So far, I’ve discussed government and justice from the perspective of trespass against unalienable rights. Now, I want shift my focus. Instead of taking about how unalienable rights define crime and the role of government, I want to talk about how the concept of unalienable rights helps us understand what is good and moral. Again I will show this in the light of the ideals of the Golden Rule and the Law of the Harvest.
In Chapter Six, I explained how justice is based on the concept of restitution. A person who has been the victim of a trespass against their unalienable rights has a moral right to restitution under the law of justice. When justice is restitution based, it not only makes the “punishment” fit the crime, it also creates the framework through which mercy can be shown and forgiveness granted. In fact, it is only in understanding the moral requirements of the lesser law of justice that we can understand the value of, and the need for, the higher law of mercy.
To illustrate these concepts, I will refer to the story to which I alluded earlier—the story of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserable. The book is the basis for a Broadway musical of the same name. If you haven’t seen the movie or play, or read the book, I highly recommend you at least watch the movie or the play. But, for those of you unfamiliar with Les Miserable, here’s the basic story. Jean Valjean was an out of work woodcutter. He lived with his sister and her child. They had no food and his sister’s child was starving.
In desperation, Jean Valjean breaks a shop window and steals a loaf of bread. He is caught and sentenced to five years of hard labor. Because he repeatedly tries to escape, he winds up serving for nearly 20 years.
Anyone with any sense of compassion could understand the forces which drove Jean Valjean to do what he did, and if we have compassion for the situation, it seems very harsh and unfair to force someone into hard labor for five years (let alone 20) for a crime brought on by desperation over the plight of a child.
In fact, the punishment made things even worse. It not only destroyed Jean Valjean’s life, it destroyed the life of his sister and her child. The injustice he experienced also turned Jean Valjean into an angry and hardened criminal. His punishment did not help the shopkeeper either as it did nothing to fix the broken window or replace the stolen bread.
The Need for Mercy
If Jean Valjean had lived in a society with a restitution-based, common law legal system, his probable sentence would have been to pay the shopkeeper the value of two loaves of bread and two windows. Since Jean Valjean has no money, this might have been satisfied by him performing work for the shopkeeper until the debt was paid. Or, he might have been compelled to work elsewhere until the debt was paid. But whatever the arrangements, the demands of justice would be satisfied. The shopkeeper would have been compensated for his loss.
But where in all this is there room for mercy? Jean Valjean could plead with the judge for mercy, but it is not the judge who has suffered a loss. If the judge, representing the power of government, doesn’t require Jean Valjean to make restitution, then the judge is acting unjustly to the shopkeeper. He’d be telling the shopkeeper; it was alright that Jean Valjean stole from you. I’m forcing you to give up your property for his sake.
So, where in this story is there any room for compassion? It takes a very cold and heartless person to not have empathy for the plight of Jean Valjean. He wasn’t even stealing for himself. He was trying to save a child from starving.
In spite of this dilemma, it is critical to understand that mercy cannot rob justice or justice ceases to exist. Fortunately, there is a solution to all of this. Without robbing justice, there are two ways Jean Valjean can be shown mercy.
Forgiving Those Who Trespass Against Us
The victim has it within his or her power to show mercy and to forgive. In the story above, upon hearing the plight of Jean Valjean the shopkeeper might have compassion on him and chose to show mercy by forgiving him his trespass.
By the law of justice (and the law of the harvest) the shopkeeper is morally entitled to compensation for the trespass against his unalienable right of property. However, he can choose to forgo that right, turning that which was lost into a gift.
In fact, that’s the true meaning of the word forgive. The root of the word, forgive, is give. Forgiveness is an act of giving and the only one who can rightfully give someone anything is the one who owns the thing being given. The bread and the window, being the shopkeeper’s property, can be voluntarily given to Jean Valjean so that no debt is owed.
In forgiving someone, the victim is voluntarily giving what was lost to the perpetrator of the trespass. The victim is giving them the lost life, liberty or property, dropping the need for restitution in order to restore equity to society. They restore equity by offering mercy.
This is vitally important and something I believe few people understand. Anyone who says, “I may forgive, but I will never forget,” has not actually forgiven. Forgiveness doesn’t just release the trespasser from the penalty of the law, it also releases all of the negative feelings in the victim.
How can you feel hurt and resentful over something you have given to another person in an act of love and kindness? To say that you still hold negative feelings towards a person you have forgiven, means you haven’t really forgiven them. You’re still holding onto what was lost and still wanting some type of just restitution.
This understanding of forgiveness is demonstrated in a powerful way later in the story of Les Miserable. After being released from prison, Jean Valjean has become a bitter and angry man. He is discriminated against because he is a former convict and has a hard time finding work or shelter.
Taking compassion on him, the benevolent Bishop Myriel gives him shelter and food for the night, setting out his fine silver for the benefit of his “honored guest.” Jean Valjean repays him by getting up in the middle of the night and stealing the Bishop’s silverware.
Caught by the police, Jean Valjean claims that the Bishop gave him the silver as a gift, but the police believe him. They haul him back to the Bishop, who, to Jean Valjean’s surprise, says that not only was the silver a gift, but that in his haste, Jean Valjean had forgotten part of the gift. He had left behind the silver candlesticks that were part of the set.
After the police are dismissed. The Bishop tells Jean Valjean that he has “bought his soul for God,” and that he must use the silver he has given him to become an honest man. After Jean Valjean departs, the Bishop’s housekeeper questions him about what he just did. She can’t believe that he simply forgave the criminal. His response is that he had too long withheld this silver from the poor.
Bishop Myriel had transformed an act of trespass into an act of love. His true forgiveness becomes the catalyst for Jean Valjean to make the change from his hardened criminal mindset to becoming a man who is generous and caring to others. The Bishop’s act of mercy did transform Jean Valjean’s soul and lead him to God.
The Saving Power of Mercy
What happens when the victim is not willing to forgive the trespass, but wants their “pound of flesh” instead. They insist that justice must be served, even though the situation obviously calls for some mercy or at least leniency.
Fortunately, there is a second way in which mercy can be offered without denying justice. This is for a third-party to enter the picture. In the above story, a third-party, hearing Jean Valjean’s plea for mercy because he has no money, could offer to intervene and satisfy the shopkeeper’s demand for justice. This third-party could say to the shopkeeper, I will pay Jean Valjean’s debt and he will now owe me instead of you. In other words, he buys or purchases the social debt or obligation.
In doing this, the third-party would act as a savior to Jean Valjean. He rescues him from a situation from which he is powerless to rescue himself. This is also called an act of atonement. Atonement literally means at-one-ment. It is the power by which justice and mercy are able to both be satisfied, resulting in a restoration of the equity or oneness of society.
The third-party can now offer complete or partial mercy to Jean Valjean. He can make Jean Valjean work for him until the debt is paid, either in part or full, or he can completely forgive Jean Valjean because the loss is now his to give away.
Government (Justice) Cannot Be Merciful
If government is to be just, it cannot be merciful. As I’ve already pointed out, the judge cannot forgive because the lost property is not his to give. If he allows Jean Valjean to go free because he feels sorry for him, he is robbing the shopkeeper of his just right of restitution.
According to the Old Testament common law, if the judge allows the guilty to go free then the penalty for the crime now falls on his head (or as some would say “karma” for the trespass now belongs to the judge). The judge has now become the “third-party” who needs to right the scales of justice. If he does not, he has become a criminal himself.
The Old Testament is filled with warnings about this. It warns judges, “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Deut. 16:19). Without impartial justice, it would be impossible to “live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20). All corrupt governments eventually collapse under the weight of their collective trespasses and the result is always great suffering for everyone in the society.
The Higher Law of Mercy Satisfies Justice
Christians tend to think of the New and Old Testaments as being very different. The Old Testament seems to be more about justice and the law, while the New Testament is all about mercy. The truth is that mercy is a part of the Old Testament as much as it is the New.
In The Third Alternative by Stephen R. Covey, there is a chapter, co-authored by Larry M. Boyle, devoted to overcoming the adversarial nature of our legal system and finding win/win alternatives to the traditional win/lose legal battles in which most people engage. It claims that Jewish law (the Old Testament system to which we are referring), “put a high value on compassion and reconciliation.” This tradition comes from stories about Aaron, the brother of the lawgiver Moses, who “loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between people.”
According to the tradition, Aaron would seek out the parties in the dispute and listen carefully to their stories and their pain. He would do this with both sides in the dispute and then seek for ways that would create reconciliation between the parties. In keeping with that tradition, “The win-win solution is the ideal Jewish lawyers and judges aspire to...”
This is a far cry from our legal system where people battle each other in anger and frustration. Ultimately, even the winning party loses—loses time, energy, good feelings and money spent on attorneys and legal fees. In contrast, if we had a restitution-justice system, it could be operated more like a mediation between the parties, creating a settlement that didn’t just result in “an eye for eye” restitution, but rather in forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s certainly an idea to ponder.
For the reader who is a Christian, this also offers a powerful insight into the message and mission of Jesus. Jesus shows that God does offer a third alternative, just as the title of Dr. Covey’s book suggests. God himself is willing to act as the third party by offering himself as the restitution for all our trespasses. Jesus voluntarily suffered all of the struggles, temptations, abuses, and torments which mankind inflict on each other—hunger, thirst, fatigue, betrayal, abandonment, abuse and even death. Having overcome all these things without ever committing trespass himself, He possesses the power to make up for all losses, even death. He is the judge who can also extend mercy because He is willing to pay the debt.
But in doing this, there is condition. The law of the harvest (or justice) must still be satisfied. Justice must still be honored. The justice in mercy is this—mercy is only offered upon condition that one becomes merciful. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
When we are released from our fate, as Jean Valjean was released by the mercy of Bishop Myriel, we must awaken to love and mercy for others. As we extend love and mercy towards others, the law of the harvest justly extends mercy and forgiveness to us. When one understands this, the message of Christianity takes on a new light.
All this leads up to the subject of the next chapter. In it, I will discuss how the force of love and compassion plays a vital role in a free society. The concept of unalienable rights doesn’t just help us define freedom; it also helps us understand what it means to do good. All too often, political discord arises, not because of what is being done, but because of what is NOT being done. In other words, people want the government to not just restrain the evil, but to also do the good. However, as I will point out, only individuals can do good.