Episode two of the naval chronicles:
In the first episode of the naval chronicles, you were very drunk. You fought a creditable action despite your condition, but let’s suppose you were detected in your inebriated state by a sniveling, tale-bearing, rat of a midshipman, who relayed evidence of your insobriety to the captain.
Now you are to be flogged. That most infamous of naval paraphernalia, the cat of nine tails, is brought out, the grating is rigged, everyone assembles to see you take your lashes.
We’ll skip the grisly bits, but let’s just say you endure your punishment and the surgeon does his best to dress your wounds, which, miraculously, do not sour. You live to drink another day.
In naval mythology (sadly, real life is less demonstrative) this is the end of the tale. The captain logs your offense, sure, and you retain an abiding dislike for a certain young officer, but among your mates, the slate is wiped clean. Similarly, your job is under no threat. You get your pay. You retain your position, in all likelihood, lowly though it be. Life goes on as just as it did before. You are, as who should say, absolved.
Such gory forgiveness of sin looms large in Christian theology. Jesus’ most famous act, his crucifixion, represents his followers’ total absolution of sin. Out of this central Christian belief, that sins can be forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, derive the theory and practice of confession. As with most metaphysical doctrine, this practice is a philosophical minefield, and I do not want to drag its thousand years of polemics into this post. Instead, I want to focus instead on a single aspect of confession: absolution.
Does our penal system, all questions of religion aside, have a duty to absolve?
I wonder if it might. Here is the notion I have been turning over:
In certain situations punishment acts absolution. In others it acts as a stigma.
When, if ever, is either appropriate in the modern criminal justice system?
We retain elements of both. Minor offenses can be expunged, wiped off the books. Others stick forever. Some offenses need not be publicly disclosed. Others dog a man until he dies, shutting him out of certain job markets and, in some cases, alarming his neighbors. Indeed, in many cases, the mere accusation is enough to stigmatize a man, let alone the occasional very public trial that may succeed official charges. His condition of guilt or innocence, in these cases, is immaterial. The stain persists in either case.
It seems to me that in our discussion of rehabilitation, we must carefully consider this stain. It is an ancient thing. Cain, the first biblical murderer, carried it all his life, marked forever as an outcast.
This is not rehab, biblical or otherwise.
Stigma, therefore, ought to denote that class considered to be beyond rehabilitation, for in any other case, such a public record of offense would serve only to prolong the differentiation of the offender from the rest of society. Indeed, only in a society in which nearly every person had been so marked could such mark fail to do so.
If we accept this conclusion, we understand a the motivation behind the so-called Seal of the Confessional, the near-absolute secrecy to which a confessing priest is bound. We need not take the principle to so extreme a conclusion, but we can easily say that we must consider deeply to what extent, and to which persons, criminal records be exposed, lest we lose the ability to exercise punishment as a form of absolution, and therefore lose a certain part of our rehabilitative power in administering justice. We do not, after all, desire a nation of Cains.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that our preoccupations with transparency and with our safety (both valid concerns, but not ends to exclude all others) have led us to an all-too-public administration of justice. Our floggings are witnessed by millions, and the log of disciplinary actions open to the eyes of any who care to look. In this sense, almost every flogging is a flogging round the fleet, with the poor condemned wretch to be exposed to the wrath of a dozen ships.
What do we gain from this? Is our sense of security, our belief that we can knowingly avoid association with the criminal if we so desire and thus reduce personal risk, worth the parallel knowledge that we give up a certain extent of our ability to offer absolution and forgiveness to those who have done wrong?
I am not sure it is.