Thursday, January 01, 2015


The Roman Catholic Church has a dislike for capital punishment, an attitude with roots that go back to the early Church (which was in some ways more radical). Pope Francis said a few months ago that solitary confinement was cruel--and no doubt it is.

A state that accepts both rules quickly finds itself in an untenable position. Its first duty is to protect its citizens, even (at some level) its imprisoned citizens, and there are always some people who will viciously prey upon others--even in prison. If you aren't allowed to execute them, and you aren't allowed to isolate them, and you aren't allowed to exile them (nobody else wants them either), and you must protect everyone else from them--there's no solution.

So to do what it is appointed to do, a state has to do the presumptuous work of pronouncing judgment and using force against people in ways that are not obviously loving. Naturally this attracts undesireable applicants, and the power readily corrupts even the well-intentioned. So we have to try to keep an eye on the state (hence democracy), but even the mechanisms for doing that are corruptible.

But what do you do when the machinery of the state appears to start to take the injunctions against cruelty and violence too seriously, and begins to fail to protect its citizens? (I say "appears" because it usually looks as though cui bono finds a simple tribal answer--but God protect us from well-intentioned bureaucrats.)

It isn't exactly my ideal to have to say "Please get on the stick and start killing those people who are attacking us!" Yet that is the duty of the state's machinery, and often the way to minimize deaths. It isn't obviously charitable to say "Either cut benefits or cut immigration--the numbers do not work." But honesty demands these kinds of claims.

It is much more comfortable when the state is doing its job and we can deprecate the evils that flow from even the best government, and hold up high ideals for individuals. Maybe that's even the way it is supposed to work, given the fallen world we live in: prophets denouncing the evils and the state not-quite ignoring the prophets, and the rest of us at least trying to minimize the evils and keep an eagle eye on the state.


Ann Hammon said...

I don't like the vision of government machinery. It smacks of cold, hard metal, with no room for decisions made with the heart. Remember, your sister is one of the "invisible". I appreciate laws, but I like a roof over my head as well.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The OT custom of sanctuary was a fascinating one. It seems to our eyes like letting someone off scot-free, but in a clan-based society where all support and protection was communal, leaving the tribe to go out on one's own was no picnic. No one would feel the least responsibility toward you if they didn't consciously elect to.

There isn't much in the way of solutions to evil behavior. Isolation, family wergild, cutting off a hand, execution - all are pretty extreme.

james said...

Heartless it can, and I think must be if we are to have a government of laws. A law, together with the enforcement machinery, is a kind of machine to do a job. Any finite system is going to be incomplete or contradictory or (more likely) both. We can keep tinkering with it (eventually it becomes too complicated too understand), or have people who can override the law--and we all know what a mess that can be.

However, if we assume that there are other centers of authority outside the jurisdiction of the state, some things can be more flexible--for better and for worse--without the disastrous consequences of kings.

Ann Hammon said...

My idealistic mind keeps leaning toward the two and greatest commandments (laws): Love God with heart, soul and mind, And Love neighbor as self. Yes, that would mean horrible personal and national tragedies, but who starts? Nothing will ever change unless we do.
Ok, blow me out of the water, but I'm tired of the laws of nations.