The modern mind struggles to make sense of the atonement. At least mine does. The Book of Mormon insists that because of the atonement, mercy can potentially be extended to us sinners without compromising the demands of justice. In my experience, most attempts at clarifying what this means amount to little more than free-wheeling metaphors… not that I have done any better. In this post I would like to summarize Michel Foucault’s three different models of criminal justice described in his classic work: Discipline and Punish. It is my hope that his historical method might shed some light on the subject.
The first form of criminal justice is that associated with “old monarchical law” and is, I suggest, that most closely associated with the scriptural notion of “justice”:
“The public execution … is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular. The public execution, however hasty and everyday, belongs to a whole series of great rituals in which power is eclipsed and restored (coronation, entry of the king into a conquered city, the submission of rebellious subjects); over and above the crime that has placed the sovereign in contempt, it deploys before all eyes an invincible force. Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.” p. 48-49
Within this model, suffering and torture are mechanisms by which a social order, the relationship between sovereign and subject to be more precise, is restored. It is a ritual aimed at restoring, not some balanced or calculable equilibrium, but the majesty of the king whose will or law (they are not the same) has been violated. Foucault later goes on to argue that the public infliction of a brutally physical pain that marks the body for all to see is central to this idea of justice. Most interesting is that this form of justice is more about restoring the majesty of a king (who is at peril of “ceasing to be king”) than it is about the criminal, thus allowing for vicarious punishments. The parallels between this model and the Old Testament idea that blood sacrifice is necessary to reestablish an at-one-ment are too obvious to miss. This pre-modern idea of justice was the standard during the times in which nearly all scripture was written. While the idea that this is violent conception of justice which God insists must be fulfilled might be distasteful to our modern sensibilities, I see no other way of reading such passages.
The second model is that of the utilitarian reformists, Cesare Beccaria being the quintessential example. While this is the model in terms of which we moderns tend to argue about the merits of justice, Foucault’s main thesis is that, despite our claims to the contrary, this is not the model of justice that modern society has actually implemented:
“The ‘reformatories’ were mechanisms directed towards the future; they too were intended not to efface a crime, but to prevent its repetition. ‘As to the end, or final cause of human punishments. This is not by way of atonement or expiation for the crime committed; for that must be left to the just determination of the supreme being .. (Blackstone, 11). And in Pennsylvania, Buxton declared, the principles of Montesquieu and Beccaria should now have the ‘force of axioms’, that ‘the prevention of crimes is the sole end of punishment” (Bradford, 3). So one punishes not to efface the crime, but to transform a criminal (actual or potential)… The role of the criminal in punishment was to reintroduce, in the face of crime and the criminal code, the … penalty which, according to the terms of the code, must be infallibly associated with the offence… [I]t is with this coin that the offender pays his debt to society.” p. 126-128
Under this model, punishment is not an atonement of any kind, but rather a means of disincentivizing crime. For this reason, punishments must be calculated to inflict just enough (but no more!) suffering necessary to reform the future behavior, not only of the criminal himself, but of any would-be criminals as well. For this reason, the publicity of the punishment is indispensable, a publicity which also allowed for a democratic supervision of the penal system. Within this model, what a person truly “deserves” for their crimes is largely left to punishment in the afterlife, thus making this model very well adapted to a separation between church and state.
The third model is that of disciplinary institutions whose techniques of control originate in monasteries and the military, but would later be appropriated within factories, schools and especially prisons. Whereas the reformist model above was aimed at providing and representing a set of incentives according to which people would rationally and self-consciously adapt their own behavior, the disciplinary model is aimed at training the body to “do the right thing” without the need of rational or conscious direction:
“[T]his punitive intervention must rest on a studied manipulation of the individual… [e]xercises, … time-tables, compulsory movements, regular activities, solitary meditation, work in common, silence, application, respect, good habits. And, ultimately, what one is trying to restore in this technique of correction is not so much the juridical subject, who is caught up in the fundamental interests of the social pact, but the obedient subject, the individual subjected to habits, rules, orders, an authority that is exercised continually around him and upon him, and which he must allow to function automatically in him.” p. 128-130
Under this disciplinary model of justice, criminals are isolated from the public in order to imposed upon them the discipline that other institutions had (obviously) failed to instill within them. Thus, disciplinarian institutions are specifically aimed, Foucault argues, at re-shaping the soul of an individual such that their body becomes enslaved to it. It is unsurprising, then, that these techniques of control originated within monasteries and that the life of an LDS missionary (especially within the MTC) largely embodies this model. Indeed, the resistance which an individual experiences to such institutions can thus be viewed as a measure of the extent to which that person did not enter the institution as a well-trained and “docile body. ”
With these three models in place, we can now venture some tentative remarks about how the gospel, as Mormons understand it, relate to these ideas of justice. For starters, I would point out that the final two are not really aimed at fulfilling justice in any scriptural sense at all in that they are simply not aimed at punishing a sinner for a sin which they themselves have committed, nor are they aimed at restoring any kind of fractured relationship. Instead, these modern models are aimed at shaping the future nature, inclinations and behavior of people. They leave no room for the scriptural idea that past sins must be atoned for.
Closely related to the scriptural conception of justice are the ideas of repentance, mercy and grace. All three of these, I suggest, are most closely associated with the disciplinary model that Foucault objects to. A large part of repentance involves an attempt on our part to transform our own desires and behaviors to fit the celestial standard. Indeed, grace itself seems little more than a kind of supernatural discipline in which God reshapes our souls such that they become able to control the body differently. This metaphor lies at the very heart of the disciplinary model.
Although the utilitarian model of reforming justice appears to be Foucault’s preferred model of the three, I see relatively little room for it within gospel teachings. To be sure, the utilitarian model works well enough for the latter end of the church/state divide, but there are two differences that make it quite alien to gospel teachings. The first is the idea that punishment is primarily a matter of restructuring incentives rather than transforming the soul. It is difficult to decide which claim is more suspicious: that man’s natural and unreformed desires are aimed at righteousness or that human reason is a reliable means to righteousness. The second point of difference is in its publicity of both the punished and the punisher. While there are some exceptions, I see Mormon doctrine as standing in overall opposition to both a democratic supervision of the penal process as well as the idea of publishing punishments in the hope of deterring sin.
In conclusion, I will briefly summarize what I take to be a Foucaultian reading of the atonement: Justice requires the violent and bloody infliction of pain and suffering upon the sinner for the sake of restoring the violated sovereignty of God. The idea that pain and suffering just are, by very definition and without any exception, evils which God would never tolerate is a product of the utilitarian model of justice and completely false. Jesus, however, endured a violent and bloody infliction of pain and suffering which he did not deserve in order that we would not have to if the proper conditions are met. These conditions include the disciplinary transformation of our souls, a process that is impossible without God’s grace. This transforming process, while uncomfortable, is in no way a part of the violent punishment that is necessary for the atonement of our sins. (Again, discomfort is not, by definition bad.) Since repentance is discipline rather than punishment, it in no way atones for our sins – we can never discipline ourselves into the celestial kingdom. Only Jesus’s bloody sacrifice is able to accomplish this.