Over on the Patheos Atheist Channel, Dan Fincke of Forward Thinking asks an interesting question….
How and when (if ever) should we take it upon ourselves to punish someone in our lives for a moral failure? How does this vary depending on various possible relationships we might have to the the morally guilty party? Consider, for example, how or whether we might punish our friends, our partners, our parents, our colleagues, strangers we encounter, etc. What sorts of values and principles should guide us when we presume to take it upon ourselves to be moral enforcers?
For the traditional Christian (as opposed to the po-mo Christian, for example) the answer is love. We have absolutely no right to “punish” people for moral failings (c.f., Matt 5:7; 7:1). ”Punish” comes from the Latin root, “punire” meaning, “to inflict pain.” It is simply not our place to inflict more pain on a guilty person than they are already experiencing in their guilt.
That said, we do have a right, and even an obligation rooted in love (defined as the commitment to work for the good of others) and justice (defined as the virtue that ensure that each person receives what is rightfully theirs), to hold people accountable to themselves (if their moral failing hurts them) and/or to us (if their moral failing has damaged us or our relationship.
But holding someone accountable–in the classical Christian context–simply means seeing that the person is committed to healing the damage caused by their actions and, ideally, giving them the skills to not make the same mistake again. This is the heart of the principle of ”restorative justice” which has deep roots in Catholic Social teaching and forms the basis of the Christian response to both personal and social failings. But what does all this look like in practice in your life and relationships?
The old Ignatian practice of “charitable interpretation” can be helpful here. Rooted in the idea of loving the sinner bur hating the sin, Charitable interpretation doesn’t mean making excuses for bad behavior. Traditionally, it means attempting to interpret another person’s behavior in the most reasonably generous way possible, while still being willing to address any issues/problems that stem from the behavior.
One way to apply the principle of Charitable Interpretation is to assume that every behavior, even the obnoxious, irritating, frustrating, sinful, and destructive behaviors, represent someone’s flawed attempt to meet an otherwise positive intention or need. If I can work with someone to figure out what they were trying to do, and give them more efficient, more respectful ways to meet that intention or need, the bad behavior should go away. It isn’t always quite that easy, but even in more complicated situations, the process is fairly straightforward. Generally speaking if you help someone find a more efficient, less offensive, way of meeting their needs, they are more than willing to take it.
For instance, if a dad tends to yell at his kids, often it’s because he doesn’t have a better way to get them to behave. If someone can help that dad find a more effective way to parent that doesn’t involve yelling, he can stop yelling. Or, if a friend indulges in some offensive habit, it’s usually to meet some need (cope with stress, bid for help or attention, etc.) If I can help my friend identify the need and help him find a more efficient, less offensive way to meet the need, the obnoxious habit should stop.
Again, it’s rare that things are ever this straightforward and I talk about how to apply these principles at some length in my book, God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People. But the bottom line is that the Christian can do a lot more good by helping an offender find more efficient and godly ways to meet the needs that underlie moral failings than we can by inflicting pain on the offender. It’s all part of the way we cooperate with God’s grace as we seek to create a healthy peace between us and others. A peace that is grounded in justice and love.