Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: a post on the Atonement

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Where had I heard that phrase before? I don’t remember, but I was thinking hard about it yesterday. A week earlier I had asked a friend of mine, Jeff, a question about justice when I ran into him over by the Jamba Juice on BYU campus, perplexed about a problem I couldn’t get quite straight in my mind- I problem I will introduce you to in a minute.

First, let’s see if we’re on the same page about what justice is. Robert comes up to a stranger on the street, Trevor, and punches him hard in the arm, after which he runs off in the crowd. What does justice require in this case? Most friends I ask this question to respond that Robert should get punched in the arm too. If Robert gets punched in the arm, then justice is served.

Now let’s think about that punch in a mathematical way. I’ll use the French word, “tort,” meaning a twist or injury. We could say that Trevor, who started out with 0 “tort units,” then had a violation of his rights: an injury, or tort. We’ll arbitrarily say that Trevor, after the punch, now has a balance of -10: the punch imposed a -10 tort on Trevor. Justice is satisfied if Robert also has a punch imposed on him in the same relative amount: Robert and Trevor are the same age, size, etc. so a -10 punch to Robert makes them equal.

Here’s the problem I posed to my friend Jeff. A certain first grade teacher, Mr. Hopkins, pulls aside six-year-old Jenny for a private talk. “Jenny, I’ve been teaching you all this year,” Mr. Hopkins says. “I just don’t think you’re very smart. You’ll probably never learn to read, school will always be very difficult for you, and you’ll always be a slow learner.” As Jenny’s self-esteem plummets, few would contend that an injury has not been done to Jenny. Let’s say Jenny went from 0 to -20 tort units. Let’s also say that somehow a comparable tort is done against Mr. Hopkins such that his self-esteem is similarly abused- he’s now at -20 tort units. I asked my friend Jeff if justice has been done in this case. The answer is that yes, our concept of justice may be satisfied, but all is not yet right. Consider Jenny. The inflicting of a tort on Mr. Hopkins does nothing to restore her to her initial condition- her self-esteem is still much lower than it was. I think that the human spirit will not consider this situation “right” until Jenny is restored to the level of self-esteem she enjoyed before the abuse. Enter Robert and Trevor again.

Earlier we concluded that justice had been satisfied when Robert was punched in the arm after he slugged Trevor. Here we consider the phrase again: “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or, as we might say, “two equivalent torts don’t make the situation right.” Here we can also see that Trevor is still punched and has a bruise, even though justice has been served. Considering the universe as a whole, adding up Robert and Trevor now equals a net tort account of -20 (-10 + -10), not zero. Part of the human spirit’s conception of “rightness” demands that Robert be “unpunched,” or somehow returned to his original condition. Unpunching someone, though, is about as easy as unrearing a child or unchewing a banana. What can we call this “restoring to initial condition,” the unpunching of Trevor, or the confidence boost to Jenny?

I propose for the moment we call that healing or restoring to initial condition “mercy.” I define mercy as the opposite of a tort: an “uninjury” if we can imagine it. In Jenny’s case 20 “uninjury” units are required to restore her to her initial condition. I can now also conclude a narrow definition of justice, using the terms of the phrase we’ve already altered in part: “two equivalent torts don’t make a right” now becomes “two equivalent torts do make a justice.” (This is why we consider justice served if an assailant languishes for a while in jail. Sure, the assailant’s jail time doesn’t undo the wounds he inflicted on his victim, but if he’s injured in the same relative amount as he injured his victim, we consider that justice is served, even without the victim’s healing.) I have now separated a concept of rightness from dual constructions of mercy and justice. If we accept these two narrow definitions of justice and mercy, then we can make a third conjecture: the satisfying of both justice and mercy in any situation constitutes “rightness” in the tort category of human action. In the Jenny example, if Mr. Hopkins receives a -20 tort equivalent to that he imposed on Jenny (justice) and Jenny’s confidence is restored (say, her parents and other teachers praise her reading and talk about how smart she is and what a quick learner she’s turned out to be) 20 units (mercy), we would say that the situation is “right.”

So, how does this construction relate to the Atonement? “And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an Atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42: 15). We commonly think that Christ “paid the price” for our sins. Let’s return to Mr. Hopkins and Jenny. Mr. Hopkins can be spared the 20 tort units that justice requires be imposed on him if Mr. Hopkins repents. In Mr. Hopkin’s case, not having 20 tort units imposed on him means he goes from an account balance of 0 to 0: Christ paid the 20 torts, and Mr. Hopkins gains a net 20 untorts (mercy). What about Jenny? Satisfying justice so that Mr. Hopkins can receive mercy has no effect on Jenny: her account is an entirely different matter.

Speaking of a sexually abused girl, Elder Richard G. Scott said: “She no longer suffered from the consequences of abuse, because she had adequate understanding of His Atonement, sufficient faith, and was obedient to His law. As you conscientiously study the Atonement and exercise your faith that Jesus Christ has the power to heal, you can receive the same blessed relief” (Richard G. Scott, “To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse,” Ensign, May 2008, 40–43). He notes that even Satan “understands that the power of healing is inherent in the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” How is this so?

In physics class, students learn that there is an opposite and equal reaction to every action. Setting a book upon a table exerts a downward force of, say, 15 Newtons. The table exerts an equal and opposite force upward on the book of 15 Newtons- were it not so, the book would continue downward through the table. Similarly, justice requires an equivalent punishment whenever a tort is committed. For that punishment Christ, somehow, suffered in our stead. But what about the “power of healing” inherent in the Atonement? How does Christ “finance,” if you will, the restoring to initial condition of those injured, or as we termed it, the “uninjury” units that constitute the application of mercy? To answer, let’s consider another Book of Mormon scripture, Alma 7: 11-12: “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people… and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” In this sense, then, perhaps the magnitude of the Atonement is about twice what we usually think: the 15 Newtons downward + the 15 Newtons upward = 30 Newtons total. Second example: not only did Christ suffer justice’s demanded 10 torts for Robert, who slugged Trevor: He also suffered the initial 10 tort punch: 10 + 10 = 20. This way, He can extend mercy to Robert, but he can also heal Trevor because he “financed” the uninjury units by “taking upon himself” the initial tort or affliction. At the risk of moving ahead too quickly, we can also observe that the Atonement is greater still because Christ took upon himself all injuries done to us, including those not inflicted by other people (example: a bacterial sickness, a genetic predisposition for heart disease or blindness, or infertility). Consequently, He can “succor his people,” or restore them to their initial/innocent condition: from our earlier illustration, literally unchew the banana. What an incredible power to heal and bestow mercy! What a skilled restorer! Where are the universities that teach this trade? How can I learn “the healer’s art?” The aggregate suffering of mankind is immense- yet God has the capacity, somehow, to restore self-esteem, undo offenses, and heal every injury. This, to me, is a substantial realization."

(composed September 2008)

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite chapters of the Book of Mormon is Alma 36. Here, as you know, Alma is explaining to his son what happened to him when he was out cold for three days after the angel came to him and the sons of Mosiah. The pain that he mentions was brought on by his own sin, but I believe that the principle taught here is true about any time of pain--self inflicted or inflicted by others. I share with you verses 17-21:
    "17 And it came to pass that as I was thus wracked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
    18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
    19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
    20 And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
    21 Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy."

    Alma's pain was intense, but it was forgotten when he thought upon Jesus Christ and his atonement. Our pains can be taken from up as we turn to the Lord. I know this to be true from personal experience. The coolest thing about the atonement is that through it's power, the emotions we feel from a painful memory can be separated from the memory itself. Thus it is that all torts are restored.


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