One of the good things about reading the nativity story mainly from Matthew, as we do this year, is that you get quite a bit about Joseph. I find 1:19 strangely chilling – “Mary’s husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” This presumably meant he would not put her through the prescribed humiliating trial by ordeal for those suspected of adultery (see Number 5:11-31), and then perhaps a stoning. But ‘dismissing her quietly’ would not have been all that quiet, given that they would probably have been cohabiting if they were betrothed. Either way, public shame at the very least.
Yet there is compassion in Joseph – perhaps we would need to imagine all this happening in a patriarchal society like Afghanistan to get its measure. Joseph did not pursue his outrage to the limit, even though the law gave him every right to do so. It was a praiseworthy stance given the historical context.
So is it different for states? Is the compassion that we applaud in an individual inappropriate for the many? The controversy over the Lockerbie bomber surfaced again in an article by Hugh McLachlan in the Scotsman last Friday. He argued that the laws and public policy of the state should not have compassion built into them, but only the possibility of compassionate discretion by a minister of justice – who might consider the release of a prisoner thought to be terminally ill, but would not have to release them on on those grounds.
He then went on to argue that the crime of the Lockerbie bomber was so horrendous that ‘no punishment will be enough’ and so there should not have been any release on any grounds whatsoever. Compassion would mean, in this case, providing medical treatment in prison.
There seem to be a lot of threads here: if you can’t ‘punish enough’, then what is prison about? Keeping someone out of circulation so they can’t commit further crime? Giving them at least some punishment? Then: how far can private and public morality be aligned? Should we be content to say: “Be compassionate yourself, as an individual, but keep that stuff out of the state”?
Micah 6:8 – “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” How on earth do we ‘do justice’?