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.


  1. Steve, Welcome back to your blog. While reading this, I could not help thinking of Matthew Fox, who was a Dominican for 34 years, then excommunicated by then Cardinal Ratzinger. This is a good example, it seems to me, of a feral heirarchy, punishment meted out through the kind of transactional process you discuss here, a vision of right and wrong in black and white, etc. Thanks. Fred

  2. This is a good example of a hierarchical and punitive culture writ large, like Plato's city. It is equally important to scale back down, I think, and see how these values — and the myth of redemptive violence — inform our everyday interactions with each other. Here is how I sometimes put it. What am I willing to give up to live in sacred justice — hierarchy? control? power? righteousness? ego? dignity?

    Here is one of my favorite stories, which comes from the Talmud. There was once a rabbi named Baruqa, who liked to visit the marketplace. One day, in the market, he saw the prophet Elijah. He hurried over to the prophet and asked, “Of all these people, who will have a share in the World-to-Come?” Elijah shook his head sadly and said, “None.” Later, two men came into the marketplace, and Rabbi Baruqa asked them who they were and what they did. The replied, “We are clowns. When we see people who are sad, we cheer them up. When we see two people in conflict, we help them make peace.” And Elijah said to Rabbi Baruqa, “Those two will have a share in the World-to-Come.”

    So: Am I willing to be a clown for peace?

  3. What wonderful commentary! I agree totally. Steve, I am so horrified by our so-called justice system that I refuse to do jury duty. I cannot and will not be a party to placing another human being in one of the medieval hell-holes we call prisons. Some even think it's funny that men rape other men in these places. If the human race survives long enough, our descendents will look back on the American prison system and shake their heads that their forefathers could have been such barbarians. I am looking forward eagerly to part 2.

  4. Great to have you back Steve! I´m one of probably many who browse your blog on a daily basis, and consider it one of the most interesting. Thank You for these wonderful posts!
    / a reader

  5. Thank you for your kind comments.

    I have been away because sometimes I just run out of things to say. That is the spirits' way of telling me I need to get a life. :-)

  6. I hope that before you get a life you'll publish part two!

  7. Great post, I am excited to read part two and see where you are taking this train of thought.

    The thing about this system of justice is that we are not alone in being the only things on this earth that are organized in such a hierarchical, punitive manner. Most pack animals exhibit dominant and submissive relationships; the dominant ones use violence to maintain their positions as leaders. Does this mean we are no "better" than they are? Because we are self aware must we abide by the moral obligation to go against this behavior and act in a peaceful manner? One could say this behavior pattern has been "given" to us. What are we supposed to do with it, act as the animals and thus remain as we were "intended" to be? It is unfortunate that peace and equality is not in our nature, our biology. I wonder why we were made the way we were.

  8. Thank you for the interesting comment. The question is one about human nature, and, as paradigmatically expressed by Hobbes, we have tended to view human nature as violent. But this is a view embedded in a hierarchical and punitive culture. There are two books I would recommend to you — Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History by Elise Boulding, and The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence, by Douglas P. Fry. Both books contend that, while conflict is inevitable in any society, humans are inherently peacemakers.