I and the other volunteers heard a presentation on abuse and neglect from Robert Driscoll, the assistant county prosecutor here in Athens County. His method of teaching us about the nature of abuse and neglect was to lead us through a series of examples, and let me tell you, the details were quite gruesome. We heard about children who were serially raped; who were wrapped up in duct tape and plastered to a wall for sport; who were born addicted to crack cocaine because of a mother's abuse of that drug; and who were beaten to within an inch of their life. Not all of the examples were drawn from Athens County, but in a county of 12,000 children there are roughly 120 (1% of the total) who are in the custody of the state at any given time. Bear in mind that a child does not come to be in the custody of the state until a certain amount of abuse or neglect has already been shown to a certain degree; who knows how many other children are abused or neglected but who have yet to be helped.
That's a lot of kids who are suffering far more than they deserve, if indeed it even makes sense to speak of a child "deserving" to suffer at all. It seems to me to be a situation that is manifestly unjust. Indeed, it is enough to fill an average parent with rage, rage against the scum who would treat children in such a way. So it is not surprising to find that there is a certain amount of vigilantism out there. We heard of a case in which a man was sodomizing his own nephew, but there was insufficient evidence to make a case against him in court. So three of his neighbors took matters into their own hands. They kidnapped the man and tortured him. They tortured him with a metal spatula, which they heated on a stove and used to brand him on his testicles, his buttocks, his arms, his legs, and his face. When the spatula began to cool off, they would take it to the stove and heat it up again. The three men were arrested and plead guilty to felony assault with intent to cause severe harm.
After the prosecutor had finished his presentation and left the room, one of the other volunteers said, casually, "I'm all for what those three guys did." And one or two other people nodded their agreement with the sentiment. It is a sentiment that I understand: it is frustrating that many who abuse children are never brought to justice. But I could not condone the sentiment, I could not agree that "I'm all for what those three guys did", because I am not at all "for" what they did. What they did was a lawless act of barbarity that reduced them to precisely the same state as the man they were torturing, and no civilized person can condone that.
This is not to suggest that the man they tortured did not deserve to be punished for what he did. He does deserve it. But to say that he deserves to be punished by a legitimate authority is, of course, quite different from saying that he deserves to be horribly tortured by three thugs who are enraged enough to steal the law and use it for their own purposes, whatever those might be. I'm sure that the person who professed to be "all for" what they did did not really mean to endorse the use of torture in our legal system. At least I hope she did not mean that. I think what she meant was something along the lines of "I'm glad that bastard got some kind of payback for what he did." But if the man had been convicted of child abuse, he would not have been sentenced to a physical beating and burning at the hands of three of his neighbors. He manifestly did not get what he deserved.
What did he "deserve"? Even if the person who professed to be "all for" torture really only meant that she was all for doing something to punish the guy, even if that meant doing it outside the law, it seems that in her mind justice is all about rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. That is, her attitude at least has the appearance of being an endorsement of the principle "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," the so-called lex talionis that is rejected by Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, that principle would dictate that the man be sodomized, not that he be branded with a spatula, so of course he should have gone to jail, but never mind.
It doesn't pay to be made nervous about people who profess to be "all for" doing something when the law doesn't do it for us, because it is human nature to want some kind of "payback" when we are wronged. Even within the Christian understanding of sin there is a sense of retribution: many times the penances that we must do after Reconcilliation are intended as a small contribution to the process of healing that is begun in Christ, a way to make some reparation, however small, for the wrong that we have done. In antiquity the penances were rather spectacular: people were sometimes made to stand outside the local church day after day for months on end wearing sackcloth and a rope around their neck. Compare that to the five Our Fathers that I usually get. Or consider the penitential process as it was understood by the Cappadocian Father, Saint Basil the Great:
The man who has been polluted with his own sister, either on the father's or the mother's side, must not be allowed to enter the house of prayer, until he has given up his iniquitous and unlawful conduct. And, after he has come to a sense of that fearful sin, let him weep for three years standing at the door of the house of prayer, and entreating the people as they go in to prayer that each and all will mercifully offer on his behalf their prayers with earnestness to the Lord. After this let him be received for another period of three years to hearing alone, and while hearing the Scriptures and the instruction, let him be expelled and not admitted to prayer. Afterwards, if he has asked it with tears and has fallen before the Lord with contrition of heart and great humiliation, let kneeling be accorded to him during other three years. Thus when he shall have worthily shown the fruits of repentance, let him be received in the tenth year to the prayer of the faithful without oblation; and after standing with the faithful in prayer for two years, then, and not till then, let him be held worthy of the communion of the good thing.Hoo boy! Those were the good old days! I think people would take the reception of Holy Communion a little more seriously if they thought that this might be the only way to come back to it after Confession.
The penances prescribed by Basil the Great are severe, but it is interesting to note that they do not involve any physical or spiritual harm. Quite the opposite: the acts one does as acts of penance are always acts that anyone, even the non-sinner, could do as a voluntary act of worthy and salutary self-denial. One is never required, as a penance, to burn one's own testicles with a hot spatula, or find three thugs to beat one to a pulp. Undergoing that kind of thing helps no one: it does not alter the fact that a wrong was committed, nor does it have any effect of healing the wrongdoer and helping him to live life more in accord with the Will of God.
Someone may object: but justice isn't about healing the wrongdoer, it's about righting the wrong, giving some sort of recompense to the wronged parties for what they had to endure at the hands of the wrongdoer. After all, at thee last judgment will there not be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth for the unjust?
This is an interesting objection, since it is an outright rejection of the very principle I was ascribing earlier to those who endorse this kind of thinking: it is a rejection of the Thomistic/Greek conception of justice as the spiritual analog of medicine, that is, the art of healing the sick soul. This objection is nothing but retributive. Retributive justice, however, does not do what this objection claims that it will have the effect of doing: it does not, in fact, obtain any kind of "recompense" for the wronged parties. How could it? It does not un-rape the child, un-kill the murder victim, restore destroyed property. It merely causes suffering in the wrongdoer, suffering that the wronged parties take some satisfaction in. Far from being a manifestation of some virtue, it is a grotesque indulgence in some of the worst of human passions and desires for revenge.
It is true, of course, that we are told that there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth for the unjust. But that is not intended to comfort those of us who have managed to squeeze through the narrow gate. It is not to give the unjust some kind of "payback" for their unjust ways that they find themselves where they do. Rather, they find themselves where they do merely because that is the state of their souls--it is the natural entailment of their corrupted wills that they are in a place of suffering, and their wailing and the gnashing of their teeth is not due to the fact that they are being burned on the testicles but to the fact that they are, by their very natures, unhappy people. Their wills are not able to pursue the end for which all men are created, the Beatific Vision, and to be that sort of person is, by definition, to be unhappy. In short, they are not unhappy because of anything that God is doing to them. They are unhappy because of the way they are.
Of course it is not as satsifying to be told, as my mother sometimes told me, that bad people are their own punishment. The retributive side of our human nature wants something more than that and, arguably, that is why we have the system of justice that we do. But positive law is not the same thing as natural law or the moral law (though in principle it should be). Will we be any happier when we internalize that? Probably not, since we will still be human, all too human. We won't be any happier; but we might be better.