtrooms — that express this hierarchy architecturally. But there are consequences to this way of living that are worth examining.

Hierarchy is essentially unstable. In our culture, people with power over other people seek to maintain this power primarily by using punishment and the threat of punishment. This punishment can take many forms — as many forms as there are ways people can harm other people. We assert and maintain hierarchical relations by public shaming, verbal abuse, physical injury, intimidation, reduction in status, and denying basic social goods, such as education, employment, the right to vote, and liberty. We swim in a punitive ocean without even realizing it is there. We do not realize the extent to which we think in terms of punishment in our workplaces, our schools, our justice system, and our relationships with our children. We think that punishing people is normal.

In addition, power relationships are constantly being negotiated. We think that negotiation is a fair way to decide issues of power. That means that we view relationships with other people in transactional terms. When people are in apparent conflict with each other, we expect them to handle it transactionally — to negotiate, bargain, compromise. This is reflected in one of the key strategies of our criminal justice system — the plea bargain. We are constantly seeking to craft outcomes rather than deepen relationships.

Then we wonder why these fixes are so temporary. We see our solutions discarded, our carefully negotiated agreements abandoned in cycles of violence. We try to force people to behave, and then we are bewildered when they do not. The result is a culture in which people are oppressed by the power that others have over them — a culture in which we all oppress each other, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The punitive foundations of our culture, like most cultural foundations, are expressed in myth. In our case, the foundation myth is what theologian Walter Wink has called the myth of redemptive violence — believing that a harm can be made right by humiliating or physically harming the offender, that violence is a necessary and appropriate response, even that such violence is healing for the victim. It is normative in our society to seek vengeance for a harm done to us. Anyone brought up in our culture has seen thousands of hours of movies and television in which the schoolyard bully is finally beaten and humiliated by his victim, or the ruthless outlaw is shot dead by the gentle sheriff. The schoolyard victim and gentle sheriff are empowered and healed by this response, and often given a sexual reward for their violence. We are all constantly tempted to reenact this mythology.

When a harm has been done in a punitive culture such as ours, founded on the myth of redemptive violence, there are, I think, four consequences.

First, it is completely rational for the person who has done the harm to try to evade responsibility for it — to lie, hide, deny, and blame others. What is the point of being accountable, if all that you get for it is punishment? What is the point of accepting responsibility for a harm you have done, if your own needs — to apologize, to make things right, to repair broken relationships — are not going to be met?

Second, a punitive system focuses on the past at the expense of the future. A punitive system is obsessed with the fact component of stories — who did what to whom in what sequence — because it is looking to single out the blameworthy participant for punishment. This means that a punitive system ignores the other components in the stories of the participants — how they feel, what they need. The system thus leaves all the participant with their stories untold, and their primary, most basic need — the need to be heard — unfulfilled. Moreover, the emphasis on punishment for the acts of the past means that the system largely ignores how to go forward into the future, how to make things right, and how to repair and restore broken bonds of trust in the community.

Third, a punitive system imposes a kind of Manichaeism — a belief that the world consists of two powers, good and evil, light and dark, easily distinguished, in constant battle. This Manichaean mythology pervades our criminal justice system and most of our thinking. We worry about the facts because we believe the facts will show us how to apportion blame. When people are in conflict, we attempt to punctuate their ongoing relationship, and thus determine who is the one to be punished.We feel compelled to distinguish bad guys from good guys, because only in this way can we make sure that bad guys get what they deserve. And, if we fail at punctuating the interaction, we often throw up our hands and punish both.

Fourth, our culture views punishment in transactional terms. The very terms we use — giving people what they deserve — embodies a transactional view. Being punished for having harmed someone is very much like a business transaction. The punishment is frequently negotiated. For example, punishment may be lessened in exchange for an admission or an apology — often a meaningless apology, with no intent to repair the harm or make things right. The transactional nature of punishment is also captured in the saying, Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Think about the converse: If you can do the time, then hell, you might as well do the crime.

This means that the decision to harm another person is reduced to a calculus that does not involve the other person at all — only the harmer and the justice system. This means, too, that someone who has harmed another person is not put face-to-face with the harm that has been done — the physical injury, the fear, the loss of safety, the inconvenience suffered by the person harmed. The harmer does not have to deal with the person harmed at all. The harmer is involved only in negotiating with the justice system for the best possible deal.

This is our current culture of punitive justice. But there is an alternative — a culture of sacred justice, which focuses on repair, restoration, and healing. We will discuss this in Part 2.