Justice, Waters, and a Benediction

Photo by Shauna Hambrick Jones

Photo by Shauna Hambrick Jones

The end is reconciliation;

The end is redemption;

the end is the creation of the beloved community.

It is this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.

It is this type of goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age

into the exuberant gladness of the new age.

It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts

of humankind.

— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956

(Thanks to the Congregational Church of Middlebury UCC for the benediction, Sunday, January 19, 2014.)

Outside the Law: Persistent Memories of “The Star Chamber”

“Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.” — IMDB, The Star Chamber, 1983

I saw The Star Chamber a long time ago, but the thing I remember most is being perfectly caught in the moral dilemma from the story’s first minutes. (Michael Douglas is above-average as usual; Hal Holbrook is amazing.)

Have we all not been there on some level?

You are doing what the system tells you is right. You follow the rules of the system, with the presumption that somewhere in all of your effort is justice. That outcome may not be obvious, but you just have to believe that following an agreed upon protocol is better than going rogue and making up your own rules.

It has to be. If it’s not, how are we to live?

If you are not familiar with The Star Chamber plot, you can read a good summary on Wikipedia. A young, idealistic judge who believes two child killers have been released on a legal technicality is recruited into a secret society of judges whose members order hits on criminals who “fall through the cracks” in the system. It is hard not to pull for this illegal but satisfying attempt to make bad men pay for their egregious crimes against humanity. You know from the beginning, however, that there is no way, no matter how much you want it to, that this can ever work.

It’s a classic tale of becoming the very thing you are trying to eradicate.

The writing is on the wall, but I still get drawn into this idea, the idea that we can fight a broken system by refusing to play by its rules. Beyond that refusal, we can create alternative systems that punish the corruption of the others. It all should work as long as no one screws up.

The thing I keep coming back to in these stories, the fictional ones and the ones I live in my own life, is the terrible mistake of believing that human beings can ever be part of something that isn’t flawed. It’s just the way we are. We want to be good, we want justice, we seek the right, but so often we are left bleeding from the shards of an imperfect world no matter how hard we try to fix things. It’s such an ancient understanding it fuels most creation myths, and yet somehow we struggle to accept what we know and have known since human beings started taking a look at ourselves.

There is no end to the debate over government vs. private business when it comes to which system offers the most ethical environment for decision-making. Government and public systems are fraught with rules and regs that often paralyze action and lead to limp results; by the time you schlog through all of the dos and do nots, you almost forget why you wanted to do anything in the first place. Private business can be efficient, but the efficiency can leave gaping holes in thoughtful processes, and cuts the time often needed to review a decision for consequences.

In The Star Chamber, a hit is ordered on presumed killers, only for the judges to learn the men were not in fact responsible for the death that prompted the order. That’s not a problem, they reason. We know they are bad men. They did something. If they are not to die for this crime, they surely deserve to die for other sins.

While my personal ethical lapses may seem minor compared to those in the movie, I know that they often trend around the same kind of thinking. This whole situation is wrong! It’s so messed up. Anything I do to fix some of this mess must be better than living with this broken situation.

Except it never, ever works that way. Ever. Not in the long run.

Prayers today for the family and friends of the slain U.S. Ambassador in Libya.

Prayers for my friend who is in the middle of an election year mess at work.

Prayers for my country as we continue to grieve and seek justice over a decade after the terrorist attacks.

Just….prayers for all of us.

(You can view one of the better movie clips available online here: http://www.artistdirect.com/video/star-chamber/55261)

Saving Everyone’s Baby

Tiny Caylee Anthony is dead, most likely murdered at the tender age of two years.  It appears no one will be convicted of killing her, and yesterday the nation erupted in a self-righteous outrage I haven’t seen since Orenthal J. Simpson was acquitted of killing his wife Nicole.

I’ve come a long way in my thinking about these kinds of cases, about what “justice” has a prayer of meaning, and what the relationship is and is not between what is right and what is legal.  The jury verdict in the case against Caylee’s mother Casey stirred again my own questions about whether or not such a verdict demonstrates the greatness or the abject failures of criminal trial in the United States of America.

But rather than subject readers to what I think about our legal system, I want to issue a challenge to you regarding what I think about justice.

Justice for this child was lost when she died.  No one being convicted of her murder could possibly generate any outcome that would change the terrible, unthinkable death she suffered.  We seem to need to believe that it could, but it cannot.  Caylee is dead, her brief life taken from her in what appears to be a premeditated act of violence capping tremendous resentment by her mother of the attention and care she — as do all children her age — required.

I have strong beliefs about the conditions that should exist before children are brought into this world, and if by some misfortune those conditions are not in place when the child is conceived then we as a society need to step up our game around our commitment to creating the best possible conditions in a bad situation.  I hear too much talk about what parents deserve or don’t deserve, and frankly I don’t give a damn.

When an at-risk child joins the human family, that is everyone’s baby.

That belief is why I am writing this post today.  If we carry on one more day about how outraged and angry we are about the jury verdict, about all the vengeful thoughts we have against Casey Anthony, about how God is going to bring down justice on the killer and on and on and on…………we are part of why this child is gone and we lose one more day to save children like her.  And if you do not know, you need to research and know and understand one thing:  There are thousands of Caylees in this country right now.

Thousands.

We need to turn off Nancy Grace (and the rest of those who profiteer on moral outrage and grief) and turn on our consciences.

What will you do today to honor the life of Caylee Anthony and of every child?

My challenge to all of us who are pained by the loss of this child is to think about what role we each play in making this world a safer, better place for children.

  • Do you speak out when someone makes a joke about hurting a child, or do you stay silent so as not to offend?
  • When you see a parent at the end of his or her rope, do you moralize about what a bad parent he or she is, or do you offer a kind word of support for what they are going through?
  • When you have an extra $15.00, do you buy a bottle of wine, or do you put it aside and make an end-of-year donation of $300 to your local child abuse prevention organization?
  • Are you giving your free time to something truly important to you, like helping a church gather toys or clothing for families in need, or do you do something just for yourself?
  • Do you think sexually active young people should have access to contraception and are you willing to speak out for that, or in your heart do you think they “get what they deserve” if they “get/get someone pregnant”?

Sadly, children often bear the burden of “getting” what their parents deserve.  I’m thinking today about how to turn that around, and to care less about things I can’t control and do more about the things I may be able to influence.

My answers to the above questions, if I am fully honest, do not make me proud.  For the sake of Caylee and every other child on the verge of her fate, I’m thinking today about how to change my answers.

I hope you will join me.

Evil, Meet Science

The concept of evil is so ancient, vast, and complex that even though I think about it often I hesitate to write about it.  A story on NPR yesterday made me change my mind.

Consider this (emphasis added is mine):

Inspired by the structure of Dante’s circles of hell, Michael Stone has created his own 22-point Gradations of Evil” scale, made up of murderers in the 20th century. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to do,” he says.

Dante's 9 Circles of Hell

His scale is loosely divided into three tiers. First are impulsive evil-doers: driven to a single act of murder in a moment of rage or jealousy. Next are people who lack extreme psychopathic features, but may be psychotic — that is, clinically delusional or out of touch with reality. Last are the profoundly psychopathic, or “those who possess superficial charm, glib speech, grandiosity, but most importantly cunning and manipulativeness,” Stone says. “They have no remorse for what they’ve done to other people.”

Stone hopes the scale could someday be used in prosecutions. “The people at the very end of the scale have certain things about their childhood backgrounds that are different,” he says, from those who appear earlier in the scale.

That a modern-day psychology/medical professional would use Dante to consider how to interpret and respond to criminal activity fascinates me.  I have a foundation of respect for things that are ancient and complex, and genuinely believe that no matter how “evolved” we become as a species we may never be able to get any closer to the Truth of some things than we did hundreds of years ago.  In fact, I often think we lose knowledge by insisting that something explained by older civilizations must need polish and improvement.  If it’s old-school, primitive hindbrain stuff, maybe not.  Avarice, gluttony, wrath, betrayal, etc. seem resistant to “evolving” out of human nature.

But how we interpret and label our condition is important.  How we position the concept of “evil” in the world is crucial to how we respond to it.  My life changed the day I internalized the concept, “We are not punished for sin, but by sin.”  Naturally the human justice system can only focus on punishment for, but the larger idea of why we suffer is directed by the idea that following certain inclinations rather than resisting them inevitably will lead to a bad situation.  It’s as guaranteed as basic addition.

When we label people themselves as evil, we are taking the easy way out.  If anything, Michael Stone’s analysis of the 22 murderous types indicates that the more abuse and trauma an individual as suffered, especially early in life, the more prone they are to a psychotic break that disconnects them from a capacity to participate in anything but increasingly violent and disturbing behavior.  There is clearly a stress point for the mind, and the scale suggests that it’s the passing of that point that creates an inability to ever go back.

Which brings us full circle (pardon the pun) to Dante.  

Reading Stone’s profiles of murderous behavior and its origins supports Dante’s story.  What we call “evil” is a concentric, spiralling energy that with each pass pulls one deeper into a level more difficult to escape.  Properly managed, this connection of old and new thoughts on the influence of evil on our lives has the potential to reinvigorate public interest in prevention of and intervention in abusive environments, especially for the very young.

It also reminds me that, past a certain point, there are still limits on what people can fix.  That doesn’t mean it can never be repaired.  See Dante.

The Fragile

Two years ago today my only child was born.  The earth definitely moved, and has been moving since, all for the very best.

Though I woke up with memories of wonder and amazement at her life, I also woke up to read this: 

The poverty rate in America is 13.2 percent, according to the US Census Bureau. In West Virginia, the rate is 17.2 percent, and recent figures indicate that 23.9 percent of West Virginia’s children live in povertySustained Outrage

I am aware of this figure.  The one-in-four statistic is like a nightmare from which you desperately want to wake, but can’t.  I thought this reality was the worst, but then I read something else this morning that may overtake the pain of the one-in-four. 

As you hear elected officials talk about cutting programs that care for children as “tough decisions” chew on this, if you will, in the context of politics and child poverty:

“These days, we take pride in being tough enough to inflict pain on others. If an older usage were still in force, whereby being tough consisted of enduring pain rather than imposing it on others, we should perhaps think twice before so callously valuing efficiency over compassion.” The Goat Rope

When I brought home a fragile 7 pound life two years ago, I was overcome with the reality of our responsibility to children.  I am frankly unconcerned with what the adults in the equation “have earned” or “deserve” or whether or not they are living up to their “personal responsibility.”  Would it be nice I didn’t have to take care of other people’s kids?  Um, yes.  Yes it would.  I’ve got my hands full over here.

But here’s the rub — these kids in poverty aren’t “other people’s kids”, not really.  They are my kids.  They are your kids.  First and foremost they are God’s children.  One day they will inherit the earth, and it matters a whole hell of a lot how well they are cared for now and how well they grow up.  It is absolutely imperative that we separate what these children so desperately need from our feelings about their parents.

If you have children it should scare you to death that if you couldn’t find a job, or got sick, or developed a raging substance abuse problem, that the greater community would tsk tsk it away and your child would be left to slowly disappear off of the social radar through no fault of his or her own.  This is completely unacceptable and is the behavior of a species that wants to go extinct.

We need to be in the business of strengthening the fragile.  That’s our job as adults when it comes to kids.  There are some things that don’t deserve “sustained outrage,” they deserve to get fixed permanently.  Will there always be poverty?  Probably.  But there doesn’t have to always be confusion about our moral obligation to children.

Gardens and Goats

To two West Virginia bloggers who inspire me, I say a bright good morning and big “thank you” for your influence.

W. Va. Fur and Root combines a love of the natural world with a healthy skepticism about people.  The writer is well-read, loves food and wine, and is passionately loyal to her friends and family.  She reminds me of the old saying, “I won’t start a fight, but I’ll finish it.”  She’s willing to be intentionally vulnerable, and as such is always strong.  The humor is righteous, and the world she creates online is magical.

I wrote this of Connie in December 2009 and it still holds:  “I’ve come to believe her personal hideway is a corner of my own mind, a room where I can really go from time to time to both escape my own realities as well as find comfort in our shared human experiences.” 

Where else can you find Faulkner, barns, pop culture and accountability in spades?  Maybe one other place…

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

May I present The Goat Rope.  There is a degree to which it would be a crime to attempt to explain this blog.  One really should experience it on it’s own terms, and I hope you will.  I just popped over there for a visit and saw this line:  “One reason I’ve been strip mining Thoreau’s Walden these days is…..”  This is totally normal talk for Rick, and I love him for it.

On this blog, you will grow to anticipate Quaker theology, marial arts, razor wit and deep mellowness blended with a fierce and bright-burning quest for justice.

It might be a coincidence that both of these writers live on rural land, co-exist with animals and gardens, read like most people breathe, and have not an ounce of pretense or charade.  But I’m paying attention, just in case there is something to it.