Thursday, March 26, 2009

Divine Forgiveness and Criminal Justice

I was watching a news segment on WABC TV about a small town in New Hampshire that was roiled in controversy. A murderer who had abducted and murdered a twelve year old boy was released from prison. A minister in the town invited the man to live in his basement and to take meals with his family. He quoted scripture and verse to support his belief that a hardened and evil man could be turned around through what he perceived to be the love of Jesus.

I credit the minister for putting his money where his mouth is. I think he is nuts to put his family at risk. I notice that his focus was on the value of the perpetrator as a human being and not on the family of the murdered boy. It was clear that the sister of the victim still shed tears for her murdered brother after decades.

There is a place for forgiveness and expiation. But the feelings of those who have been wronged can not be eclipsed by divine forgiveness. Jewish tradition and also common sense demand that the victim be placated. When capital punishment is inflicted, it is a chance for the soul of the perpetrator to be repaired. It is also a chance for the aggrieved family to achieve closure,to diminish the rage at losing a loved one. A life can not be paid for under Jewish law with blood money as is permitted in the Koran and in other legal systems. We are ultimately trustees of the life given us. We can not take money for a soul that belongs to G-d.

There is a place for the desire for revenge. The legal system should not deny this natural human feeling but assign it through proper deliberation to its intended target. There is nothing wrong with society seeking to maintain symmetry between deeds and consequences. Our food and shelter do not come to us ready made. We are given laws that define justice. We are not always given justice. Sometimes we have to create it ourselves. That is the nature of human existence. There is the miracle of nature. There is also the occasional open or concealed miracle. But we must strive to create a perfect world through the blueprint we are given by the Architect.

My sympathies are with the family of the murdered boy. It is unfortunate that his killer walks the earth. If he has truly found G-d, he should recognise the magnitude of the suffering he has inflicted. A truly repentant murderer would not ask for a lessening of his judicial punishment. He would to the contrary want to preserve the sense of moral symmetry in society by accepting his punishment. If we must suffer the continued presence of cold blooded killers who claim to have found religion, let us create an island of banishment where they can work for pay and send restitution back to civilisation. If they have truly repented, their place of banishment would become a utopian commune.

It is unlikely that such a place of banishment will ever be created. I do not salute those who buy their freedom with cheap forgiveness from a god created in their own image. My heart is with the families of the bereaved, whose burning anger after years of loss creates a feeling of moral symmetry. The minister who is hosting the murderer of a child in his home does not elicit my admiration. At best, he is like a silly little boy who brings home a cute little rattlesnake to show his mommy. At worst, he is callous to the value of a life and the feelings of of the aggrieved and the bereaved. There is no reason to sing his praises. And I shall never do so.

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