Religion forgives

Panel discusses justice and mercy through lens of Book in Common

Greg Cootsona, a comparative religion and humanities lecturer at Chico State, offers a quote from Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Greg Cootsona, a comparative religion and humanities lecturer at Chico State, offers a quote from Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


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The fact that so many practicing Christians accept capital punishment is an amazing contradiction to Greg Cootsona. Not only does Christianity preach mercy alongside the world’s other major religions, but it’s also rooted in one of history’s most famous examples of an unjust execution, Jesus’ crucifixion.

Cootsona is a comparative religion and humanities lecturer at Chico State and a former pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church. He and two colleagues from the same department, Jason Clower and Daniel Veidlinger, made up a panel for a forum titled “Justice and Mercy Across Religions” at Chico State’s Ayres Hall on Tuesday (Oct. 27).

The forum was part of the year-long series of Book in Common events hosted by Chico State and Butte College. This year’s book is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, advocate of social justice and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Through Stevenson’s own coming-of-age and his interviews with death row inmates, some of whom he believes weren’t fairly tried, the memoir calls for reform of the U.S. justice system.

Through that lens, the panel discussed attitudes toward justice and mercy in Christianity, Confucianism, Islam and Hinduism.

Regarding Christianity, Stevenson doesn’t reference the Bible much in Just Mercy, Cootsona said. But in his argument for abolishing the death penalty he does quote a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus intervenes on the execution of an adulteress and says: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

“Jesus, I think, is saying that this is not punishment brought justly,” Cootsona said. “Secondly, if we know the full arc of the gospel, there is a foreshadowing that Jesus himself will be put to death through capital punishment.”

Clower spoke to ancient Confucianism in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, countries that “traditionally aren’t gentle” on criminality. Even so, Clower argued that they “were enlightened in ways that seem timely now.”

For instance, ancient Chinese governments used capital punishment sparingly, recognizing the social costs associated with, say, executing a father of five children “even if he’s a terrible son of a gun.” And much like the present-day U.S., most sentences were automatically reduced.

“So, you might be sentenced for some misdeed to be flogged for 20 strokes,” Clower said. “But everybody in the courtroom would be looking at a little chart that said, ‘If the judge says 20, you actually get seven.’ They liked to come out strong, but in practice there was always mercy exercised.”

Whereas our system is “adversarial”—two lawyers argue opposite sides and twist facts—the Confucian system was “inquisitorial,” Clower said. “Judges would be caring, but stern, and kind of behave like everybody’s dad, call all the kids together and dispense treatment that would restore relationships.” However, Clower doesn’t believe that far-Eastern principles would apply easily to the U.S. justice system.

“One thing is that the Confucian system was paternalistic,” he said. “There is enough paternalism and condescension for people who show up in court in our system.”

As for the current perception of Islam, Veidlinger said he understands how it’s been distorted by the judgments and violence of extremist group ISIS. “Many people in the modern world who watch the news get the sense that Islam is very harsh,” he said. “But that has certainly not been the case traditionally. Throughout history, Islamic states have been very merciful.”

Veidlinger pointed to the 99 names of God in Islam, of which the most important is Ar-Rahim, which means “the merciful one,” he said. “That shows you the importance of mercy and compassion in the Islamic tradition.”

It’s equally important in Hinduism, Veidlinger said, particularly regarding the concept of karma—that actions influence an individual’s future, and the key element is intention.

Veidlinger emphasized that ideals of mercy and justice are woven into religious texts and practices going back thousands of years.

“It’s not like being merciful and compassionate is a modern-day idea,” he said. “All of these traditions have people who have realized that laws can be interpreted in different ways and God isn’t always angry.”