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Unitive Justice

  Lovingkindness in action. 

4. From Punishment to Connection



Punishment: suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution.    Merriam-Webster Dictionary  


Connection: the joining that is without limit, recognizing the whole is undivided and all minds are joined.

Punitive Justice and Punishment 

How does a punitive system achieve its goal of compliance? It uses punishment to force compliance. How does a unitive system achieve its goal of mutually beneficial action? It builds connection.

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. 

We are told punishment that “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. Today, many exceptions to the strict enforcement of the rules apply.

Too often the less fortunate may expect justice to be blind, but only to their particular needs and circumstances. The punitive system is not designed to handle the complexity of human conflict, and the issue of needs introduces complexity. Needs are part of the context, but context is largely excluded. (See Arc No. 7, From Event to Context  for more regarding the exclusion of context.) Needs are collateral evidence to be excluded. 

Punishment is expeditious, a quick fix, but often fails as a long-term solution. By narrowly defining the goal as compliance, 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. Because of connection, when we harm someone else, it is like a boomerang—it comes back to harm ourselves. When I harm another I harm myself.  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 Connection

When one believes that reality is fragmented, fearful and characterized by a perpetual us-versus-them battle, the concept of connection is difficult to grasp. But when one overcomes the belief in duality, seeing connection as reality is natural. Unitive Justice works within the reality of connection.

Actions that defy and deny our interconnectedness may serve our self-interest, but only short-term and limited to the material level. Our undivided connection cannot be seen, but it continues to exist without interruption. The new science of quantum physics affirms our interconnectedness. It has shown that, while the Newtonian laws of matter apply at the gross physical level, a more fundamental reality exists beyond matter—an all-encompassing field of energy in which separation does not exist.

The structures of Unitive Justice—values, equality, trust, honesty, mutually beneficial action, lovingkindness—strengthen connection. The connection that binds us to one another is the “force” a unitive system uses to maintain order and achieve peace. In fact, connection is the only means to achieve peace and sustained order. Connection negates the perception of standing alone upon which separation depends. We are not stand-alone, independent individuals—we are interconnected.

When one’s worldview encompasses connection, it impacts our understanding of responsibility. Believing that what each individual in the community does impacts the whole community gives rise to the view that responsibility is shared. This is why Unitive Justice invites us to consider the larger picture and where we stand in it. This leads to addressing root causes and sustainable change.

Our choices add up, giving rise to a context that impacts the choices others make—because we are inextricably connected. As Dr. Martin Luther King recognized, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”[3]

A problem cannot be solved until we know what the problem is, and peace cannot be achieved until we solve our problems. Everyone seems to have their separate problems, but our multitude of problems all stem from one source—the belief in separation. When we recognize this, we recognize that we have the means to solve our problems—connection. As we come to believe in connection instead of separation as our essential nature, we must create new institutions that reflect this new reality.

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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/.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., in his speech, “The American Dream.”