Sunday, April 13, 2008


Sunday Reflection: The devil inside

This morning in Sunday School, we talked about the events described starting at Acts 19:11, in which some magicians are attacked by evil spirits they are trying to exorcise. This business with evil spirits also plays a major role in the Book of Mark, in which Jesus drives out a number of evil spirits.

Theologians I trust tell me that the ancients were fascinated by evil spirits because they explained things about the natural world which were not then understood. Still, there must be some eternal message there-- about an evil inside that can be banished. As I sat there in class, I realized that this is at the heart of an eternal and ongoing debate in criminal law-- the debate between putting incapacitation or rehabilitation at the center of sentencing's goals.

Evil spirits, as described in the Bible, exist in a person but are something other than that person. That is, the person (good) is filled with an evil spirit (bad). As told repeatedly in the scriptures, once the bad evil spirit is removed, the person who remains is good, often immediately praising God. The idea of evil spirits supposes a good vessel with something bad in it which must be removed.

This fits with the idea of therapeutic rehabilitation, which holds that a convicted criminal is fixable once the bad thing (drug addiction, pedophilia, etc.) which is at the root of the crime is removed. The criminal is essentially good, and the key is to remove the evil spirit, often conceived of as an illness of one type or another.

The idea of incapacitation as a primary goal, on the other hand, holds that the person IS the bad thing, that the evil spirit and person are the same thing, and the best we can do is hold them away from the rest of society. Rehabilitation is not worth the effort, and we gain safety by building more prisons.

I know very well that rehabilitation very often fails, and can be almost futile in some areas. Still, as a Christian, it is hard for me to accept the second construct, at least in whole, because it does not allow for redemption. More deeply, perhaps, I accept that what Jesus did must somehow still be possible-- to remove the evil from a person and leave the good vessel whole. We aren't very good at it, and it can be expensive, but I'm not ready to abandon the defining idea of man which so clearly informed Jesus. He saw the evil and the person as separate, and so must I.

Beautiful reflection. And I agree, there is always hope through Jesus Christ.
Great post, Professor. Thanks for sharing. So many times I've tried to explain this idea and failed to get my point across. You said it perfectly.
What do you think of a Marxist criminology analysis like Willem Bonger's theory? The theological analysis presented here (that criminals do evil based on an external factor) seems to gel with Bonger's theory that any criminal act is, at its base, motivated by an external social factor (although I'm sure Bonger would debate the metaphysical status of the evil that causes the act).

What I'm wondering about, and I'm generally in agreement with Bonger that it's social and socioeconomic factors that are the root cause of crime, is whether a strict externalist analysis of action and agency negates just what it is that drives people to act -- internal causes.

When I was a student of philosophy, I was a hardcore internalist about ethics, flowing from my residual Kantianism. But reading Kantian and Hegelian writings on criminology, I have to disagree. I think Marx is right -- their retributivism is reified values-thinking, and so such a thorough-going internalism might be nothing more than an attempt to legitimize the rationalist value-structure.

I also had a friend mention to me the other day another German romantic thinker named Johann Herder, who argued that morality can't be understood cognitively, but rather sentimentally. That is, morals are the products of sentiments (feelings, emotions) rather than rational cognition. This sounds like a backdoor attempt to slip emotivism (a thoroughly distasteful ethical philosophy) into the analysis, but Herder's argument is compelling.

According to him, we don't so much as think up moral system as devise them to create them ad hoc to inculcate and perpetuate the kinds of moral sentiments we like (or dislike). I'm not sure if that really reduces to the sort of analytic emotivism popular at the turn of the century, or whether it goes off into a different direction at all. At any rate, Herder's sentimentalism might provide a solid foundation for arguing that Kantian retributivism could survive the Marxist critique and still take in to account the necessity of making strong moral judgments (i.e., this is evil, that is good).

Oh well. I suppose I should get back to my homework.
This is an interesting idea, and truly one worthy of consideration, Professor Osler. However, how does one excise this evil, given the high rates of recidivism in the current American criminal justice system?

- Chicago
The problem is that drug addiction, pedophilia, etc are really just symptoms of the same problem: sin...and while the legal system can try to address the symptoms, it cannot fix the root problem.
This problem is why rehabilitation so often fails.

What makes it so hard on a Christian is the knowledge that we have the same root problem and the same capacity to exhibit those same symptoms but for Grace.

I don't guess I really have an answer. But I'm thinking it will be something that I will have to deal with for a long time.

P.S. - I'm moving to Waco mid-May and starting law school in the Fall.
The idea of evil spirits as occupying a human which is otherwise a clean vessel is a very Christian construct, noble even. Would that this idea held true in the killing fields of Cambodia, the jungles of Nicaragua, the dusty plains of Darfur, the minds of Hitler, Stalin and their ilk. The simple fact is that there is evil in the world and the cost of human life is both tragic and seemingly unpaid by blood. Even Christ’s own disciples died martyrs’ deaths in most horrific ways. They were redeemed, but not spared death. It is not up to society to offer redemption. That is the purview of God.

Though we are made in His image, we are not God. He did not make us stupid, but, we are not omniscient. We cannot know what God’s plan is for us. We cannot know why bad things happen to good, God fearing people. We can pray for intercession, but prayers will be answered in a way that makes sense to God, not that makes sense to us.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t try to understand why people do evil things, but rather that our capacity to understand some things is beyond our ability to comprehend. If we can’t understand, we can forgive. We cannot offer redemption.

As a society, we need to figure out how to live together to the benefit of most of us. The Mosaic laws were a pretty good foundation for building a working society. The simpler the better. The more people that get involved in managing society, the less clear “right and wrong” become. More laws do not offer more clarity. We seem to have ignored God’s example of painting with a narrow brush in our own palette of rich and colorful rationalizations for how we behave and how we explain other people’s behavior.

The crime which should require that the perpetrator be absolutely expunged from society sheds no blood. Child molesters, pederasts, and people who commit crimes against our children have been proven to be incurable. They are ill equipped to live in society with adults and children. They find their own basest urges irresistible and society finds their actions reprehensible and repugnant. They cleverly commit their crimes again and again until they are finally caught…after having altered the psychology and social behavior of sometimes hundreds of victims who will never recover what they have lost. The victims’ future contribution to society permanently altered, if not completely derailed. Once caught, the criminal serves some time and is subsequently released to repeat their crimes whenever the opportunity presents itself again.

We have trouble dealing with these crimes as a society. We all know how wrong they are. We all know that the perpetrator is unfixable. We somehow think that these people are redeemable…but, that determination really isn’t up to us.

Each of their many victims is irrevocably changed for the worse. Society is worse off because of this crime. The damage done to society as a whole is severe and immeasurable, and yet, this crime is not viewed as capital.

Again, God didn’t make us stupid. He doesn’t send thunderbolts down to strike down evildoers, nor does He send angels to touch them and release their demons. He gives us some parameters for living and the intelligence to figure out the rest. We don’t need to apologize for how we manage to protect ourselves from the evil that exists in the world. If we could cast demons out of the vessel, we would. Some things are just better left to God.
I disagree professor. To say that crime is motivated by an external factor gives the criminal a way to deny responsibility for their action. We all have desires and tendencies, but the civilized among us resist the urge to steal something that we want and cannot afford. People who give into this temptation should be punished accordingly. God was never hesitant to punish, nor did Jesus ever preach that forgiveness equates to a clean slate.
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