Monday, January 10, 2011

Gluttony for Punishment

On the last day of 2010, I finally finished a task I had set out many times to do before: I finished reading the Christian Bible (the Protestant version) straight through. As I read it, I kept some notes and marked some cross-references and grouped passages together according to themes. On the first day of 2011 I decided to repeat the task, this time reading the King James version to savor the poetry of 17th century English, and this time following a traditional lectionary that selects for each day a mixture of Old Testament and New Testament passages. Yesterday, January 9, one of the selected readings was Psalm 21, and I was reminded by that text of a disturbing theme than runs throughout the Hebrew and the Greek texts of the Bible—a theme that I always try to ignore, and one that I certainly never try to incorporate into my approach to life. The theme I find so distasteful is the identification of others as enemies and the prayers that one's enemies will be destroyed, and that all who are unrighteous will be punished. The lines of the twenty-first Psalm that brought a sickening taste to my mouth were these:

Thine hand shall find out all thine enemies: thy right hand shall find out those that hate thee.Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the LORD shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them. Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men. (Ps. 21:8–10)
Now I may very well find such words as the very opposite of anything I would regard as inspirational or spiritual, but it is educational to encounter such passages (again and again) in the Bible, because they help me understand a great deal about both the European and Semitic traditions, and of the Judeo-Christian threads that are woven into the fabric of American culture. So much of what has always distressed me about America's European heritage has been the role that American  men (and sometimes, but more rarely, women) of European extraction have taken as those who must be obeyed, and those who must mete out punishment to those who fail to obey. There is a significant sector of the American population who can be described as gluttons for punishment, for they seem to have an insatiable appetite for punishment—so long as they are not on the receiving end of it.

And a great deal of this gluttony for seeing the unrighteous suffer and be exterminated comes directly from the culture of the Bible. Whether it is Joshua marching into the land of Canaan and killing all the men, women, children and even animals on the grounds that the ways of the Canaanites were offensive to the sight of God, or the Christians longing for the downfall and humiliation and devastation of the Roman empire, there are few books of either the Jewish or the Christian scriptures that do not celebrate the suffering and death of those who think and act differently and whose difference is deemed offensive in the eyes of God.

This week I received a letter from someone serving a very long sentence in a California prison. He told me of a conversation he had recently had with a fellow inmate. My correspondent told how he had begun the discussion by saying that he was disturbed by American foreign policy, which is so often a policy of forcing others to accept mainstream American values and economic policies and regarding those who do not readily comply as savages and evil-doers who deserve no better than to be dominated and, if necessary, destroyed. This opening led to a spirited discussion. The other inmate reportedly made no attempt to deny that America's behavior in the world has been aggressive and domineering. Rather, he defended America's culture of bullying as being essentially human. This is a dog-eat-dog world, he said, and those who do not bully get bullied. If America were not dominating others, others would be quick to dominate America. The only way for a country to survive is to look around and see who is poised to try to be aggressively dominant and to beat them to the punch.

It does not surprising that an inmate in an American prison would think that striving for dominance is the very essence of being human. From everything I have heard about American prisons, they are, as a friend of mine—a former prison guard—recently put it, “just like everything you have ever heard about hell, but in many ways worse.” It is not easy for those who live in hellish realms to see that there might be some alternative to being dominated by both the legal system and other prisoners and gaining respite from being bullied only by finding a few weaker people and dominating them.

The culture of domination thrives outside the walls of our prisons almost as much as it thrives on the inside. The very fact that there is such a thing as prison walls betokens a culture of domination, and of justifying domination on the grounds that those being dominated are evil-doers or reprobates whose behavior has alienated them from the allegedly inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That Americans are so fond of punishment—or at least so convinced that there is no alternative to it—is distressing enough. The distress is compounded when one thinks of the people who are deemed worthy of punishment: drug addicts, the poor, the disadvantaged, the mentally ill. With the exception of a few so-called white-collar criminals such as Bernie Madoff, who seem to be driven mostly by greed, most of the people in American prisons are there because of drug-related behavior or from actions arising from the desperation of poverty.

I have some study questions for America. Why is drug addiction seen as a crime to be punished rather than as a disease to be cured? Why is vagrancy and homelessness seen as a miscreance rather than as a condition that no one chooses? Why is begging seen as a manifestation of laziness rather than as the consequence of desperation? Why are those who cannot afford health care because their skills do not enable them to earn high wages perceived as a drain on the economy and a factor in a nation's national debt? Why are those who need help regarded as parasites? And to what extent do these attitudes reflect religious teachings stemming from three thousand years ago and elevated to the status of divinely inspired wisdom? And here is a question for extra credit: how many people like John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Representative Gabrielle Giffords have to be shot by people who feel a need to punish them for offering help to those who need it before America dares to meditate on its addiction to punishment?