Thursday, August 04, 2016

Punishment vs Consequence

I got to spend a week at camp with 230-some teenagers (which is part of the reason these posts are late this week). There was some good time for reflection, renewal, and thinking. One of the things that struck me most profoundly (I guess because I'm now old and my memory fades) was the reminder of just how tough it is to be figuring out how the world works. Navigating adolescence and the search for understanding is tough, even with a supportive environment where people love and care for you.

It's not just teenagers, though - I mean it's a search everyone is on for their entire lives. But this week it just kind of struck me how important it is for us (all of us - parents, children, adults, teenagers, humans) to understand punishment and consequences. I feel like I've written about this before, how punishment is really a way for authority figures to display grace. Punishment most often occurs as a means of avoiding the consequences of some action. Someone driving drunk is punished as a way of bringing the very real consequences of that action into view. A person who drives drunk and kills someone with their car experiences the consequence. Even in that scenario, there's still a punishment. Typically the consequence of killing someone is that we die ourselves. Society, in general, cares enough about life to not repay death with death. Regardless the consequences are serious.

As a teenager, punishment feels like torture. There's no way around it. It feels that way on purpose, because if we understood consequences deeply enough, punishment wouldn't be necessary. Now not every authority is perfect and punishment does sometimes end up being punitive. That's regrettable. These errors in punishment, though, shape how we view the world, especially if take a theistic view of things.

It's real easy to look at the consequences of our actions as divine reward or punishment. This is likely more true in places most guarded from real consequences. In the modern US we shelter our kids, our families, large parts of our society from any real dangers. It is few and far between who suffer real consequences from our poor choices - and we tend to ignore, hide, or marginalize those who do suffer. So much of it is in secret. Thus, we're really living in a world of punishment - actions intended to teach us lessons about consequences, but facing few real, actual consequences.

This means we expect everything that happens to us to be someone else's choice. Kids are far more worried about what their parents might do if they're caught drinking on a Friday night than the hangover they'll have the next day (and even less concerned about cirrhosis in the future). Punishment is just our major frame of reference.

We project this on God.

My mom is a drug addict and abandoned me when I was a baby to be raised in marginally safer foster homes the rest of my life. That is really a number of tragic consequences to poor choices made by many people. But it's really easy to see it as divine punishment for something we did or for just not being a good enough person, punishment for some inherent failure.

I suppose it's inherently human to think this way. Our first inclination of the world is that someone somewhere is pulling the strings on everything. It's an underlying cultural assumption even into the present day. It's one of the reasons scientists get so fed up - not just that some religious people continue to propagate this notion, but that so many people believe it even without strong faith commitments. In this worldview, karma makes sense. The world somehow rewards and punishes people - and often in unjust, arbitrary ways.

I don't think the world really works like that. I make that statement as a faith claim, as someone who's spent a lot of time studying the Bible and theology - and the world around me. Science makes that claim, too - action and reaction, cause and effect. The things that happen to us are not rewards and punishments, they are consequences. They are the result of action, conscious or otherwise.

As a faith commitment, I believe in a God that suffers with humanity - a God who does not reward and punish, but who walks with us through life, enduring consequences as we endure them. God celebrates and mourns right alongside us. It is this loving co-suffering that is exemplified in Jesus and to which each of us are challenged to. I believe this is the way to live well in the world.

This is the difference between grace and torture.

If we see God as punitive, we can only see life as torture. It's pain, divinely inflicted pain, for no discernible reason other than existence. It's depressing and it's no wonder people flounder around in search of meaning when life looks like that. Instead, we should see (or try to learn to see) God's presence in the midst of pain as profound grace. God, and those people around you who represent God in your life, walking with you through the inevitable ups and downs (and the far more serious celebrations and crises) that life brings, are hope in the midst of despair.

This world is not about rewards and punishments - at least not deep down. It is about riding the wave of consequences and, if you cling to some measure of faith, trusting that our loving co-suffering can actually make a difference down the line. I believe that love changes things, but we have to see grace and love and peace around us to ever see this change.

It starts, at least in part, with how we see God present in the midst of tragedy.

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