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Cultural differences

“This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.” Sir Charles James Napier, a British general who was Commander-in-Chief of India in the mid 19th century.

justice roosevelt

An Australian judge has granted an appeal to a man convicted of rape because his cultural background precluded him from understanding that kidnapping and raping women was a bad thing in the country which granted him asylum. No, seriously. (Crossing Australia off my list of “hope to visit someday.”)

All cultures are not equal. A culture that holds that men are free to violently attack and abuse women is rotten. If someone is so damaged that he can’t understand that rape is wrong, justice demands society be protected from that person–just as if he knew it was wrong and did it anyway. Justice doesn’t demand that we “understand cultural differences.” Justice demands protection for life, liberty and property of individuals everywhere.

This is where moral relativism shows it’s fatal weakness. Years and years ago, when I was in college, I interned at National Right to Life Committee.  While there, I met up with a college friend who was also interning at the Close-Up Foundation (or something like that, the memory fades.) We were visiting the newly opened Holocaust Museum and he brought along one of the students from the program. At the time, you had to get there early to get timed tickets and then wait a couple of hours before your appointed time. So we sat on the grounds behind the museum and talked politics and philosophy and right to life issues. This young man, a young Jewish man named Israel (Izzy), insisted that there was no such thing as absolutes. Abortion was absolutely wrong. Pressing the issue, I asked wasn’t the Holocaust absolutely wrong. His response was, “Well, it is for me, but I don’t know about someone else.”

I’m sitting outside the Holocaust Museum with a Jewish kid who doesn’t think the Holocaust was necessarily absolutely wrong. It was one of those surreal moments that really crystallizes your understanding of the world, i.e. some people are just nuts. After that we visited the Museum, and all of us–Izzy included–were wrecked.  After viewing the exhibits, there’s this hall for meditation and reflection.  We sat down, and my friend John–a big old bear of a guy–just wrapped his arms around us while we leaned on him. So much evil, so much loss, it was almost too much to take in. I didn’t ask Izzy if he still felt that the Holocaust wasn’t absolutely wrong, in fact we didn’t say much of anything to one another. The experience had left us without words. But I somehow doubt that he would say that again. Some things are absolute.

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Do you know how ridiculous it is to be saying, “Ignorance of the law about kidnapping and raping women is no excuse.”   This double crime of violence and injustice is beyond ludicrous, but frankly it’s not surprising.  The concept of justice–what it means and how it is to be administered–is corrupted. Lady Justice is traditionally pictured as blindfolded, meaning she shows no partiality to the parties before her. The ideal is that all receive equal justice under the rule of law. But…

What happens when there are no absolutes in our justice system? What happens when justice is delivered based not on the rule of law, but on political favoritism and faddish cultural trends? Are we already there? Is justice even possible anymore.


Lady Liberty image from FreeFoto.com.

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