We live in a culture that is hierarchical — that is, in which people have power over other people. We accept this as being normal and natural, as if there were no other way to live. We create spaces — classrooms, offices, courtrooms — that express this hierarchy architecturally. But there are consequences to this way of living that are worth examining.

Hierarchy is essentially unstable. In our culture, people with power over other people seek to maintain this power primarily by using punishment and the threat of punishment. This punishment can take many forms — as many forms as there are ways people can harm other people. We assert and maintain hierarchical relations by public shaming, verbal abuse, physical injury, intimidation, reduction in status, and denying basic social goods, such as education, employment, the right to vote, and liberty. We swim in a punitive ocean without even realizing it is there. We do not realize the extent to which we think in terms of punishment in our workplaces, our schools, our justice system, and our relationships with our children. We think that punishing people is normal.

In addition, power relationships are constantly being negotiated. We think that negotiation is a fair way to decide issues of power. That means that we view relationships with other people in transactional terms. When people are in apparent conflict with each other, we expect them to handle it transactionally — to negotiate, bargain, compromise. This is reflected in one of the key strategies of our criminal justice system — the plea bargain. We are constantly seeking to craft outcomes rather than deepen relationships.

Then we wonder why these fixes are so temporary. We see our solutions discarded, our carefully negotiated agreements abandoned in cycles of violence. We try to force people to behave, and then we are bewildered when they do not. The result is a culture in which people are oppressed by the power that others have over them — a culture in which we all oppress each other, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The punitive foundations of our culture, like most cultural foundations, are expressed in myth. In our case, the foundation myth is what theologian Walter Wink has called the myth of redemptive violence — believing that a harm can be made right by humiliating or physically harming the offender, that violence is a necessary and appropriate response, even that such violence is healing for the victim. It is normative in our society to seek vengeance for a harm done to us. Anyone brought up in our culture has seen thousands of hours of movies and television in which the schoolyard bully is finally beaten and humiliated by his victim, or the ruthless outlaw is shot dead by the gentle sheriff. The schoolyard victim and gentle sheriff are empowered and healed by this response, and often given a sexual reward for their violence. We are all constantly tempted to reenact this mythology.

When a harm has been done in a punitive culture such as ours, founded on the myth of redemptive violence, there are, I think, four consequences.

First, it is completely rational for the person who has done the harm to try to evade responsibility for it — to lie, hide, deny, and blame others. What is the point of being accountable, if all that you get for it is punishment? What is the point of accepting responsibility for a harm you have done, if your own needs — to apologize, to make things right, to repair broken relationships — are not going to be met?

Second, a punitive system focuses on the past at the expense of the future. A punitive system is obsessed with the fact component of stories — who did what to whom in what sequence — because it is looking to single out the blameworthy participant for punishment. This means that a punitive system ignores the other components in the stories of the participants — how they feel, what they need. The system thus leaves all the participant with their stories untold, and their primary, most basic need — the need to be heard — unfulfilled. Moreover, the emphasis on punishment for the acts of the past means that the system largely ignores how to go forward into the future, how to make things right, and how to repair and restore broken bonds of trust in the community.

Third, a punitive system imposes a kind of Manichaeism — a belief that the world consists of two powers, good and evil, light and dark, easily distinguished, in constant battle. This Manichaean mythology pervades our criminal justice system and most of our thinking. We worry about the facts because we believe the facts will show us how to apportion blame. When people are in conflict, we attempt to punctuate their ongoing relationship, and thus determine who is the one to be punished.We feel compelled to distinguish bad guys from good guys, because only in this way can we make sure that bad guys get what they deserve. And, if we fail at punctuating the interaction, we often throw up our hands and punish both.

Fourth, our culture views punishment in transactional terms. The very terms we use — giving people what they deserve — embodies a transactional view. Being punished for having harmed someone is very much like a business transaction. The punishment is frequently negotiated. For example, punishment may be lessened in exchange for an admission or an apology — often a meaningless apology, with no intent to repair the harm or make things right. The transactional nature of punishment is also captured in the saying, Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Think about the converse: If you can do the time, then hell, you might as well do the crime.

This means that the decision to harm another person is reduced to a calculus that does not involve the other person at all — only the harmer and the justice system. This means, too, that someone who has harmed another person is not put face-to-face with the harm that has been done — the physical injury, the fear, the loss of safety, the inconvenience suffered by the person harmed. The harmer does not have to deal with the person harmed at all. The harmer is involved only in negotiating with the justice system for the best possible deal.

This is our current culture of punitive justice. But there is an alternative — a culture of sacred justice, which focuses on repair, restoration, and healing. We will discuss this in Part 2.

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11 Responses to “Sacred Justice, Part 1”

  1. Fred Smith says:

    Steve, Welcome back to your blog. While reading this, I could not help thinking of Matthew Fox, who was a Dominican for 34 years, then excommunicated by then Cardinal Ratzinger. This is a good example, it seems to me, of a feral heirarchy, punishment meted out through the kind of transactional process you discuss here, a vision of right and wrong in black and white, etc. Thanks. Fred

  2. Steve Beyer says:

    This is a good example of a hierarchical and punitive culture writ large, like Plato's city. It is equally important to scale back down, I think, and see how these values — and the myth of redemptive violence — inform our everyday interactions with each other. Here is how I sometimes put it. What am I willing to give up to live in sacred justice — hierarchy? control? power? righteousness? ego? dignity?

    Here is one of my favorite stories, which comes from the Talmud. There was once a rabbi named Baruqa, who liked to visit the marketplace. One day, in the market, he saw the prophet Elijah. He hurried over to the prophet and asked, “Of all these people, who will have a share in the World-to-Come?” Elijah shook his head sadly and said, “None.” Later, two men came into the marketplace, and Rabbi Baruqa asked them who they were and what they did. The replied, “We are clowns. When we see people who are sad, we cheer them up. When we see two people in conflict, we help them make peace.” And Elijah said to Rabbi Baruqa, “Those two will have a share in the World-to-Come.”

    So: Am I willing to be a clown for peace?

  3. jaguarshaman says:

    What wonderful commentary! I agree totally. Steve, I am so horrified by our so-called justice system that I refuse to do jury duty. I cannot and will not be a party to placing another human being in one of the medieval hell-holes we call prisons. Some even think it’s funny that men rape other men in these places. If the human race survives long enough, our descendents will look back on the American prison system and shake their heads that their forefathers could have been such barbarians. I am looking forward eagerly to part 2.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Great to have you back Steve! I´m one of probably many who browse your blog on a daily basis, and consider it one of the most interesting. Thank You for these wonderful posts!
    / a reader

  5. Steve Beyer says:

    Thank you for your kind comments.

    I have been away because sometimes I just run out of things to say. That is the spirits’ way of telling me I need to get a life. :-)

  6. Marco says:

    I totally agree with part 1. Anticipating a little on part 2, there has been a revival all over the world of the other kind, the one you call sacred justice. The results speak for themselves. If only those who are perpetuating the punitive system could make a rational cost-and-benefits assessment… but what we are dealing with here is compulsive behavior, a.k.a. insanity, not deliberate choice.

    Just imagine: what would life be like if all your circumstances were determined by the worst thing you ever did? That’s the definition of prison.

  7. InnerWhale says:

    I would add an historical observation to the subject: form Natufians, approx 12,000 b.c., to Sumerians, approx 3100 b.c. there is’nt the faintest trace of warfare or violence. In the very moment where archeological records shows the sign of the existence of a “king”, a “high priest” and an anthropomoohic deity (Inanna-Ishtar), well, we find the first destruction by fire of collectives structures in Uruk, South Iraq, replaced by a unique huge vertical mound with a temple on top. From that moment on it’s all warfare and blood. The relationship btw central concentrated hierarchical powers and abuse and warfare is more than a theory: it’s archeological evidence….
    Thanks for your always intersiting topics Steve.

  8. Willis says:

    Steve,
    Wonderful essay. I can’t wait for part 2. As a young teacher, I struggle daily with the punitive culture in society. I have to admit, that sometimes the punishment you describe is often the most pragmatic, especially since it is congruous with the behavior of our society as a whole. What I wonder, sometimes, is how can we also re-teach our students and children a new culture, since often they are the most eager to see this punishment meted out on a peer.

    Hope you are well!

  9. Chuntaro says:

    Congratulations on the new site!
    I hope everything is going well with your trip.

  10. Sigaar says:

    I am not sure if I will get a answer, but here goes.
    I want to apprentice a shaman somewhere in the Amazon.
    I have absolutely no idea of how to go about this at all.
    I am a young 20 yr old guy with absolutely nothing to loose at all.
    No kids, no girlfriend, no job, etc.
    This is my time to explore now and see the world and grow spiritually.
    I Know that this is something that I should do, but need help with it.
    I know that naturally, I am a Healer. I just need to and would like to put that to use for anyone who wants that help. I don’t care about living conditions, or money, or fancy stuff at all. I would just like to learn more about being one with Mother Nature and listening to what she has to say and teach me. Right now I am currently in college, but its not what I want to be doing now, its just something convenient so I can have a place to stay. Id drop it in a heartbeat to learn the ways of the shaman.
    Can you give me any insight or advice on what I should do?

  11. Ayla says:

    Really enjoyed this. Has anyone read “Touching Spirit Bear”? It is a book for teenagers and is beautiful and powerful in the healing that is delivered through this other way. It feels like the much anticipated way you may be writing about. It is a tribal way, up in Canada I believe. To comment to Sigaar, the Q’ero people of Peru need teachers. The only way to teach is to live with them and learn their language. There are not many villages of them, 5 with maybe 300 people total (someone correct me if I am wrong), they are master light body healers….and then there are the Shipibo Conibo in the Amazon who are the master herbalists of Peru. You will meet them going on trips down there, but you can also ask Spirit to guide you to the ones you need to meet and buy a ticket! They will find you if you are meant to work with them…research them first so you know where they are, etc. Just a thought! I am a Shaman in Richmond, VA.


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