Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

5. From Punishment to Mutually Beneficial Action


Punishment: suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution.

                                                                     Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Mutually beneficial action: through honest communication, courageous vulnerability and recognizing their shared humanity, those involved in conflict discover the underlying brokenness out of which their conflict arose and transform it into action that permits all involved to go forward together; no one has to lose.

Punitive Justice and Punishment 

As we consider the punitive structure of punishment, your immediate response may be fear that transitioning away from punishment will result in widespread non-compliance, disorder, perhaps even anarchy. We tend to overlook the high cost that punishment extracts, and assume that we have no other option.

The immediate goal of punitive justice is to punish offenders in order to enforce compliance and/or achieve atonement. An indirect goal is to deter would-be wrongdoers by making the consequence of doing wrong painful or costly. 

The theory regarding punishment includes the assurance that the rules regarding its imposition are fair because “justice is blind.” Blind justice means that the rules are enforced objectively and impartially, without preferential treatment for anyone based on wealth, race, or connections. This implies that, although the system is harsh, it is, nonetheless, fair. Even if a relative of the judge is charged, the law is to be applied as though those administering justice cannot see the status of the accused.

In fact, this has never been the entire story, as exceptions to the rules regarding punishment have long been an integral part of the system. In the Old Testament, a goat was cast out in the desert as part of the Day of Atonement ceremony, to serve as a surrogate recipient of punishment required to atone for the sins of the people, a sacrifice to appease God or the devil.[1] The word “scapegoat” is now sometimes used to refer to someone who is wrongly blamed for a problem.

Instead, too often the less fortunate may expect justice to be blind, but only to their particular needs and circumstances. The system is such that this information remains out of sight unless the context out of which the harm arose is considered, but it generally is not. 

As the punitive system is not designed to handle the complexity of human conflict that considering the context introduces, context is largely excluded. (See Arc to Unitive Justice No. 3, From Episode to Epicenter  for more regarding the exclusion of context.) Blindness that ignores the particular needs of the less fortunate adds to the harshness of the system.

Punishment is expeditious, a quick fix, but often fails as a long-term solution. By narrowly defining the goal as punishment, the punitive system excludes consideration of the whole, and rarely addresses root causes. This is one reason its results are temporary.

Some argue that the U.S. does more than punish its criminals, it demonizes them, leading the public to see them as monsters. “We see it on our airwaves. We read it online. We hear it from elected officials, and from the police, and it's all sanctified by our courts of law.”[2] This demonizing no doubt makes people feel better about the harsh punishments our system inflicts on others.

Despite its wide use, punishment is inherently flawed for a reason we too often fail to consider: what we give is what we, in some form, receive. Harming others is like a sword with a 360-degree angle—in some way, we always hurt ourselves, as well. When we diminish a prisoner, we also diminish ourselves. As we build prisons, there are fewer funds to educate our children. As the system’s harshness disproportionately impacts minority communities, we have pockets of dysfunction that diminish the whole.

Punishment has been an aspect of the human experience for so long that we easily conclude that it is part of our human nature. However, when a healing option is available, many people choose it over punishment, indicating that we may not be hard wired for punishment, after all.

Unitive Justice and Mutually Beneficial Action

Mutually beneficial action: when conflict naturally flows toward resolution through an exchange that restores/creates balance and addresses the underlying brokenness out of which the conflict arose; a resolution in which no one has to lose.

While the objective of the punitive justice system is to punish offenders, the goal of unitive justice to achieve mutually beneficial action among all impacted by conflict. As these are distinctly different, the structures used to achieve each of these goals must also be different.

Through structures such as lovingkindness, discernment, equality and connection, unitive justice supports the natural flow of conflicts toward a resolution in which no one has to lose. It permits a generosity of spirit to emerge that is often squelched by punitive justice and retribution. This generosity of spirit, in turn, tends to lead to a giving and receiving among the participants that results in mutually beneficial action, an exchange that restores balance to the broken relationship, or creates balance if it did not exist before.

The unitive process supports those in conflict in recognizing their shared humanity. When this occurs, the desire to seek revenge dissipates and the desire to extend support emerges. In this context, a mutually beneficial resolution grows organically, arising without being directed or coerced. The giving and receiving that flows between or among the participants in mutually beneficial action reflects the balance being restored or established, and balance is the path to peace.

As community members learn that the community has the capacity to address conflict and make decisions using the principle of unitive justice, trust develops and the community is strengthened, but it does not stop there. Communities are like the cells of a nation. As communities become stronger, so does the nation. As nations are at peace within, attaining peace within the world becomes possible.

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In the video below, a prosecutor named Adam Foss shares his experience with punishment and his vision for a justice system that includes love.

[1] Leviticus 16:8. “And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot ‘For the Lord,’ and the other lot, ‘For Azazel.’” (Azazel was a fallen angel or demon.)

[2] Andrew Cohen, “American Exceptionalism, Crime-and-Punishment Edition,” The Atlantic, Feb 24, 2014, at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/02/american-exceptionalism-crime-and-punishment-edition/284021/.