Another headline this week reminded me that I’d intended, when the story first broke two weeks ago, to go into more reflection on the interplay of justice and mercy, in light of the situation playing out in the local courts.
The question that came to mind then, that haunts me still, is this: to what degree is it immoral to violate an unjust law?
I do not subscribe to the view that the law is always right or always good; it is at best a human creation and subject to the same kinds of fallibility that are all other works of human mind or hand, adequate but far from perfect. I am wary of those who fetishize the rule of law or the power of the state – my antiauthoritarian soul resists any “because I say so, that’s why!” that comes my way. My own tendency to stay out of legal trouble resides largely in that the laws I comply with are, by and large, the sensible sort that I have either no interest in violating in the first place (mostly the major thou-shalt-nots), or an interest that is outweighed by the value of the structure resulting from general cooperation with the law (traffic laws, for instance.)
But I can quite easily come up with hypothetical situations in which my compliance with a particular law would not be assured. The classic example is speeding in order to take someone to hospital; I can readily come up with others but find myself reluctant to articulate them lest I be judged lacking in moral character for daring to think such things. It’s hard, this unlearning of the self-censorship necessary to survive as fundamentally non-obedient person, with my inner authority intact. It is a profound wrongness in authoritarian thinking: the notion that people must be made to behave (properly, for some definition) through fear and violence, or they will not behave (properly) at all. Those of us who behave (properly) because we feel like it, or because it seems like a good idea at a time, are threatening to external authority, which at its worst responds with rigidity and violence. They do not like to be reminded that they are not in complete control.
It is from this place that I have grave reservations about the penal / corrections systems as developed in the US. I am not sure what purpose exactly is supposed to be served by locking people up – is it to keep the rest of society safe? If so, then to what end do we lock up non-violent and victimless offenders? Is it to rehabilitate wrongdoers? If so, then we are doing a piss-poor job of it, most of the time. Or do we do it to punish the errant for the sake of punishment? I do not think that is a right thing to be doing. I am not sure what the right answers are, but the way we are doing it now is full of wrong answers.
I’m also very wary of American drug laws at both the state and federal level. I’m not interested in hosting a vigorous political discussion on why the current policies are (or aren’t) the best thing since Prohibition; this is merely a statement of personal reflection. The way we collectively, as a society, address substance consumption and abuse is inconsistent, ineffective and broken; and no, I disagree with the premise that all use is abuse. Drug abuse as a problem happens in the intersection of other big tangled problems: poverty, whether acute or generational; inadequate access to physical or mental health care; lots of issues including what I think of as spiritual poverty, the desperate yearning for some meaning to existence, some reason to continue living – an aching void that religion sometimes fills, and other times merely plasters over.
I don’t see how criminalizing drug use or possession does anything to solve the problem when the problem (drug abuse) itself is a symptom of deeper wounds to our collective soul. It doesn’t help, which is foolish, and it makes the situation worse, which is unjust.
It is of course illegal to violate the law, regardless of whether the law is wise or foolish, just or unjust. But is it always wrong?
I say it is not.
I say that a system of law that has no room for mercy is a system of law that does not serve real justice. Mercy and Justice are not mutually exclusive: they are the two pillars that hold open the gate, and the path lies between them.
It is perhaps true that mercy with insufficient justice is flaccid, ineffectual, corrupt, permissive in ways that allow wrong to be done. The reactionary political right-wingers have certainly spent the last thirty-odd years flinging the attributes of mercy around as though it were an inherently bad thing to show compassion for one’s fellow human being, regardless of circumstances. But justice with insufficient mercy is no better – a rigid barren set of bones that prohibits right action. And it is clear and compelling to me that the time is long past for us to put the warm flesh back on those dead bones: to create systems that mend the damage already done and prevent further harm from happening, to the greatest degree possible, without sinking into cruelty and vengeance against each other. It is easy to write “those people” off. But it is neither respectful, nor fair, nor compassionate, nor just. It serves neither our immediate need nor the greater good.
We can do better than we have done so far.
May it be so.