No Party at a Public Hanging (The Consolation of Philosophy)

No Party at a Public Hanging (The Consolation of Philosophy) March 6, 2018

Nobody should have a party at a hanging, even if the hanging is just. We are a religion of justice, but also of pity and mercy.

Christians are often not as Christian as we should be. We must fight for justice, but not hate. As a result, we use police power to stop a criminal, but then we look for redemption. This should never be naive and our immediate concern should first be to protect and bring restitution (where we can) to the victim, but we do not dishonor the corpses of our fallen foes.

When our enemy can do no more harm, then we should not rejoice in his death. There was a bad old habit of public hangings becoming a party. While there can be satisfaction in justice being done (leaving aside for a moment whether the death penalty is now necessary), the party is no good. There is a good reason for Christians to give the condemned a last meal of his or her choice and for our historic rejection of torture. We tried torture, made rules about how to do it mercifully, and found that we could not love our enemies if we used certain means to break them.

I thought of this while reading The Consolation of Philosophy, for centuries one of the best selling books in Western Europe. A good man, Boethius, is in jail and faces execution. The injustice of it all torments him, but Lady Philosophy comes to give him some medicine. He gains hope and strength. The result was not his freedom, the tyrant killed him, but a book that has given comfort to thousands of readers over centuries.

Prosperity preachers miss mercy, because they believe a formula will produce success. When failure comes, the problem must be in us: We needed a more positive attitude. We lacked the right response or did not give enough to the ministry.

God, on the other hand, knows we are weak and has pity and mercy for us.

Hatred of evil is good. I hate the evil in me, but self-hatred or hatred of any human is bad. We love the human, but bring justice to the sin. When we turn other people’s pain into a party, as Victorians did at public executions, we are wrong in a way that produces deep despair. We have not practiced pity and mercy so are unable to actualize these emotions when we need them.

Boethius was unjustly punished. He was the victim. The pain was real and he needed comfort.

Yet Boethius, like all of us, had some weaknesses that make hard times harder. Nobody would tell him that he should be jolly in jail. He faces hard times and they are going to get harder, yet grief is different than despair. (There is more to be said about that.) Boethius had not practiced hope in his pursuit of justice. He did not have pity or mercy. This made it hard to have hope in his own bleak case. If you learn to dismiss possibilities of redemption, then hope for yourself becomes harder, even when your situation is a case of unjust punishment. Boethius loved Justice and this was very good, perhaps one reason he could be consoled. However, he had not learned mercy or pity with his Justice. When injustice was done to him, he was practiced in hatred of this evil, but he had no experience in mercy.

A wise person loves Justice and then mercy.

Wisdom says:

“This is why among wise men there is no place at all left for hatred. For no one except the greatest of fools would hate good men. And there is no reason at all for hating the bad. For just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind. And if this is so, since we think of people who are sick in body as deserving sympathy rather than hatred, much more so do they deserve pity rather than blame who suffer an evil more severe than any bodily illness.” *

Philosophy sings:

‘No just cause there for blood and savageness.

You want desert no due reward to miss?

Then love the good, show pity for the bad.’*

 

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Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (translated by VE Watts for Penguin Classics, 1969 Book IV, IV.


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