Bless Our Progressive Hearts: Consequences or Punishment?

Nov 30, 2019

There is now a common saying among teachers, “Fifty years ago, if a student failed a test, the student got in trouble. Today, if a student fails a test, the teacher gets in trouble.” When the garden-variety Republican hears this saying, he is apt to nod, then shake his head and bemoan the welfare state, the courts, emotionally fragile millennials, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and a world wherein no one is made to take responsibility for their actions.

Given the conservative leaning of the classical Christian world, I have known many such garden-variety Republicans. I am, to an extent, just such a person myself. However, I can also say from experience that the fellow who bemoans the welfare state and trigger warnings and so forth is not necessarily unwilling to play the role of a dissatisfied customer and curtly tell a teacher that his child was “quite hurt” to have received a failing grade on a test. The question of whether the failing grade was deserved is, quite often, entirely beside the point. Rather, it is the responsibility of the school and the teachers to keep the students from being upset, anxious, or offended, and the school’s chief means for ensuring happy, unoffended students are high grades and lax enforcement of the rules— which is now how we define “grace.”

Such beliefs about a school’s responsibility to students are not exactly new, but rather mirror the modern man’s belief about the government’s responsibility to citizens. We have been building to the idea that teachers owe students perfect grades for a little more than two hundred years now.  

In the debate over politics which raged in 18th century Europe, all the differences between conservatives and progressives can be traced back to a single disagreement about a single question: is government older than man? Conservatives said it was, progressives said it wasn’t.

Conservatives held that Scripture clearly taught government was a divine project which existed long before man. Progressives, on the other hand, believed that Scripture had no bearing on the public order, but should only be used for instruction on prayer, piety, confession, and devotion, all of which ought to be conducted in private, where they would not lead to dissension.

As such, the Scriptural depiction of human nature was inadmissible in debates about government, for government concerns bodies and not souls. Rather, progressives taught that government was an entirely human project. Why create government? In The Social Contract, Rousseau states the obvious: man created government to solve his problems, to curb his suffering. Government is only necessary as a tool for fighting evil. While the conservative believed that government was a creation of God, and thus good for its own sake, the progressive believed government was a necessary evil. We may now ask whether a government conceived of as a “necessary evil” will not slowly make itself both more necessary and more evil, but that is a matter for another essay.

Of course, the progressive idea that government was a tool to curb human suffering ultimately prevailed. In our day, conservatives and progressives alike demand the government solve the problem of evil. Whenever some horrific tragedy takes place, the two questions Americans immediately ask are, “How did this happen?” and “How can we keep this from happening again?” When many people suffer or die in the same place at the same time, we see a failure of government. This response to suffering has become so immediate, so intuitive, that when I suggest to my students that men of ages past did not think it was the responsibility of the government to prevent crime, they look baffled. “If people did not want the government to prevent crime,” they ask, “what was the government supposed to do?”

Rousseau suggests that republicans want crime prevented, but royal subjects want crime punished. This distinction makes far more sense once we recognize monarchists treat the opening chapter of Genesis as a treatise on the nature of government, not merely a guide for personal piety.  

Taking Genesis as political tract, government is a transcendent project of God that existed well before man, but which God graciously invited man into. Before man, the spheres ruled day and night, and the stars determined seasons and holy days. Before man, archangels ruled over angels. Medieval men believed in nine orders of spiritual beings, in fact: archangels, angels, cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, and virtues. The host of heaven was hierarchically arranged, as was the cosmos, and if the earth was to be well-governed, it must reflect the heavens and be ordered hierarchically, as well. For the monarchist, government was nothing other than hierarchy, and hierarchy was government. One being was higher than another inasmuch as it bore deeper witness to God’s glory. The archangel had charge over the angel because the archangel reflected God’s glory more deeply. Government was thus not a response to evil. Rather, government was good because God established it.

For this reason, God did not build a wall around the Forbidden Tree in Eden. He told Adam the fruit of the Forbidden Tree was forbidden, informed him of the punishment for eating of the Tree, and then left Adam and Eve on their own. God did not arrange the situation in the Garden such that it would be difficult for them to break the rules. In fact, modern readers of Genesis have a habit of coming to the moment of the Fall and thinking, “Well, what exactly did God expect?”

After God encounters Adam and Eve clothed in the garden, He asks Adam if he has eaten of the Forbidden Tree. Adam replies that Eve gave him the fruit. God’s response to this claim is fascinating. He does not ask Eve, “Why did you do this?” Instead, he asks, “What is this you have done?” Her reasons for eating are beside the point. God is not interested in playing the part of a psychologist or counselor. Eve responds that the serpent gave her the fruit, then God punishes Adam and Eve. As Adam points out in Paradise Lost, the punishment is gracious, could be far worse, and even contains a prophesy of mankind’s salvation. What is more, the punishment is followed up with a gift— no sooner has God delivered the punishment, He fashions more suitable clothing for man, given that cold and dark will soon descend on the earth.

While a great deal of the suffering described in the curse follows naturally from Adam and Eve’s rebellion, there are painful elements which God intervenes to impose. “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe,” says the Lord. He does not say Eve’s pain in childbearing “will become very severe,” but that He will make it so. While the curse is not God backhanding all the checkers off the checker board because He didn’t get His way, neither is the curse as painless as possible.

After delivering the curse, God drives Adam and Eve from their home, which is both for their own good and part of their punishment. Some theologians argue God drove Adam and Eve from the Garden lest they eat from the Tree of Life and remain eternally in a state of living-death, which strikes me as a tenuous claim, but either way, God reveals Himself as a profoundly unmodern parent. Modern parents would have uprooted the Forbidden Tree and the Tree of Life, burned both, and allowed the children to stay in the Garden, lest they suffer. When our children or our students sin, we are loath to punish. Rather, we try to finagle and refashion the situation so that crime is no longer possible (how many times has the dress code been altered so it is “easier to keep”?). On the other hand, God punishes and gets on with things. He does nothing to ensure that sin “never happens again.”

The progressive believes an ideal situation will produce ideal men, hence the progressive need to refashion society so that sin and crime are no longer possible. The monarchist, on the other hand, believes that sin emerged from an ideal situation. The first crime was committed in a flawless world, in a terrestrial paradise, by a flawless creature. “If we could just create an ideal place for man to live, with ideal laws…” dreams the progressive, to which the monarchist replies, “We would only mess it up once again.”

Having bought into the progressive belief that government exists to curb human suffering, many Christian schools and Christian parents have become squeamish about punishing students for breaking the rules— and it should be noted that low grades are now widely viewed as a senseless punishment for not being as clever as others. We do not like the word “punishment” and are quick to say that this or that “consequence” of breaking the rules is “not punitive” but “meant to restore the student.” We are moral bureaucrats and respond to problems with warnings, lectures, and meetings. We say, “Giving a student detention is taking the easy way out because it does nothing for the student’s soul,” but this is balderdash. Giving a student detention after school would take that student out of sports practice, which we think harsh and counterproductive given that “sports build character.” The fact of the matter is that a ten-minute lecture on “keeping the rules” will not upset parents or coaches and is ultimately painless for everyone— and minimizing pain is the essential task of all authority. Dress code violations stack up, cell phone violations stack up, warnings multiply, stern lectures proliferate, sports keep building character, and no one is suspended or expelled or detained. We praise no virtue more highly than the virtue of community— building community, furthering community, fostering community— and suspending a student puts them out of the community, which is antithetical to the school’s raison d'être. If something good is going to happen to a rebellious student, it is absolutely not going to happen in a private, quiet encounter between God and the student in that student’s heart. It’s going to happen in the middle of a lovingly-delivered lecture on grace.

I am not arguing that harsh punishments will save anyone’s soul. They won’t. If we take Genesis as a rule for laying down punishments, harshness has no place in the law, especially not the law of a home or a school. Neither am I arguing for a return to corporal punishment in private schools, which I think imprudent and dangerous. What is more, I am not suggesting that stern lectures never work or that suspensions and detentions should be dealt out liberally, suddenly, and without explanation.

What am I arguing, however, is that the philosophy which underwrites an insistence on “consequences,” and an aversion to “punishment,” is sentimental, impractical, inhumane, and unchristian. There is an appearance of mercy and grace which attends “consequences,” but in “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” CS Lewis likens “consequences” to the white-clad social engineers who strap down thought- criminals and calmly explain, “Vee are not going to punish you, vee are only going to feex you.” The painless scientific approach to sin isn’t kind, it’s A Clockwork Orange.

“Consequences” is not just a word, then, but a whole approach to government, authority, and evil. Once a school has adopted “consequences,” it has tacitly accepted an approach to evil and suffering which is unsustainable and which does not prepare students for the difficulties of adulthood. It is not the responsibility of the school to ensure students are never upset, never disappointed, never anxious, never pained— anxiety, pain, disappointment, and vexation are not just part of life, they are part of Christ’s life. However, it is the responsibility of the teacher to show students how to be upset, how to be anxious, how to be pained, and not to simply run from such feelings like cowards. Pain, disappointment and anxiety are not signs the world has failed you.

So be willing to call a two-day suspension what it is. Be willing to call detention what it is. Punishment. And if a two-day suspension “doesn’t work” the first time, that’s fine. Lectures on obeying the rules don’t work the ninth time. We give a dozen warnings about dress code violations as a way of slowly proving to ourselves how well warnings work.

What a two-day suspension confirms for the student, though, is that he is a moral agent capable of right and wrong, virtue and vice. A two-day suspension says to the suspended student, “You can do better.” To the male student, a two-day suspension says, “Be a man.” To the female student, a two-day suspension says, “Act like a lady.”

Of course, such statements constitute genuine encouragement, which means we don’t like them. There is always the subtle hint of critique in real encouragement. Critique doesn’t feel good. But gird up your loins. As Flannery O’Connor once said, Christians must “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you,” which means raising happy, obedient children requires theories and practices of childrearing that don’t earn approval from fashionable bloggers you’ve never met. No discipline is pleasant— to give or to receive. Those who govern children cannot afford to be sentimentalists. There’s too much on the line.  

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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