Byron C. Bangert
First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana
February 13, 2000
Deuteronomy 16:18-20; John 7:53-8:11
A female juvenile enters a home while the occupants are away, visibly disrupts the furnishings, and does property damage in particular to an item of special sentimental value to the child of the family. There is also minor theft. The suspect flees the scene and is later identified by name in what has become a well known case. No sentence is ever handed down, nor is any attempt made to provide restitution or closure for the family. The juvenile's name is Goldilocks.
There is, however, according to Marvin Miller, another version of this story: "In the Japanese version of this famous story, Goldilocks returns and apologizes to the family and to Baby Bear, in particular, for having broken her chair and for having eaten her porridge. And, of course, Goldilocks and Baby Bear become best friends and play together every day. Although not in the story, Goldilocks and her parents doubtlessly brought gifts as part of their apology, offering to pay for the broken chair" ["Practicing Restorative Justice," A Publication of Citizens for Community Justice, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 1999, Bloomington, IN].
The lesson of the story obviously depends on how the story is told. Even the nature of the actions in the story can take on a different light and meaning, when seen from a different perspective. And the possible outcomes can be dramatically altered by a slight but crucial twist of plot.
Our New Testament text this morning tells the story of an encounter between Jesus and some prominent religious leaders in regard to a woman caught in the act of adultery. According to biblical scholars, there is strong evidence that this story was not original to the Gospel of John. It remains there, nonetheless, because it seems so exquisitely true to the teaching and ministry of Jesus. It is one of the most masterful presentations of the gospel in all the Gospels! And it irresistibly compels us to see important matters in a new and different light.
Some things about the story are crystal clear. The scene is in the temple in Jerusalem. The scribes and Pharisees are religious leaders well versed in the teaching of the law and the prophets. The woman whom they bring before Jesus has been caught in the act. Her guilt is not in question. The law of Moses says that she is to be stoned to death in punishment for her sin. The scribes and Pharisees are not wanting for a more expert interpretation of the law. In legal terms, it is an open and shut case.
But, according to the story, the scribes and Pharisees have brought this woman to Jesus in order to test him, that is, to expose him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Apparently they have reason to believe that he is soft on crime--or sin--and that he is not likely to render a strict interpretation of the law of Moses. In other words, Jesus is no biblical literalist, and he is not likely to agree with the plain word of scripture as it applies to this case! The law of Moses says thus and so, they tell him: "Now what do you say?"
Jesus does not argue scripture with them. He does not argue the woman's guilt. He does not argue the justice of the law. He bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. Here it is not clear what is going on. We do not know what Jesus writes. Perhaps he writes one of the commandments. Perhaps he writes, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Perhaps he writes a list of other sins with which the scribes and Pharisees might be familiar: partiality, bribery, extortion, pride, hypocrisy, hatred, self-righteousness. Perhaps he writes the words of one of the psalms that asks for forgiveness.
Whatever he writes, it does not silence the scribes and Pharisees. When they keep questioning him, he straightens up and says to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Then he resumes writing on the ground. Gradually, it seems, they begin to get the message. One by one they go away, beginning with the elders, till no one is left but Jesus and the woman standing before him. Her accusers gone, Jesus says to her, "Has no one condemned you? . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
This is a powerful story is many ways. First, it is a riveting portrayal of divine compassion. The woman is guilty. The law says that her crime calls for capital punishment, stoning to death. The law never said you had to be sinless to prosecute the law, but Jesus implies that if anyone has a right to condemn, it is whoever is without sin. Yet even he does not condemn. Jesus is not in the business of condemnation. Are we to understand from this story that it is never our prerogative to engage in the condemnation of another human being? The implication seems to be that even God does not condemn, but rather shows the greatest compassion. The refusal to condemn, however, does not mean indifference toward the sin. Jesus tells the woman not to sin again.
This story is also important for what it has to tell us about ourselves. We cannot avoid the question of ulterior motives. It would have been one thing if the scribes and Pharisees had brought the woman to Jesus out of compassionate love for her. Then they might have been seeking some way to re-interpret the law, to mitigate it punishments, or by some other means to show mercy to the guilty woman. It would have been quite another thing if they had brought the woman to Jesus out of their love for the law. Then they would have desired above all to see that the law be upheld, that its requirements be fulfilled. Then they might have tried to persuade Jesus of the rightness and justice of the law.
But it is clear that it was neither out of love for the woman nor out of love for the law that they had brought her to him. They were there, the story says, to "test him," in order to bring some charge against him. That is to say, they were there in order to do him in, in order to justify themselves, to prevail over him, to establish the rightness of their authority and power.
It is also clear that this effort to justify themselves has displaced the conscious awareness of their own sinfulness. Make no mistake, none of these lawyers and religious leaders are without sin. But you would never know it by their attitudes and actions. They seem ready to destroy Jesus' reputation, and even to put a woman to death, without any hint of their own failings. Until Jesus reminds them about themselves. Is there one among them shameless enough to assert his own sinlessness by throwing the first stone? At least they are honest enough with themselves not to go that far! So they have no choice but to leave Jesus and the woman alone.
This story tells us more about ourselves than we may want to know. How often the desire for self-justification and self-assertion and power disguises itself in the demand for condemnation and punishment. How often the call for condemnation and punishment cloaks a multitude of sins we do not wish to confess ourselves. Over 30 years ago the famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote in his book, THE CRIME OF PUNISHMENT, "Crime is everybody's temptation. It is easy to look with proud disdain upon 'those people' who get caught--the stupid ones, the unlucky ones, the blatant ones. But who does not get nervous when a police car follows closely? We squirm over our income tax statements and make some 'adjustments.' We tell the customs officials that we have nothing to declare--well, practically nothing. Some of us who have never been convicted of any crime picked up over two billion dollars' worth of merchandise last year from the stores we patronize. . . The Claims Bureau of the American Insurance Association estimates that seventy-five percent of all claims are dishonest in some respect . . . [(The Viking Press: New York, 1968), p. 6].
Of course, we tell ourselves that whatever crimes or sins we have committed are petty compared to what has been done by those we want to punish. But, as Menninger also notes, "Every litigant thinks that justice demands a decision in his favor" [ibid., p. 11]. In such matters we really do tend to see ourselves more favorably than the other. The real crime that we keep on committing, Menninger argues, is in labeling the other who has been caught in some violation as the "criminal": "In this way we exculpate ourselves from the guilt we feel and tell ourselves that we do it to "correct" the "criminal" and make us all safer from crime. We commit this crime every day that we retain our present stupid, futile, abominable practices against detected offenders" [ibid., p. 9].
Menninger is obviously concerned not only with sin but with crime, not only with the psychological dimensions of human behavior and the desire to punish, but also with the practices of society. Today is Criminal Justice Sunday, and my concern is the same. But I am convinced by Menninger and others that we cannot understand what is wrong with the criminal justice practices of our society without first understanding what is wrong about our attitudes and desires regarding the condemnation and punishment of those whom we identify as violators of the rules and standards by which our lives are ordered together.
The truth is that much of what we and our society do to condemn and punish the "sinners" or the "criminals" of our society resembles all too closely the behavior of the lawyers and religious authorities in our text. The real concern is not for those who have committed violations. The real concern is not to uphold the law. The real concern is not even for those who are the victims of sinful or criminal behavior. The hidden motivation is often to cloak our own sin or crime and guilt with self-righteousness. We seek to justify ourselves, to assert ourselves over others, to deal with our own failings, and to uphold our "good and decent" society, by focusing all attention and effort upon the full and unreserved condemnation and punishment of others for their obviously much greater failings. We build more prisons, we put more people in jail, we condemn more people to death, chiefly in order to separate ourselves from any contact with or responsibility for those whom we regard as so different from ourselves, and so much less human, that we are fully justified in giving them what they fully deserve.
The question here, however, is not one of dessert. I am not suggesting, for example, that rapists and murderers do not deserve to die. Of course they deserve to die. Let whoever is without sin pull the switch! Nor is the question here about the protection of society. Of course society needs to be protected. There are people in our prisons who are so remorseless and irreformable that they should never be allowed back on the streets again. Jails and prisons are necessary institutions for the protection of society from its most violent and harmful members. Rather, the question here is whether there is any room within the providence of God for actions that are intended primarily to condemn and punish.
If our text from the Gospel of John and the insights of Karl Menninger do not persuade regarding the ulterior motives of condemnation and punishment, consider this. There are now approximately 1.2 million human beings in our nation's jails and prisons who are nonviolent offenders. According to the Justice Policy Institute, Justice Department figures for mid-1998 showed 74 percent of local jail inmates, 53 percent of state prison inmates, and 88 percent of federal prisoners "were imprisoned for offenses which involved neither harm nor the threat of harm to a victim" [BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, March 25, 1999, A7]. That is to say, these inmates are not in prison to protect the general population from violent harm. Of course, there are other kinds of harm, and these prisoners are probably where they are because they have committed offenses that are judged to be harmful to society. But there is little evidence to suggest that punishing people by putting them in jail or prison is an effective way of making them better persons. If putting people is jail is not necessary to protect society, and if it does not make them better persons, then what purpose does it serve other than punishment? It may deter some others, though there is little evidence it deters the worst of crimes. It keeps so-called "criminals" off the streets, out of the way, out of the circle of our concern--but only temporarily, and at enormous cost. At the Monroe County Jail, for example, the recidivism rate is right at 70%. According to Menninger, the way we treat those we label "criminals" is not only cruel, stupid, and stultifying, but "it defeats its own purpose. It is not socially protective but self-destructive. The crime of punishment aggravates crime" [op. cit., Book Jacket blurb].
Punishment is a crime, first of all, because of what it does to us spiritually. It sanctions our impulses toward self-righteousness and self-justification. It permits us to separate ourselves from others whom we label as "criminals" or "sinners", and then to isolate them and remove them from our circle of concern. It is a means of self-assertion and power and control other others that hardens us to compassion, that blinds us to the common humanity we share with those who are punished.
Punishment is a crime, secondly, because of what it does and fails to do to those who are punished. It degrades and de-humanizes the offender. It not only deprives those who have committed offenses of some of their life opportunities, it often subjects them to great risks of major harm. It does not require of them any meaningful restitution. Languishing in jail or prison at enormous taxpayer expense is not a meaningful way to "pay" a debt to society. Punishment affords offenders no chance to make amends in any constructive way. Punishment asks too little of offenders as human beings, and imposes upon them physical and psychological burdens that seem calculated to make them worse persons rather than better, to do more harm than good.
Punishment is also a crime because it ultimately imposes great costs upon society with little if any positive result. As much as the construction of new jails and prisons costs, it costs far more to maintain them. And unless we are going to lock up every offender for life, we must reckon with the return of those who have served their term to society. If offenders receive nothing but punishment, what will they have to give back to society upon their return? Moreover, the culture of punishment is blatantly unjust. There are as many blacks as whites in our state and federal prisons. The poor and racial minorities are also more likely than others to be sentenced to death. Since the U.S. Supreme Court removed the prohibition on capital punishment in 1976, 82 convicts awaiting execution have been exonerated--one for every seven put to death. The correlations between the seriousness of crime and the degree of punishment are sometimes disturbingly weak. Persons convicted of similar crimes often receive disparately different sentences. It is not simply that our system of justice is imperfect, it is often grossly unfair and unjust.
Finally, and paradoxically, punishment is also a crime because of what it does and fails to do for the victims of crime. It may be true that some victims desire nothing more than revenge. It is certainly true that all victims of violence and direct harm deserve protection from further injury. But punishment of offenders does little to heal the wounds of most victims. It does little to resolve the need of victims to make some sense of, or bring some closure to, the experience of being a victim of a crime. In the culture of punishment, the victim may be little more than a witness whose testimony is needed to secure a conviction. The victim is not regarded as a person who has been violated in ways that no legal action can heal. All of us know what it is like to have been injured in some way that has cried out for answers: Why was this done to me? Could it happen again? It there something I should have done to prevent it? What about my loss and my grief? Is there any way to regain what has been taken from me? Shouldn't I have some say in what happens to the offender? How can I regain some meaningful control of my life?
These are difficult questions. Sometimes there are easy answers, more often the answers will be slow in coming. The Restorative Justice Program of the Presbyterian Church, and the local Victim Offender Reconciliation Program, both exist to try to find ways to answer such questions and address the needs of victims and society, as well as to seek the transformation of offenders. The reality seems to be that condemnation and punishment do little to address the urgent questions or heal the bitter wounds that are created when one person is violated by another, or when the rules of society are breached by any of its members in a significant way. When our primary response to crime, or sin, is condemnation and punishment, we gain next to nothing.
The question is not, what do offenders deserve? The question is, How can we best respond to the violations and offenses that tear at individuals and society? Where necessary, what must be provided is protection from those who do great harm. But where practical, what is needed is compensation or restitution. And where possible, what is to be desired is healing of the wounds to individuals and the social fabric, and that requires the restoration of relationships. The Japanese version of the story of Goldilocks is not just another fairy tale but, like the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, a vision of how we might better understand ourselves and order our lives together. AMEN.
Copyright 2000 by Byron C. Bangert