Thursday, March 10, 2016

When Christianity Becomes a Disease: A Prophetic Word from CS Lewis

In his essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," the late 20th century Christian apologists CS Lewis warned of a growing trend among the elites of reeducating criminals rather than punishing them. While critiquing another article, Lewis describes the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment as "The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. . . . On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And or course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is."

On the surface level few would criticize this approach. Nevertheless, Lewis understand that the underlying philosophy and worldview that lay behind this effort was (and now is) extremely dangerous for society.

In the essay, he offers the following:
It may be said that by the continued use of the word punishment and the use of the verb ‘inflict’ I am misrepresenting Humanitarians. They are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard. 
The next sentence then reads, "If we turn from the curative to the deterrent justification of punishment we shall find the new theory even more alarming."

Shortly thereafter, Lewis makes a striking argument. Such a view of crime and the criminal is a tyranny and cruelty unmatched in human history even if done in the spirit of benevolence. He writes:
It is, indeed, important to notice that my argument so far supposes no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian and considers only what is involved in the logic of his position. My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image. 
This, of course, goes beyond our concern over what we may call the classic criminal - thieves, murderers, etc. When one's actions is confused with sickness in need of curing, then criminality becomes nothing more than a psychosis and can easily be equated with any worldview that society deems unacceptable.

This is where, I believe (and Lewis predicted) society will turn its malevolence against Christianity.  Terms like "homophobia" are more than advantageous for public relations and polling. It suggests that those who continue to stand on the so-called wrong side of history are sick in need of a cure. In his essay, Lewis wrote:
The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish. And when they are wicked the Humanitarian theory of punishment will put in their hands a finer instrument of tyranny than wickedness ever had before. For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be treated as a crime; and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to plead that states of mind which displease government need not always involve moral turpitude and do not therefore always deserve forfeiture of liberty. For our masters will not be using the concepts of Desert and Punishment but those of disease and cure. We know that one school of psychology already regards religion as a neurosis. When this particular neurosis becomes inconvenient to government, what is to hinder government from proceeding to ‘cure’ it? Such ‘cure’ will, of course, be compulsory; but under the Humanitarian theory it will not be called by the shocking name of Persecution. No one will blame us for being Christians, no one will hate us, no one will revile us. The new Nero will approach us with the silky manners of a doctor, and though all will be in fact as compulsory as the tunica molesta or Smithfield or Tyburn, all will go on within the unemotional therapeutic sphere where words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ are never heard. And thus when the command is given, every prominent Christian in the land may vanish overnight into Institutions for the Treatment of the Ideologically Unsound, and it will rest with the expert gaolers to say when (if ever) they are to re-emerge. But it will not be persecution. Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, that will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic. In ordinary medicine there were painful operations and fatal operations; so in this. But because they are ‘treatment’, not punishment, they can be criticized only by fellow-experts and on technical grounds, never by men as men and on grounds of justice.
Let us not forget that Lewis is writing in the mid twentieth-century, yet he could have easily have been writing tomorrow. In conclusion, I agree with Lewis, "This is why I think it essential to oppose the Humanitarian theory of punishment, root and branch, wherever we encounter it."


John Stonestreet - Diagnosing Morality 


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