Creating Hell One Punishment at a Time

We live in a punishing society. We are a society that supports and tolerates a great deal of inflicting pain for moral reasons. Lots of us feel justified in pronouncing “I need to teach you a lesson,” and we’re not talking about math or grammar.

If a system is organized to get the results it is getting, then our society is organized to punish.

Punishment is the morally-justified infliction of pain by some individual or entity (such as a government-authorized agent) on a person or persons who have done something wrong according to a law, norm, social more, or personal code.

Allegedly, if someone experiences the punishment deserved, their subsequent memory of the punishment and accompanying fear and shame will “keep them in their lane.” That is, unless the punishment is ultimately to satisfy the sense of righteous offense felt by the agent of punishment. Then punishment is not so much about deterrence as it is about satisfying the punisher.

Punishment always includes a moral claim. A wrongdoing incurs a societal debt that must be paid. The infraction causes a tear in someone’s life and/or in the fabric of society. The alleged purpose of punishment is to satisfy the debt and mend the social fabric. But does punishment pay the debt and repair the tear, or does it worsen them?

Note how “tough on crime” is a punishment-laden phrase. The choices are “soft on crime,” which means low levels of punishment, or “tough on crime,” which means to up the pain inflicted by the state in response to the criminal act. The alleged logic is deterrence: if we make the pain great enough, we will deter this person from committing a crime again and deter others from committing that crime. However, think of the different conversations and arguments if the problematic was not soft or tough on crime but centered on victim compensation, reformation of the perpetrator, and social restoration (where desirable and possible).

To my Facebook friends and members of the Center for Religion in Public Life Facebook group, I asked how they understand the difference between punishment and “logical consequences.” The shared thoughts are excellent reflections.

First, we must differentiate between natural consequences and logical consequences. Natural consequences are based in physics. If I walk in front of a speeding car, I am going to be injured or killed. If I eat a 500-calorie donut three times a day for a year, I will look more like the donut at year’s end than I do now. The logic here is true cause and effect, action and reaction–without a human agent determining the logic.

Logical consequences involve a logic which is played out by either the creator of the logic (a parent; a board of directors) or the agent of the creator (a judge or law enforcement officer; an HR officer). Saying “logical consequences” is another way of saying “practical reason:” reasoning about matters that could be other than what they are.

Logical consequences, therefore, may or may not be logical to the one receiving the consequences of an action, which almost any child suffering logical consequences can tell you. “If you do the crime, you do the time” sounds like a logical consequence statement, as inevitable as a natural consequence. But determining what constitutes a crime (everything from murder to possession of a joint or driving with a broken taillight) and what is the debt that must be paid to satisfy the imposed consequence may or may not seem logical.

If an oil tanker breaks open and pours millions of gallons of crude into pristine waters, to me, it seems a logical consequence (and not a punishment) if the company was required to repair the damaged ecosystem for as long as it takes and to pay whatever court fees the state incurred in pressing the company to do the right thing. Now, if the company were also shut down, would that be a logical consequence only or a punishment? That depends on the logic imposed.

Logical consequences can be smokescreen language for punishment. I’m sure that, whatever was in Officer Derek Chauvin’s mind when he slowly, publicly, murdered George Floyd, the officer thought his actions were morally-justified logical consequences for Mr. Floyd.

Given the human propensity to mask less-good intentions of our actions from ourselves, to justify our decisions to ourselves to sustain the image of being the good people we are, we on the political-religious left should be suspicious of punishment lurking in our own “logical consequences” judgments.

Some responders to my question on Facebook opined that logical consequences denotes a restorative approach that punishment does not. After a person or the society has been wronged, what are the alternatives to “an eye for an eye” or “I’ll take two eyes because you took one” that allow for the possibility of repair?

Ours is a highly individualistic, non-communitarian society—as most recently evidenced by the various logics regarding mask wearing and punishments meted out for not wearing masks or for asking someone to wear a mask. We, as a society, have not acted as if we are “all in this pandemic together.”

I wonder about the relationship between our individualistic, “I don’t need you” society, and crime and punishment rates. Do societies with a stronger felt connection to each other, a stronger sense of what we owe to each other, commit fewer crimes? In such societies, do they punish less and seek to restore relationships more?

What influence do religious, spiritual, and theological teachings have in creating a high punishment society? Every society has a moral order, a sense of right and wrong and what we owe to each other. But not every society or religious group believes in hell in the high percentages we see in the U.S. Not every society is as awash in apocalyptic rhetoric of God bringing history to a close through high-punishment events leading up to an ultimate sorting between the saved and the eternally damned and punished.

I’d wager that among Western nations, no other society has as high a percentage of politicians and appointed leaders who believe they are called by God to their post. And, as called, they are agents of both divine mercy and divine retribution. God may have said “vengeance is mine,” but in the U.S. we have legions of people who believe they are deputized agents of God’s vengeance. It is no coincidence that states with larger percentages of theologically conservative Protestant Christians are states that are “tougher on crime.” [I’ve not yet read this book but it is now on my reading list.]

Hell is a place of punishment. No restoration. No purging. No repair. No forgiveness. The time for all that is past. However, to what extent have we U.S. Americans already created hell? And what would it take to dismantle our creation?

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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