Justice and Retribution

(Trigger warning to those unfamiliar with my writing: The following essay is one of my more cynical and sarcastic takes on the world.)

On John Wick‘s back, shortly before he embarks on a retributive rampage, we see a tattoo that says “Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat”, Latin for “Fortune favors the bold”. This is the philosophy that Jesus was rebelling against when he declared “The meek shall inherit the Earth”. The prevailing philosophy of the time was that you take what you take because you dared to take it. The meek, in this case, chose a more peaceful approach. It was a rebellion against laissez faire capitalism backed by violence. Few people seem to realize this, but it was the same rebellion that was represented in the classic Western movie Shane when homesteader Starrett rebels against rancher Ryker. Shane, John Wick of his time, in this case sides with the former. This radical philosophy of gentrification was once considered the bedrock of progressivism.

There is a theory that the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity in Ancient Rome, was not an act of great wisdom or enlightened clemency, but an act born out of necessity when the Emperor Constantine was forced to bring law up to speed with reality. Christianity was already so prevalent it was no longer practical to persecute the rapidly growing population of Christians in the Roman Empire.

Nobody gave a satisfying answer to why the Christian population grew so rapidly during this period. Faithful Christians have attributed the rise of Christianity to the superiority of the religion, ignoring the fact that early Christianity held little resemblance to Christianity as we know it today. And the Roman Catholic Church eventually adopted many of the polytheistic elements of Roman Mythology by canonizing saints. So in many ways, Romans were basically worshiping the same religion but with different clothes. Why then, did Christianity take over so rapidly?

One clear advantage ancient Christianity had over the previous Roman religions was that it did not involve human sacrifice. The concept of human sacrifice was not alien to the people of the Old Testament, judging from how readily Abraham understood the order to sacrifice his son Isaac. No doubt such rituals where performed widely in ancient times. But there is no evidence that most Roman era Christians had ever heard of Abraham and little evidence that they knew much about Jesus. The Gospels were yet to be collected into books and it would be centuries before the Bible took a definite shape, and centuries more before the Book came into the hands of the worshippers. What they did no doubt know is that the worship of Jupiter involved human sacrifice, as did the worship of many Roman gods.

By the time of the Constantinian Shift, however, many of the human sacrifice rituals were no longer practiced and straw effigies had replaced actual humans in many of the annual religious events. The act of human sacrifice, it seems, had become obsolete. Which begs the question, why was it necessary in the first place? Sociologists and historians have proposed many explanations, some more compelling than others, but no definite answer. Out of my own personal prejudice I choose the theory that human sacrifice had a cohesive effect on ancient society by doling out retributive justice albeit in a random fashion.

Graffiti left on the walls of the doomed city of Pompeii is filled with accusations and indictments of violence and random cruelty by its citizens. Privileged thugs would attack common farmers for entertainment and leave them crippled and doomed to a lifetime of impoverishment just because they could. Since law enforcement was too primitive and too weak to handle such matters, the only justice the people could hope for was either vigilante retribution or divine retribution. If the perpetrators were plucked out of the population for religious sacrifice, no doubt the people would be thankful for their answered prayers. Even gods would need informants to help them choose the next sacrifice. Hence the graffiti.

Such a religious system would need an endless supply of widely hated thugs. Eventually, such a supply would dwindle as street gangs got wise to the need for moderation, and rich authority figures would learn to supply what social order they could lest they be voted as the next in the line of expendables. Over the centuries, human sacrifice would become a less important institution in structured society. In this theory, the sacrificial humans were replaced by straw effigies, not because the worshippers learned to value human life, but because there were fewer thugs that the congregation would thank the gods for having taken out. At this point, the market of religions was ready for a disruption.

That disruption came in the form of Saint Peter who, if the Letters of Peter is any evidence, seems to have been quite selective about what part of Judaism to transcribe into Christianity. His teachings primarily centered around Jesus. Quite conspicuously, any mention of human sacrifice had henceforth been redacted from the Holy Scriptures. There is no evidence in the Christian Bible that early followers of the Abrahamic God ever indulged in human sacrifice other than the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. (Scholars debate whether some passages in the early Torah reflect the ritual of human sacrifice.) The dirty past, apparently, was swept under the rug.

By this interpretation, Emperor Constantine did not endorse Christianity out of his love for God, but from his recognition of reality of the already prevalent religion. And the more genteel religion was not accepted due to its own merits, but because the previous religion was obsolete. Centuries of retributive justice in the form of human sacrifice had instilled a sense of universal empathy and acceptable behavior to the point that a groundwork was laid for a religion based on tolerance and forgiveness. In short, people adopted Jesus because they had no more use for Shane and John Wick.

There was, however, a dark side to all of this. (This is where you laugh, people. I just sarcastically stated that there was a dark side to human sacrifice. What’s wrong with you?) The religion that evolved from the Sermon on the Mount eventually institutionalized human sacrifice in the form of witch hunts, inquisitions, and acts of anti-Semitism. What was once a ritualized form of randomly dispensed retributive justice was adopted and modified into a systemized method of indoctrination and oppression. Not quite the brightest part of Christian history.

Over time, perhaps nearly as much time as it took for human sacrifice to become redundant in Ancient Rome, legal justice replaced religious justice. Law enforcement became more complex and far reaching. Crime became more organized and less random. Consequences loomed over every impulsive act, and risk assessment was built into every violent crime. Except when it was not.

Arguably, there are small pockets of remnant lawlessness in the modern world where maybe, just maybe, random acts of Roman style divine retribution might instill some sense of moral behavior. When perpetrators are not tried in a court of law, where an expensive lawyer might shield them, but are swooped up without any explanation other than “god wills it” and sent to a fate that most people agree they deserve, wrong doers might be forced to think twice in a way they currently do not.

This is the line of thought that leads to the conclusion that the world needs Batman. Quite tellingly, early versions of super heroes fought street gangs and bank robbers, not super villains. Superman and Batman were conceived as retribution fantasies. They were the fantasy good guys to counter balance the very real bad guys of newspaper articles. In a sense, they may have been products of a Roman heritage. The same can be said for Rambo, Jack Bauer, and Bryan Mills. They are killer cures to cureless problems that operate outside the jurisdiction of law. People admire these heroes and try to be them. And that is the tradition where Cancel Culture is derived from.

Lately, a more cynical view of such heroes have become prevalent. Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta were pioneers in this respect. Eventually, Amazon Prime’s The Boys and HBO’s Watchmen expanded on the cynical take on retributive vigilante justice and the abuse of power that inevitably accompanies it. To a lesser extent, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does the same.

This, I believe, is partly a reflection of the realization that the tradition of randomized justice lives on in authoritarian dictatorships like Russia and China. In such societies, swift justice is order of the day, while judicial rights of the accused are curtailed. And justice is carried out by power figures whose authority are unquestioned. It may also be a reflection of a general disdain for Cancel Culture, where social media plays the role of wall graffiti of ancient Pompeii and the internet public become the mob that sends the perceived expendables to the sacrifice alter.

This video clip explains why vigilante justice is destined to fail through the analysis of a series of recent visual entertainments. And this video clip goes a little bit further and suggests that retributive justice needs to be replaced with restorative justice, or even transformative justice, in order for there to be actual progress in society.

That is a truly tall order. Restorative justice switches the focus from the cathartic act of punching the bad guy in the face to the more frustrating ordeal of restoring the victim. And transformative justice goes a step further and not only forgives the former offender, but turn him into the nurse that restores the victim. The latter requires not only for the victim to turn the other cheek, but for the perpetrator to do the same as well.

In the broader world, violent tyrants are anointing themselves as lifetime dictators and governments are extending their authority to oppress. On the ground level, racist Karens and woke cancel culture are both on the march. The universe is endorsing Batman from top to bottom and the effects are not pretty.

Can we really stop wishing John Wick to solve our problems – or worse, pretending to be John Wick – and start turning the other cheek? The current state of affairs is not very encouraging. We need to look very far back to find any examples that are.

In fact, we have to look all the way back to the Edict of Milan when Romans stopped worshiping John Wick and started turning the other cheek. But still, we do have a precedent.

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