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Justice

Justice, Revenge, Reward and Retribution

David Langness | Sep 2, 2016

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Sep 2, 2016

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury. – Marcus Aurelius

Our laws and our societies imprison criminals for four basic reasons: as punishment for crimes, as a means of rehabilitation, to deter others, and to protect the wider society from more crimes.

Some say, though, that we imprison criminals to exact our collective revenge on behalf of the victims.

The Baha’i teachings reject that reasoning:

There are two kinds of retributive actions: One is revenge and retaliation, and the other — punishment and requital. An individual has no right to seek revenge, but the body politic has the right to punish the criminal. Such punishment is intended to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. It is for the protection of the rights of man and does not constitute revenge, for revenge is that inner gratification that results from returning like for like. This is not permissible, for no one has been given the right to seek revenge. And yet, if criminals were entirely left to their own devices, the order of the world would be disrupted. So while punishment is one of the essential requirements of the body politic, the wronged and aggrieved party has no right to seek revenge. On the contrary, he should show forgiveness and magnanimity, for this is that which befits the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 309.

Baha’is, however, do believe firmly that society must have practical, feasible ways of punishing crime:

The body politic, however, must punish the oppressor, the murderer, and the assailant, to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. …

But the body politic has the right to preserve and to protect. It holds no grudge and harbours no enmity towards the murderer, but chooses to imprison or punish him solely to ensure the protection of others. The purpose is not revenge but a punishment through which the body politic is protected. Otherwise, were both the victim’s heirs and the community to forgive and return good for evil, the wrongdoers would never cease their onslaught and a murder would be committed at every moment — nay, bloodthirsty individuals would, like wolves, entirely destroy the flock of God. The body politic is not prompted by ill will in meting out its punishment; it acts without prejudice and does not seek to gratify a sense of vengeance. Its purpose in inflicting the punishment is to safeguard others and to prevent the future commission of such vile actions. – Ibid., pp. 309-310.

But what about turning the other cheek, as Christ advised? Abdu’l-Baha answers that question, too:

Thus when Christ said, “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the left one also,” (Mathew 5:39) the purpose was to educate the people, not to imply that one should assist a wolf that has fallen upon a flock of sheep and is intent upon devouring them all. No, if Christ had known that a wolf had entered the fold and was about to destroy the sheep, He most certainly would have prevented it.

Just as forgiveness is one of the attributes of God’s mercy, so is justice one of the attributes of His lordship. The canopy of existence rests upon the pole of justice and not of forgiveness, and the life of mankind depends on justice and not on forgiveness. Thus, if a decree of amnesty were to be enacted henceforth in all countries, the whole world would soon be thrown into disarray and the foundations of human life would be shattered. Likewise, if the powers of Europe had not resisted the notorious Attila, he would not have left a single soul alive.

Some men are like bloodthirsty wolves: If they were to see no punishment ahead, they would kill others solely for the sake of their own pleasure and diversion…

In sum, the proper functioning of the body politic depends on justice and not forgiveness. So what Christ meant by forgiveness and magnanimity is not that if another nation were to assail you; burn your homes; plunder your possessions; assault your wives, children, and kin; and violate your honour, you must submit to the tyrannical host and permit them to carry out every manner of iniquity and oppression. Rather, the words of Christ refer to private transactions between two individuals, stating that if one person assaults another, the injured party should forgive. – Ibid., pp. 311-312.

The Baha’i teachings have a practical perspective on the continuing existence of imprisonment. It will, Abdu’l-Baha seems to imply, always be necessary given the current state of our world. But we can, through the implementation of Baha’i spiritual laws and principles, vastly reduce crime, and therefore reduce our need for prisons. In the next essays in this series on crime and punishment, we’ll examine the ways and means Baha’is propose for accomplishing that lofty goal.

Next: Six Questions toward Restorative Justice

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Comments

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  • Steve Eaton
    Sep 5, 2016
    -
    Jay, Thanks for your thoughts (and
    for your service in public protection!).
    I'm sure there are times when an
    officer has no choice but to fire his
    weapon, hopefully to incapacitate
    instead of kill, and definitely not to
    execute. I would not want to "second-guess" the judgement of
    a policeman who I thought had good
    intentions, when it comes to those
    quick decisions he must make about
    some precise tactics needed, like
    where to shoot a person, how many
    times, etc. I respect your experience,
    and would have been very interested ...
    to audit your course to learn appropriate responses to all kinds of
    situations. I definitely agree with you
    that in police work, as in all interpersonal relations, minimum
    force (and conflict-avoidance) is
    the right philosophy. In international
    relations, diplomacy and any needed
    economic or legal sanctions are much better than war. I think I could
    only be comfortable supporting a war if those things hadn't worked
    (or if there was virtually no time to
    try them) and innocent people were being killed by an agressor. I would
    hope then that it be a collective decision by many countries to stop
    the slaughter without delay.
    Read more...
    • Jay C. O'Brien
      Sep 7, 2016
      -
      "I'm sure there are times when an officer has no choice but to fire his weapon, hopefully to incapacitate instead of kill, and definitely not to execute."
      Why do you sure there are times an officer has no choice but to fire his weapon? What is your background and training in "Use of Force." Officers do not shoot to incapacitate. The D.A.'s office, the public and the courts are always second guessing law enforcement. As for War, do not get involved in it. You never know the reasons behind it. War is mostly about the need for power or ...money. Avoid it.
      Read more...
  • Steve Eaton
    Sep 4, 2016
    -
    Stephen, thanks for more examples
    and terms; these distinctions do
    deserve our careful thought. Jay,
    from Abdu'l-Baha's explanation
    of Jesus' words, I would say individuals and whole nations have
    the right to oppose aggressors. Baha'i scriptures don't command
    us to be totally submissive; necessary force in personal and national self-defense are allowed.
    On the personal level, according to
    Shoghi Effendi, we become wrong
    when we let self-protection turn into
    revenge. Unfortunately, that seems
    to be the normal sequence, given
    human nature. On the national level,
    with all the varied motives of those
    in ...power, you are probably right that
    we "rarely know" why we're asked
    to fight. I think you're absolutely right to put God above country;
    it's too bad that a lot of folks seem
    confused about something so simple!
    Read more...
    • Jay C. O'Brien
      Sep 4, 2016
      -
      Steve, I am Not a Pacifist, and I support a Peace Officers right to arrest without harm. I am a retired peace officer and taught the, "Use of Force" course. The point is for officers to use the least amount of force to arrest a citizen. Using too much force is illegal. After all these years I have come to the conclusion that, "Deadly Force" is not needed. The military is different from a police action. The military trains people to kill another person upon an order. I am questioning the mental competency of ...the people who train others to kill. I suggest the individual get smart, be alert and move away from danger. I do not support politics which advocates war. Do you?
      Read more...
  • Jay C. O'Brien
    Sep 4, 2016
    -
    From article, "In sum, the proper functioning of the body politic depends on justice and not forgiveness. So what Christ meant by forgiveness and magnanimity is not that if another nation were to assail you; burn your homes; plunder your possessions; assault your wives, children, and kin; and violate your honour, you must submit to the tyrannical host and permit them to carry out every manner of iniquity and oppression. Rather, the words of Christ refer to private transactions between two individuals, stating that if one person assaults another, the injured party should forgive. – Ibid., pp. 311-312."
    Question, Does ...this mean one nation may go to war against another nation? Should the individual get involved in the wars of his country? Who defines Justice between nations? I suggest putting God above country and do not fight at all because the individual rarely knows why his country goes to war.
    Read more...
  • rodney Richards
    Sep 3, 2016
    -
    David, love the new slants i'm seeing in BTeaching articles, not that they weren't always there, but of late they are clearer and more direct. We have the solutions not just pious prayers and i love the sharing of them openly and directly
  • Steve Eaton
    Sep 3, 2016
    -
    Stephen, You are presenting interesting considerations. I think
    all religions have taught us the same
    basic moral principles, despite the
    era-dependent details. These guide-
    lines were the basis of many or all
    major legal principles, in turn. When
    we get into situations of moral
    uncertainty like you described, it's
    always safer to follow the scriptural
    principle and violate the law of men
    if we must. Usually it does not come
    down to that, but there are such times, like the Nazi/Jew example.
    I also have to agree with the "mens
    rea" definition of crime you explained; in ...the "Sermon On The
    Mount", Jesus said something to the
    effect that contemplating adultery
    was like committing the act. Maybe
    I'm not stating that accurately, but
    He obviously meant our intentions
    are crucial and are always known
    to God!
    Read more...
  • Steve Eaton
    Sep 3, 2016
    -
    I love this investigation into the right
    reason for punishment and how it's
    very different from vengeance.
    I also like seeing scriptural con-
    firmation that society can not
    endure in an atmosphere of
    forgiveness alone, with no sanctions
    to maintain justice.
  • Jules Rensch
    Sep 3, 2016
    -
    this is so helpful in these days of a barage of spiritual, political and ethical attacks....
    thank you, Jules
  • Nicole Goff
    Sep 2, 2016
    -
    How to forgive and heal of the person forgiving continues to transgress you?
    • Jules Rensch
      Sep 4, 2016
      -
      this from:
      Matthew 18:21, 22 - Then Peter came to Him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times…
      (in other words be as steadfast in your resolve to tolerate and forgive as the one who sins against you)
      Abraham Lincoln said: Do I not defeat my enemy, when I choose to love them?
      Observer Jules
  • zia navidzadeh
    Sep 2, 2016
    -
    Beautifully explained, thank you.
  • Sep 2, 2016
    -
    Know the difference between Mala in Se and Mala Prohibita (capitalized for emphasis, but they all should be lower case). The first translates to "evil in and of itself" and the second to "evil because it's prohibited". They also showcases the difference between just laws and unjust laws. The former forbid acts that harm others while the latter. The latter don't or even mandate harming others like various examples like Fugutive Slave laws or Nuremburg laws. The problem with you series of articles so far is that you give the impression that all laws are just by fact of being ...laws and that people should just follow order no matter what they are. Law and religion combine to produce a just follow order society as you emphasize following all the laws to the exclusion of repealing unjust laws in this and all your previous laws so far. Wikipedia has articles defining malum in se and malum prohibitum in great detail, or at least better than I have done. Knowing the difference is the best guide to human behavior especially when outside authority is non-existent, when it is corrupt, or when laws are too numerous/nebulous that the legal system ceases to be sensible or have any legal principles whatsoever, etc.
    Read more...
    • rodney Richards
      Sep 3, 2016
      -
      Agree completely: Knowing the difference between good and evil, attained at seven as the age of "Reason", as a general example, is key to solving humanity's ills. And what will be your yardstick? Moral law and ethics, or someone's own fuzzy and human conjecture or philosophy? I chose the standard set by the Manifestations laws in all Scriptures and can attest it has served me much better in living a just and peaceful life
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