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The measure with which we measure

Feb 10, 2012

from the article by Andrew Skotnicki in Baylor's Christian Reflections issue on Prison:

The decisive factor in overturning not only the ordeal, but the fear of Christians to will the punishment of others, was the inauguration of systems of law—first canon law which began its development in the late eleventh century and, in its wake, secular legal systems. With this epic turning of the moral tide, a third factor was brought into the equation of viewing human weakness: an offense was not only an affront to God and to the victim, it was also an affront to the law. In light of this legal revolution, perhaps the most influential revolution in Western history, the meaning of human acts against their fellows took on a new appellation and gravity. They were not only sins that required forgiveness by a priest in confession, they were also crimes, and the offender had to be punished because he or she had broken the law. 

I am arguing that this development, more than any other, is at the heart of the systematic divide in Christian consciousness between seeing the world and its institutions in light of the teaching of Christ, and seeing the teaching of Christ in light of one’s membership in specific institutions. The advent of Christian legalism through canon law marked a day as regrettable as any in the history of the Church when, at least in effect, the absolution given in the sacrament of confession for a public offense bestowed forgiveness from God, but was insufficient to merit forgiveness from the Church. Secular polities based not only their legal codes and the punitive sentences that are their necessary complement upon canon law, they also, like the Church, helped to remove Christ more and more from the equation in understanding the meaning of a criminal act. As both Marcel Gauchet and Charles Taylor have argued, the vacuum created when the explicit teaching of Jesus against judgment and violence ceased to be imperative was soon filled by the coercive power of Church and state.

....I believe that the weight of the New Testament and of the tradition of the Church declare that there is never a need for Christians to inflict violent retributive punishment on anyone. There have been many justifications for such punishment proffered by theologians and church officials but    

one notices that they inevitably trade in the currency of law, not gospel. or example, within my own tradition, the Catholic Church has largely repudiated its earlier assent of capital punishment but still cannot make the ban a total one because it sees its moral duty to support the right of the state to punish legal violations.

Readers may wish to consult their own faith tradition to see whether justifications for punishment rely on Scripture or statements by church leaders. It is my studied opinion that such justifications normally hallow the state as a necessary bulwark against disorder, law as a source of moral legitimacy, and Scripture as accommodating both. The only thing we can be sure of each day as Christians is that we are obliged to bear our individual crosses and follow in the footsteps of Christ, making him the measure against which we measure all that we do. The cross is not a symbol of security, a talisman against suffering, and certainly not a weapon against the lawless; it is the sign that a life of dying to self makes one, to quote St. John of the Cross, a living flame of love who wills harm upon no one. All deaths are hard, none harder or more painful than the death of the false self; and it is only the false self in me that wills the suffering of those who have sinned, including those “dead men walking,” waiting their day with the executioner, whose sins are no worse than my own.

Read the whole article.

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