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Grace and the Cycle of Abuse
(Image: Prison fence via Shutterstock)

Grace and the Cycle of Abuse

(Image: Prison fence via Shutterstock)

Those to whom evil is done. Do evil in return. – W. H. Auden

Grace is the good we do not deserve. A society without grace, a society without mercy, a society that knows only vengeance, is a horrid land of violence and fear.

The simple rule of evil is Auden’s, but it’s worse than his line implies: we don’t do evil to those who do evil to us. Oh no, those who are abused, do evil to someone else, someone innocent, and so it goes. The cycle of abuse lives in families, it lives in prisons, it lives in everyday life, it lives in nations, as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians attests.

A person or group who is hurt comes to believe that’s how one should act. It’s weird, it’s counterintuitive (shouldn’t abuse make you want to be sure it never happens to anyone else), but the evidence is that it’s true. Once hurt, once damaged, too many of us act out that hurt on other people.

Or, as the saying about child-rearing runs, children do what you do, not what you say. If you abuse them, they will abuse. If you bully them, they will become bullies.

True of adults, too.

Justice requires that we punish those who hurt others except in defense of themselves or others. But the nature of that punishment is key, it must be rehabilitative, not punitive. This was understood well by the prison reformers of previous generations, and in this as in much else, we have regressed from our humanity in the 60s and 70s.

A prison where people are raped, turns out rapists. A prison where people are beaten, turns out people who resort easily to violence. A prison where the only people who can protect you from rape and beatings are racist gangs, turns out racist gang-members.

Rape a rapist, or stand by and watch, effectively condoning it, and you become a rapist. The problem with eye-for-an-eye punishment is that it perpetuates the cycle of abuse and it coarsens those who must do the punishing.

And so, in civilized nations (like Finland, not America) the punishment is understood simply: the loss of freedom. Because the prisoner has proven they cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, the right to make those decisions is taken away from them for a time. During that time they should be treated well, treated better than they treated their victim, both because a society which rapes and murders is coarsened and because the cycle of abuse must be broken.

The recidivism rate in Finland is 1/2 that of the US rate. Why? Because their prisoners aren’t raped and beaten, that’s why. Because they are treated kindly.

Grace is the kindness you don’t deserve. Only grace, only kindness, can break the cycle of abuse. To be sure, it doesn’t always work, but it works more often than violence does.

If you aren’t going to either lock someone up for the rest of their life (expensive) or kill them (and we make way too many mistakes to be killing people based on our court’s decisions), then you’d best treat prisoners well, because they’re coming out of the prison, and you want them to come out better people than they went in, not worse.

This also has to do with how we treat them once out. The standard practice, now, of criminal background checks for every decent jobs, means that ex-cons can never actually have a good life outside prison. Absent any opportunity in the legal economy, of course they go to the illegal economy: those are often the only people willing to hire them. Once someone has done their time, they’ve paid their debt to society and save for a very few jobs, criminal record checks need to be illegal.

Treat people with both justice and grace, and you’ll have a far happier society. This is true for affairs far beyond prison, mind you, but it is especially true for those who have committed crimes. Justice without mercy is cruelty, and mercy without justice is unfair.

Grace: it’s the good we don’t deserve, and combined with justice, it’s how we should run our societies.

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