Thursday, October 20, 2016

Loving the Unlovable

We've got two really disturbing stories in the news this week that bring some real difficulty when thinking about them theologically. There is this man in Montana who, three times, raped his own teenage daughter and was given a suspended sentence, which will result in just a couple months in jail, provided he completes serious counseling and other treatment plans (and has no solo contact with minors, pretty much ever again). The judge in that case is getting a lot of flack, including a potential impeachment/recall, but he also sites the insistence of the girl's family that having the head of their household gone for, potentially, forever, would be a real detriment to the family, especially the man's young sons.

We've also got a police report out, which details journals and documents from the counseling sessions of NFL kicker, Josh Brown, who admitted to abusing his wife in many ways and on multiple occasions. There was a police incident over the summer that lead to a suspension, but these details show both a lengthy, serious pattern of abuse, but also an equally lengthy, involved process of counseling and recovery.

Our general society like revenge. We say, "do something awful, pay for it forever." That's generally our attitude in public and it's the way most of our laws are written. It's not hard to say, "You rape your own daughter, you're lucky to get to live." Although "life" for a child rapist in prison is probably not preferable to death, but then again, people are often ok with that - whatever punishment we can get for people like that. Spousal abuse used to be something we brushed aside as "private," but lately (and sadly) largely due to the spotlight of the NFL, those attitudes are changing - and perhaps to make up for all those years of neglect, the vitriol with which we approach those situations is as intense as just about any other crime someone could commit - and with good reason; it's pretty sickening.

What we seem to miss in all of this, and what makes it so difficult to really parse, is that despite the inhumane things these men did and the dehumanizing our system of laws, courts, and punishment does to those who commit them, these people are, in fact, still human beings.

I've written before that we take such extreme responses largely to separate ourselves as people from other people who do terrible things. We don't want to think of child rapists or murderers or domestic abusers as humans, because we are humans and it forces us to face the reality that we are capable of entirely inhuman things. Given a specific set of circumstances, that could be us. It's terrifying.

We rightly run from it.

Although I'd argue that people who embrace that notion - that we are all capable of tremendous evil, are the ones most likely to find the kind of health and peace necessary to avoid such evil. Hate is powerful, but it rarely plays out to our benefit. We tend to become that which we hate. In dehumanizing, we become like those we dehumanize. That's a lot of historical precedent for this.

I read, last week, the memoir of Bryan Cranston, who played Hal on Malcolm in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad. He talked about an incident early in his adult life, where he became so afraid of and angry at an ex-girlfriend-turned-stalker that he believed himself capable of killing her, even had a lucid dream of doing the deed so real he believed, for a time, that he'd done it. The rest of the book (which is very good, by the way) illustrates, though, how the realization of that moment, those feelings, his actions, led to a really healthy process of growth and development that shaped his life in profound ways, building a solid foundation that helped prevent many of the mistakes he seemed bound for in his early years.

If we're going to see terrible people as human beings, we have to treat them humanely. Providing counseling and rehabilitation - programs for healing, growth, and recovery make a lot more sense than archiving evil in prisons and jails, ignoring mental illness, or labeling people as hopeless. Is Josh Brown going to be punished because he sought help? Will we eliminate any possible good this Montana rapist might ever do in his life, because of the atrocities he's committed? That's the Bill Cosby question, right?

If you're like me, it leaves you totally confused. I like black and white. Even in difficult issues, I tend to work until I find a path through the weeds - it might not be perfect; it might even need to be altered a time or two, but it's something, a decision. It doesn't work that way here.

A man raped his own daughter, three times! Certainly he should never, ever, ever have contact with her ever again; his name should never be uttered in her presence, unless she initiates it. I believe she earned that kind of respect and protection by what she's suffered. And Josh Brown is not the kind of person anyone would want to employ - and his bosses should have every right to fire him and no one should feel sorry about it.

At the same time, I believe in redemption. I really do. My faith is built on the idea that love changes people - not often quickly or completely, but I've formed my life around the idea that no one should be written off. It creates a real problem - the old punishment vs consequences problem - which is easy to solve in the abstract, but darn near impossible to even fathom in the reality of people's lives.

How do we separate our need for revenge and dehumanization, for distance and escape, from the very real responsibility we have as a society to ensure people don't escape the consequences of their actions. We long to shelter and shield innocent others from the consequences of the guilty, but it's rarely that simple. The pain we inflict on one person necessarily radiates to others - many others - for whom it was never intended.

That is the reality of life.

I'm not going to take a "position" on either of these two issues I brought up - other than to say I think we'd all be wise to consider every perspective with care and genuine concern. I don't think this judge is just trying to let a rapist off; I don't think it's necessarily undue compassion (the way it probably was for that Stanford athlete) - at the same time, it's real hard for me to call what the judge did "right." It's courageous and it flies in the face of what society expects.

Of course, as in any public event, there are a lot of details we don't know that are pretty core to making a learned opinion. And as much as these travesties compel us to speak, act, and react, we can never be in the position of those actually involved. We will never understand or fully appreciate the context. I'd just like for us to consider what our reactions say about what is important to us. I'd like to suggest that perhaps we expand that definition of "important" influences beyond those emotions which immediately spring to mind.

Life is difficult. Life is complex. Life is messy. But, man, is life worth it.

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