Monday, December 21, 2009

Punishment- Revenge or Rehabilitation?

The Distortions Unlimited Electric Chair Gag w...
This is a subject that I have always found fascinating.  What is it with the human desire for revenge?  What is revenge? How does it benefit anyone?  How did we evolve into creatures that think that an "eye for an eye" sets the world right.  I don't know who said it.  But, I think it's brilliant.  "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless."  But, from the time we are children, there's an instinct to "get even".  If you strike me, I strike you back.

I'm not exempt from this desire.  I am vehemently opposed to the death penalty.  But, when I hear of a mother who kills her child or people who rape and torture people, I want to make an exception.   My lower nature takes over.  When someone makes me angry, my immediate response is to do something back to him/her.  But, "why?" I ask myself.  I'm no pacifist.  I believe in self-defense.  I think it's necessary.  I also believe in punishment for wrongs.  Punishment is necessary.  But, punishment can be given for one of two reasons- either retributive punishment (pay back) or rehabilitative* punishment which is intended to deter the undesired behavior from happening again in the future.   Note the word, future. While the actions taken to punish someone might be exactly the same, the intent makes all the difference in the world. As a father, if one of my daughters does something wrong, I reserve the right to punish her or not to punish her.  But, I never punish her because she "deserves" it or to pay her back for something she's done to me or someone else.  I punish her to teach her a lesson.  I punish her to give her an undesired consequence to an action so that she won't do it again.  The punishment may be more severe or less severe depending on the offense.  But, if for some reason,  I believe the punishment is unnecessary I simply do not punish her.

Let's contrast this with the notion of "justice" that we pin on G-d.  Because G-d is "just", supposedly G-d has no choice but to punish us for our "sins".  G-d's role of judge overrides G-d's desire as a Heavenly Father.  G-d has less leeway in the punishment department than I do.  Taking it even further, every sin is an offense against G-d who is infinitely good, therefore He's infinitely offended and every sin is worth of death and/or eternal torment.

A good friend of mine simply cannot fathom that I cannot fathom this type of "justice". But, it is pure nonsense to me.  The whole penal substitution atonement theory in which G-d has to pay Godself a price for our sins therefore sends an innocent man who is really G-d to die in our stead just doesn't work.  If an offense is "paid" for it's not forgiven, it's paid.   So, we're told Jesus paid the price for our sins.  OK so far.  But, wait.  You have to accept the payment for it to count?  Huh? Say what?  So, if I have a loan out with the bank (G-d in this analogy) and someone else (Jesus) pays my mortgage, the bank will still come after me for the money even though they have it in their pocket?  G-d's a double dipper?

Mike (in the umpteenth time trying to explain this to me) came up with this analogy:

May I give an example:  Johnny hits Billy and Johnny is not sorry but rather proud of himself for doing so.  Billy wants to hit Johnny back; its a matter of stature, pride, show of individual strength and self-sufficiency etc..    This is all natural and RIGHT!  Johnny DESERVES to be hit back.  Now, what if Johnny says he is sorry to Billy.   Well, Billy can, if he so chooses, forgive Johnny.  Billy takes it and keeps it, but by forgiving Johnny, Billy shows spiritual maturity. BUT, look at it, Billy has taken the pain TWICE: he took it from the first strike and from not hitting back, which he would have wanted to do.  However, what if Johnny had moved BEFORE he felt remorse.  He wants to say sorry, but he has no idea where Billy is.  Johnny says sorry to Jesus and Jesus takes the SECOND pain that Billy would have taken.  Billy will be compensated later for his pain.
So, the notion here is that if we forgive an offense us we are not only out the initial pain, we are taking a second hit.  Also, the notion here is that somehow hitting someone back makes things right.  It cancels the ledger.  Even more bizarre, if some third party agrees to allow me to hit him in the stead of the guy who hit me, I'm somehow "restored" to full health.

I say "no" to this notion.  It's an infantile mind that thinks by hitting someone back we are gaining something.  We know this. We teach this to our children.  Then, we forget the lesson ourselves.  The mature person realizes first of all, that hitting back accomplishes nothing as far as setting the record right. And, secondly any act I take to diminish another human being ultimately diminishes all of us, myself included. 

I have to admit something.  I used to be a proponent of capital punishment.  After all it's in the Bible.  And, if G-d is willing/able to send people to eternal torment for not being part of the right church, surely it makes sense for us to dispatch someone to justice if they rape, torture and/or murder.  But, once I began to really think about this and how little sense it made for G-d to eternally torment His creation, the notion of capital punishment began to fall apart for me.

This is not to say that wrong actions don't or shouldn't have consequences.  Any act that diminishes another human being is wrong and will have negative consequences.  Sometimes, it makes sense to make sure negative actions are punished (see rehabilitative punishment above).  But, it's way past time for us to evolve beyond an eye for an eye thinking.

Forgiveness is not just for the forgiven.  It's not a gift. It's a recognition that nothing can change the past.   "Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past "is one of my favorite sayings. It's a recognition of what your grandmother told you "Two wrongs don't make a right.".  It's not absorbing more pain, it's not even saintly.  It just makes sense.

* footnote- in the case of the criminal justice system there are those times when physical restraint  (incarceration) is necessary to prevent a criminal from re-offending.  This I don't see so much as punishment as I do the protection of society.  It is not paying the criminal back nor is it rehabilitating him.  It is physically removing the ability for him to do the act again.

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Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Such a pretty picture. ;-)

My biggest issue with capital punishment is the imperfection of our system. I'm sure we've executed innocent men and women, because I've seen too many people set free 20 or 30 years after they were put in jail due to new evidence or new techniques.

As far as revenge goes, I love a good revenge movie, and I think about revenge, particularly when someone hurts my loved ones, but I've never been one to act on it, even as a child hated hurting anyone to the point where I was mocked in the neighborhood for not fighting my friends when we got into stupid arguments and they wanted to. I did get into fights later, but nothing major.

Brian said...


It sounds like we were alike as kids. I can identify with that initial surge where you want to get revenge. But, I never really acted on it. I was picked on a lot. I remember one time a bully wanted to see just how far he could push me. He was smaller than I but had teased me for years. He pushed me too far one day. Threw a snowball at me that exploded into a window just above my head. I called him names I don't think he thought I knew and chased him like I was going to kill him. After that, we ended up becoming good friends. I never caught him and really didn't want to because I knew I wasn't going to really hurt him. I just wanted to frighten him. It worked.

The fact that our judicial system is just one more reason I am opposed to capital punishment. And, as much as I love a good revenge movie and I love sports where it's not only permissible, it's expected to wish for the other teams' demise, I know that punishment for the sake of revenge is wrong and would like to see even the option removed from our legal system. Capital punishment is going away slowly. More and more states are dropping it or simply not using it anymore.


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I've punched a bully right in the face, stopping further actions 3 separate times. All three were the same bully, the last time was in front of a teacher who laughed and literally turned and looked the other way. That was all in 7th or 8th grade.

Don said...

As I'm sure you know, Texas leads the nation in executions. Texas also leads the nations in exoneration of persons found guiltless through DNA evidence. The two are connected.
A person serving "time" in prison for an offense, having been found guilty by "the system" has a much greater chance of being exonerated and thereby enjoying freedom again, than a person who receives capital punishment.
However, capital punishment in Texas is a sometimes very slow process. I have a friend on "Death Row" in Texas. I was his "Sunday School" teacher. He was (wrongly, IMO)convicted of three murders back in 1984 and has been on "Death Row" since. So, effectively he has served life-in-prison on "Death Row". He has seen numerous appeals denied but there seems to be no "date" for his execution on the horizon. It is a strange system that we live under. I know of others on "Death Row" who were executed after only a year or two there.
I have no answer. I am opposed to capital punishment in general, but would much rather see life-in-prison as the punishment for horrible crimes which have taken a life or lives. What a difficult issue.

Anonymous said...

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And you et an account on Twitter?

Jesse Ahmann said...

The way Christians pick and choose what they follow in the OT is intriguing. Obviously Jesus fulfilled the "eye for an eye" passage by saying, "But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."
I'm just not sure many Christians take seriously the awful texts of the OT and really want to worship such a God.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14

I am also a pacifist, but God saved Israel through many wars; doesn't jive well with my own intellectual honesty.

Brian said...


I think pacifism is an extremely challenging philosophy to live up to and I cannot see it for myself. But, you bring up a good point, clearly Old Testament Israel wasn't pacifistic. And, if you believe that G-d commanded all those wars, G-d did not direct them to be.


Don said...

Brian- I can recommend Spong's "Sins of the Scripture". It deals with those "terrible texts".

Brian said...

Thanks, Don. I just finished Spong's book on life after death. I'll be reviewing it soon.

I may pick up his book on scripture. But, I've already read Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Not sure how much more I need to read on these "terrible texts". I'm pretty much past that now.

Jesse Ahmann said...

I've heard Spong dealing with the terrible texts on youtube:

It made me feel like leaving Christianity after listening to him. Unless your stronger than most; (most universalists are) I wouldn't recommend it.

Thanks for your blog Brian!

Brian said...


I've felt like leaving Christianity many times. And, at times I wonder if I've already left but just not admitted it.

Authors like Spong, Daniel Helminiak and Marcus Borg make me think there is something to Christianity worth salvaging though.