Perhaps the real original sin of humanity is the concept of sin itself. There is of course evil in the world and there is good. To me there is little equivocation about some evils and I am hardly a moral relativist. Although these terms become subjective when viewed from the perspective of an individual, there is a wide general acceptance among diverse cultures as to their general definitions.
We consider murder in all cultures evil, as is robbery, assault, rape (in most but not all cultures), and a host of familiar others. For at least five thousand years, cultures established legal systems to deal with bad behavior and with those systems came the need for punishment. The history of punishment has always been rather draconian and bloody throughout history. While today punishment is perhaps more humane in many places, it still caries with it significant cruelty in its application throughout humanity.
“A woman and her three children had just gotten off the bus at a stop across from their apartment building (in Marietta, Georgia) in October 2010 when her 4-year-old son, A.J., broke away from her and ran into the street. A car struck the boy, causing fatal injuries. Nelson (the woman) and one of her two daughters also suffered minor injuries. Nelson was charged with three misdemeanors: second-degree vehicular homicide, failing to cross at a cross walk and reckless conduct, according to court records. A jury convicted her. Although prosecutors did not recommend jail time, each count carried a potential sentence of one year in jail”. What is behind this prosecution? Who among us who has raised young children wouldn’t be chilled with the vision of this happening to them? Why do we see such prosecutorial zeal in our society to find someone to punish when accidents occur?
The other salient aspect of this case is: “The man driving the car, Jerry Guy, fled the scene after the accident but later admitted being involved, according to CNN affiliate WXIA-TV. He was sentenced to five years in prison but served only six months. He is serving the remainder of the sentence on probation.” Here is the full story from CNN.
My proposition is that the increase in fundamentalist religious thought in the world and the influence it has had on us as a society, has led to a rash of unneeded prosecutions, motivated by the need to find an answer to each tragedy that comes to the public’s attention. The disconnect is that while our legal system and Constitution do not talk of sin as an offense against society, those believers in the concept of sin have the belief that we are punishing people for their sins and not for breaking the law. So deep is their dedication to fighting sin, that they believe our legal system is the proper venue to deal with it. In Christianity and Islam especially sin is to be punished by God/Allah’s judgment at the point of an individual’s death. Nevertheless, there is the idea that society should also punish sin, pre-Deity so to speak and in effect revenge itself on those miscreants who violate God’s Law. Judaism doesn’t talk of sin per se, but the harsh judgments prescribed in the Torah for various acts of breaking the 613 Commandments, may as well be the same as terming them “sin” by popular understanding understanding of the word.
When a society begins to judge criminality based on the notion of punishing sin, the roster of things to be punished is an ever-expanding one. With this goes the notion that society must avenge itself on those who commit sins and that punishment should be harsh. In this mindset, the law is meant to avenge wrongs and provide punishment as revenge. Not only is this notion inimical to our American legal system and Constitution, it is a foolish one that perverts our system and undermines our laws.
The tremendous increase in our prison rosters are due to what are essentially victim-less crimes dealing with drugs and alcohol. Hundreds of million$ are spent to dissuade drug abuse and after you parse the message past the personal harm to the individual, the message is clearly that “getting high” is sinful. If we took the sin out of judging and dealing with the effects of drug use, perhaps we might even reduce it, or at least cut the cost in money and human lives it now represents.
Drugs are just one aspect of the problem of viewing our legal system as existing to punish sin and enforce religious based morality. Sin bespeaks the need of society to avenge proscribed behavior. A rational legal system is not about revenge as punishment, but should be about protecting the citizenry from predation and maintaining a safe environment. As such, our law should be dispassionate about meting out justice and compassionate in its application.
The human mind strives to make sense of the randomness of tragedy, seeking reasons for why they occur and trying to pin blame for the devastation on someone, or something. We know intellectually that “stuff happens”, but we find it hard to accept that sometimes there is just no reason for bad things to occur. If one is a Religious Fundamentalist, believing an omniscient God controls everything, since God is good it must be Satan controlling the supposed perpetrator. Therefore, when bad accidents occur to innocent, little children, someone has to assume blame. In this case, an overburdened mother, coming off from a bus and a four-year old behaving as four-year olds do and pulling away.
We can imagine the indignant feeling of a judgmental public wanting her called to account and the avenging feelings of Cops and Prosecutors, disdainful of her carelessness. This is what I call the “Avenging Mind”. This mindset believes that people deserve harsh punishment for their transgressions, not as reformation, but simply for the satisfaction of revenge. It is an angry, narrow-minded mindset, which internally treats itself with undue harshness and guilt. From a Fundamentalist perspective, we are all sinners, some restrained only by their certainty of punishment in the afterlife. God’s wrath though is not enough for them, because they will never see the punishment to occur. They need the vicarious thrill of seeing it happen.
Isn’t this the reason people were fighting to get into Casey Anthony’s trial and that the television ratings for the verdict were astronomical? It was a need to see her face, as the verdict was delivered and the punishment pronounced. They hoped for the sadistic satisfaction that tears or a pained expression on her face would give them. This isn’t about her guilt or innocence, it is about the fact that many humans take satisfaction in revenge. There are millions of children, living and dying in this world in horrible circumstances, yet we avoid that macrocosm with its attendant crying out to our emotions and focus on the death of one in millions.
This woman above, faced with the devastating loss of her child and the overwhelming guilty feelings accompanying it, was made to stand trial for vehicular homicide. She was convicted, but in a seeming show of mercy sentenced to no jail time. She never should have been tried on that charge in the first place, or put through the torture of a trial, to make sure that revenge was provided for the human mistake of an instant. The only crime we have here is the Driver’s, for his fleeing the scene. He was treated more humanely for his crime, while a grieving mother who will never forgive herself, was forced to undergo public humiliation and trial.
How do we educate the part of the public so inundated with the notion of sin and retribution, that revenge is not the purpose of the law? In theory, our legal system exists as an extension of our Constitution, to safeguard us all and to protect our society from those who would willingly do harm to others. Somehow, it has gotten all confused with God’s wrath and that is to our detriment.