Emotion Wrapped in a Veil of Reason

 “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

― Dorothy Day

            A woman comes home early from work and finds her husband in bed with another woman. She stabs him. Later he dies of his wounds. At her defense hearing, she says she remembers nothing after seeing them in bed together. What punishment should she get?

            I present this case for debate in every cycle of my adult ESOL class (English for Speakers of Other Languages, previously known as ESL, English as a Second Language, previously known as “learning English”). Of all the suggestions in all the ESOL conversation books, this story is the best. It gives me a chance to teach words and phrases connected to the law, including death penalty, life sentence, ten-year sentence, probation, acquittal. That’s my excuse. In reality these discussions are the most entertaining classes of the year.

 The class divides into two or three teams.  Each team is supposed to come to an agreement and explain their decision to the other teams.

No matter how I divide the class, the judgment splits clearly and without exception along a gender line. The men are on the severe end of the spectrum; the women are heatedly on the lenient end: often acquittal, sometimes probation.  On rare occasion a woman or two would send the killer to a light sentence in jail. 

Aside from helping with English, my biggest challenge is to keep the debaters calm enough to speak only in English. I don’t guide the discussion. No matter how the teams are broken up, the discussion ends up men vs. women.

Try the scenario as a party game. Don’t give away the plot ahead of time. Give the guests a little more distance than the murderous wife and the stabbed husband had, but not the distance of a sequestered jury. Limit the punishment options to four or five, include acquittal and death penalty (if you live in Massachusetts, make it life imprisonment). See what happens.

On the other hand, when I present a discussion about the death penalty, there is general agreement that the penalty is wrong. Few believe that the death penalty deters crime. Even fewer believe that it is morally right.  I’ve never taught in Texas.

Punishment may be one of the most subjective moral decisions we make. It is much more complex than deciding whether something is okay, bad, really bad, or evil.

 A friend of mine who is a lawyer insists that all law-breakers should be punished the same: death penalty. Murder or jaywalking, the death penalty would keep society in line. A planet in a Star Trek episode had that law. I don’t think it was called Texas.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That quote from Shakespeare describes the first step necessary in establishing a totalitarian  regime. We need lawyers because we decide punishment with emotion wrapped in a veil of reason. That’s also why we hate lawyers. Pity the poor lawyers who would face the anger of the  women in my class and the shock of the stunned men.

When my niece was a toddler, sometimes I had to use my stern voice. One afternoon she insisted on crawling up onto the tabletop which was set for dinner, complete with knives and forks. Finally I gave her a bop on the bottom of her diaper. She turned and looked at me with incredulous horror.  I’d imposed the toddler’s equivalent of the death penalty! She sulked for a good five minutes until Telly Tubbies came on.

“Turning the other cheek” is the hardest test of Jesus’ followers. Or for me anyway. When a person harms someone, either physically or emotionally, whom we love deeply, it is difficult not to harbor a lust for revenge.  The only reason I’d turn the other cheek is so I could get in a sucker punch.

One man wrote that he was a Christian except that he was an “eye for an eye” kind of guy.  Like I’m a Leonardo Da Vinci except I can’t draw.

The people I’d love to get my hands on are long dead. My only comfort is in believing that, should they rise from the dead and stand before me, I’d trust the teaching, change my heart…. and only give them a ten-year sentence.