You Shall Pursue

April 2, 2013

Steubenville, Justice, and Mercy

Filed under: Uncategorized — marleyweiner @ 12:30 pm

So, Steubenville; I’ve been meaning to write about it for a long long time, and get my thoughts in order. Basically, it’s children taught that they are gods and can do no wrong, and then behaving in the worst ways imaginable. How disgusting and disturbing that they should feel entitled to act this way.

When it comes to the theology of this case, I think that my friend Jordan has really good things to say on the subject. My favorite part is this:

Americans, especially those fond of holding forth on “personal responsibility,” love to give lip service to this idea—action and reaction, cause and effect, and so on. But when news reporters lament that two high-schoolers’ lives and career prospects have been ruined because they will henceforth be registered as sex offenders wherever they go, it reveals how inconsistently people actually believe it. Mays and Richmond will be labeled as sex offenders because they are sex offenders. That they are remorseful after the fact (that is, if they regret anything besides getting caught) is a nice thing to know, but it shouldn’t suddenly tempt us to let them off the hook morally, legally, or otherwise.

Of course, keeping our hearts hardened like this is easier said than done. For most Americans, trained in the Christian ethic of guilt and redemption, turning rape into the opening act of a morality play is far more emotionally uplifting than treating it as a crime to be paid for. But that’s another, more stereotypical thing about being raised Jewish: I tend to strongly distrust anything that’s too emotionally uplifting. There are times when this makes me seem cynical and misanthropic, but in situations like the one in Steubenville I believe people are well served by this sort of skepticism. Otherwise we succumb to the message, in effect, that we ought to feel sorry for Mays and Richmond because they feel sorry for themselves. And can they repent and be saved? The majority of Americans may think so. It’s not indecent to hope that one day, they turn their lives around and come to terms with what they’ve done. But when we think of sin this way, we make it abstract. That they might be redeemed one day in the future isn’t a comfort to me, and it probably isn’t a comfort to their victim either.

The piece that I would like to add to this is that in Judaism, the virtue of justice is balanced by the virtue of cheesed, which you can translate as love, or mercy. Not that we should let the rapists off the hook, nor that we should raise up their remorse over and above the suffering of their victim. But we should recognize that they are human beings who perpetrated this terrible act, human beings who were told over and over that they were above consequences, and that women and girls were objects for their use. They were taught to dehumanize other people, and their arrogance and sense of entitlement led them to brutalize another human being. And if they were taught this, we can teach others differently.

But if we remember that they are humans behaving badly, we can start to shift one of the most insidious myths of our rape culture; that rapists are some sorts of inhuman monsters and that ordinary, normal men would never do such a thing. However, rapists are people who rape, nothing more, nothing less. And people learn from their environment. They learn that rape is acceptable, or that treating others as less than human is okay.

As we work to dismantle rape culture one bit at a time, we decrease, bit by bit, the number of people who think that ignoring boundaries is okay. We raise the possibility that victims will find justice, that people will treat each other with respect, that sex becomes a loving and caring activity rather than a source of trauma for so many.

This is the lesson of Steubenville. We must do better for all of our children. We must teach them to love each other, respect each other’s boundaries, and be good to one another. We must start when they are very young, and continue until they are no longer in our care. It’s the only way that we can prevent things like this from happening.

A good start:


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