Wherein the Author Attempts to Rouse Herself from Apathy


Last week, I wrote a commentary for my child advocacy lecture course about the criminal justice system. I have trouble even writing the phrase “criminal justice” without rolling my eyes. I’m far from the most cynical student at HLS, but there is something about the phrase criminal justice that makes my blood boil.

I suspect that few people in this country believe that criminals receive justice. Of course, their reasoning varies radically – one camp, the majority it often feels like, believes that criminals are not punished enough and injustice is done to society as a whole; the other camp believes that certain individuals and groups are less likely to receive any sort of justice from our nation’s criminal system.

I’ve always been reluctant to work in the criminal justice system, partly because I think it is deeply flawed, but also because I’m afraid I’ll see enough people gaming the system that I’ll switch camps. Skipping a series of sports metaphors about not stepping up, I’m beginning to think that criminal justice deserves more of my attention, and the attention of every student here, even though few of us will ever prosecute or defend an individual in court.

There’s a seminar offered jointly with the Law School and the Divinity School called Justice and Mercy in Jewish and Christian Tradition and American Criminal Law. When I saw it in the announcements I had a few initial gut reactions:

First, wouldn’t it be nice to take a class that won’t be full of law students? Second, why on earth would I want to take a class on criminal justice? Isn’t that opening myself up for a semester of philosophical frustration? Third, what are the odds that the class will actually discuss contemporary Christian theology/demagoguery rather than medieval thinkers and liberal Christian theologians? Will we be reading about Pat Robertson and Rick Santorum’s application of Christian morality? I would imagine that their approach to justice and mercy, while less academic than, say, Kant, might have more resonance with large portions of modern American society.

I’ve always approached everything from a scholarly level, so part of me hopes to find ways of pushing myself further and taking not a critical perspective – I can do critical half-asleep by this point in my academic career – but a principled emotional one on the issue of criminal justice.

My religious upbringing has been checkered. If pressed, I would consider myself a “follower of Judeo-Christian traditions.” As a child, my mother and I celebrated the fun Jewish holidays with a friend of the family. I was observing Chrismukah long before it entered pop cultural consciousness. Around fourth grade my family started to go to church at the tiny parochial school I attended, and stayed for five years, long enough to be confirmed.

We had to take a confirmation exam on Bible passages, sections of Luther’s catechism, and basic religious principles. When I got my paper back, the pastor had jauntily written, “You could be pastor now!” on the top. He must have forgotten when he wrote his note that Missouri Synod Lutherans don’t ordain women as pastors. It rankled, and within a couple of years I’d stopped attending church altogether.

Catholic high school impressed me with Catholicism’s emphasis on social justice and left me with a great appreciation for the work of the Catholic Church, but I never seriously considered converting. Leaving one branch of conservative Christianity just to join another socially conservative group didn’t seem to make sense.

In college, I did seriously consider converting to Judaism, but the same general hesitation applied, not to mention the lukewarm welcome most shiksas get when they try to convert. But I did learn about Jewish theology, and in many ways it fit my scholarly approach to the world much better than faith-based Christianity.

I was always impressed by the connections between justice and mercy, or at least charity, in the Jewish tradition. “Tzedekah” is an important element of Jewish philosophy. It means charity, but it comes from the root for justice and it represents an affirmative obligation to help others. Christianity also has this emphasis on “doing good” in the world, but I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve sat through a sermon on “Doing good not doing well” without the message reaching the congregation, myself included.

I’ve wandered from my initial subject, which was my reluctance to deal with the American criminal justice system. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting back and hoping that the system will get better, but I’ve lost faith in it. Much like my religious faith, I’ve allowed myself to drift into a position of uneasy tolerance, perhaps even apathy.

We’ll see if I even make it into this seminar, but at least it has gotten me thinking. Last year, a section-mate described Criminal Law as “sexy.” I didn’t understand then, but am beginning to see what he meant. Justice and mercy deserve passion and emotion.

Check in with me in a decade and see how I’ve done.

Erin Archerd, 2L, promises that if she’s let into the Justice and Mercy seminar, she will keep her cynicism in check.

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