The Sisters of Mercy hated liars, and we were good liars. “I don’t know who did that, Sister,” we’d say, when we knew full well who had fired those spitballs.
Of course, when the Sisters caught us in some minor or major infraction, such as cursing aloud or having a fistfight on the playground, we were punished. My ears have been pulled and my palm smacked more times by those Sisters than by my own mother.
But none of that stopped us. Smoking was cool. Being a tough guy, a hood, was cool. Cursing was cool. Owning a blade was cool. Casual sex was cool. Drugs were cool. Whatever we wanted to do was cool, and what others told us to do and how to be was uncool. So we never cared enough to think about the consequences and disappointments we caused.
All behaviors, even mine back in grammar school, were graded with a simple reward and punishment model, one my mother and the Sisters tried unsuccessfully to use on me. We, in our headiness to grow up and be cool, never considered the risk of punishment because we never thought we’d get caught.
Besides, back then we confessed our sins on Saturday, knelt on the pew and said ten Our Father’s in our mind, and all was forgiven anyway. Then onto the next Saturday confession and the next, as if a man wearing a black cassock had the ability to absolve our souls of all sins. Even if you believe such things, it had no effect on us rebellious boys.
I finally did learn, though, that reiterating bad behavior develops bad attitudes and bad habits—just like good attitudes develop good behaviors and their repetition develops good habits. Perhaps if I had understood, really understood the words and meanings of the Lord’s Prayer back then, I might have grown up a better person sooner, or maybe even avoided jail twice.
Luckily I did gradually learn those meanings after I accepted the Baha’i teachings at age 20. I finally learned a simple lesson: that the world would reward me for good actions and punish me for the bad ones—and if the world didn’t, God eventually would.
On this topic Baha’u’llah wrote:
Justice, which consisteth in rendering each his due, dependeth upon and is conditioned by two words: reward and punishment. From the standpoint of justice, every soul should receive the reward of his actions, inasmuch as the peace and prosperity of the world depend thereon, even as He saith, exalted be His glory: “The structure of world stability and order hath been reared upon, and will continue to be sustained by, the twin pillars of reward and punishment.” – The Tablenacle of Unity, p. 40.
We all want justice—that all evildoers be found, punished and put away from society, from harming others. Yet if one grows up with no real fear of lasting punishment, or ignores the punishments he receives, or doesn’t learn life’s lesson, he may want justice for others, and believe he can avoid it for himself. The only lasting, long-term cure for that attitude is a belief in something larger and more powerful than the individual will.
Abdu’l-Baha, put it this way:
The tent of the order of the world is raised and established on the two pillars of “Reward and Retribution.”
In despotic Governments carried on by men without Divine faith, where no fear of spiritual retribution exists, the execution of the laws is tyrannical and unjust.
There is no greater prevention of oppression than these two sentiments, hope and fear. They have both political and spiritual consequences.
If administrators of the law would take into consideration the spiritual consequences of their decisions, and follow the guidance of religion, “They would be Divine agents in the world of action, the representatives of God for those who are on earth, and they would defend, for the love of God, the interests of His servants as they would defend their own.” If a governor realizes his responsibility, and fears to defy the Divine Law, his judgments will be just. Above all, if he believes that the consequences of his actions will follow him beyond his earthly life, and that “as he sows so must he reap,” such a man will surely avoid injustice and tyranny. – Paris Talks, p. 157.
Bad behaviors are learned, just like good ones are. Punishment may help correct or stem bad behavior, but punishments have to go beyond the merely physical, because nothing short of an inner revelation on the part of a bad actor can change their soul and spirit to do good. For that we need religion, faith, and a just society—and the essentially spiritual love of doing the right thing.