Sin v. Disconnection

Mercy Sakes! part 2

I once heard my colleague, Rev. Scott Tayler, UU minister now on the UUA denominational staff in Boston ("Director of Congregational Life"), tell the story of growing up with a father who was a traditional old-line Methodist minister. His Dad, he said, saw the world through the lens of sin. When he picked up the morning paper and read about what newspapers report about – crimes, scandals, wrong-doing, things going awry – he saw this all as manifestations of a basic sinful nature. Scott saw sadness and grief as clearly as his father did, he said. But rather than seeing it through the lens of sin, he saw it in terms of disconnection.

Too many of us are not connected in loving, caring relationships of respect. There are so many of us alienated, despairing, isolated, ungrounded, that all of us are to some degree affected by this anomie. Sometimes we’re scared. Sometimes our fear makes us angry and prone to behave in ways that just worsen the disconnection. But what we aren’t is corrupted in our soul. As Unitarians and others of liberal faith, we have no use for that old language of about inherently sinful nature.

We understand that the Calvinistic "total depravity" bit was a strategy for facilitating humility – curbing the arrogance of thinking we’re powerful enough and good enough to be in control. We get that. But there are other ways to get to humility, other paths to letting go of the illusion of control. So, this is us. We of liberal faith, while also seeking humility, letting go, and letting be, prefer the road that goes through "inherent worth and dignity" rather than the one that goes through "total depravity." We see the world's wounding as failure of connection rather than as sinful human nature; as failures to sustain contexts of nurturing relationships of care and accountability rather than as manifestations of inner corruption.

Broader culture still carries the residues of a notion of justice as something in the course of which none of us should see salvation. That notion makes mercy into something that has to intervene occasionally just so some of us can get on with our lives without having to be continually punished. This mercy is, as Portia said, not strained – not constrained by any rules or even guidelines. On that view of mercy, then, mercy is random -- without rhyme or reason.

The ideal of justice is to be fair and rational and treat like cases alike by having set, fair, transparent procedures. Mercy makes a hash of that aspiration. Mercy, being unconstrained, has no rules, no fairness. Her methods are opaque, her outcomes wildly variable. Mercy is "the madwoman in the attic" of the house of justice (Linda Ross Meyer, The Justice of Mercy) .

But that’s because we’ve been thinking about justice all wrong. Our system of justice still is primarily retributive. It’s a carry-over from two thousand years of theology of sin. According to the theology of sin, the only thing to do with sin is subject it to torment. In a few random cases it can be forgiven, cleansed, and expunged; otherwise, the bearers of sin can only be tortured forever. On the retributive model of justice, the only thing to do with wrong-doing is subject it to forms of pain and sacrifice. The guilty cannot be rehabilitated, corrected; belongingness in community cannot be restored, and therefore healing and meaning can never recur.

Today, there are alternatives being tried in limited ways in a few jurisdictions: there’s community mediation, victim-offender mediation, alternative sentencing, and restorative justice. We don’t have to be stuck in a retributive model. If we see wrong-doing as a product of disconnection rather than as a product of sin, then we'd want our justice system to restore connection, restore belonging.

By setting up Mercy and Justice as opposed to each other, we get neither. By seeing Mercy as the imposition of irrationality, we blind ourselves to the irrationality of our conception of Justice. For instance, we get mandatory sentencing, in the name of removing the unfairness of judicial discretion. But all we did was shift all the discretion to the prosecutor who decides whether to prosecute at all, and what plea-bargaining to offer.

Moreover, mandatory sentencing forces meaningfully different cases to be treated alike. The ideal of justice is: Treat like cases alike. With mandatory sentencing, we forgot that treating different cases alike is just as unjust as treating like cases differently.

One way to look at the fundamental wrongness of retributive justice is to imagine it at its most ideal. The real world is always messy, always has complications. The real world is never ideal. To see an ideal, we'd have to look to art rather than life. Alexander Dumas' 1844 novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, provides us with such an ideal.

Edmond Dantes, a valiant and honest young sailor, is betrayed by people he thought were his friends. One of them fears Dantes promotion to captain would put an end to his embezzling. Another wants to stop Dantes marriage so that he can woo Dantes’ fiancĂ©e. They fabricate false charges, and Dantes is thrown in prison. In prison, he meets another prisoner, who has an escape plan, and a map to an immense treasure -- but is dying. He gives the map to Dantes, tells him how can escape, and then dies. Dantes gets out, finds the treasure, assumes a new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo, and sets about tracking down his betrayers and plotting their undoing.

The Count of Monte Cristo sees himself as an avenging angel of Providence. He is the means by which God will restore the balance of right and wrong. At one point he declares his desire “to be Providence, because the thing that I know which is finest, greatest and most sublime in the world is to reward and punish.” Expense is no object as he is in possession of a fortune. And he takes his time working out the perfect form of revenge. He goes to great lengths to bring out the “natural” consequences of the evil character of his betrayers. He makes them in effect, live by their own law. The punishments he wreaks epitomize classic retributive justice.

Yet even perfected, retribution comes with a heavy cost.

Next: Costs of retributive justice.

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The account of The Count of Monte Cristo is adapted from Linda Ross Meyer, The Justice of Mercy, pp. 162-177. This is part 2 of 3 of "Mercy Sakes!"
See also
Part 1: Mercy v. Justice
Part 3: Justice AND Mercy

What Is Mercy?
Just Mercy

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