In my review of William Webb’s Corporal Punishment in the Bible I argued that Webb does not go far enough in his redemptive-movement hermeneutic. In this followup article I will develop that criticism further. I will begin by providing an illustration that illumines the tension between the pragmatist and the prophet before I turn to focus on whether punitive hand amputation could be endorsed by an ethical pragmatist or whether it always requires a prophetic response.
Pragmatists and Prophets
For the sake of this discussion I’ll define the terms pragmatist and prophet as follows:
Pragmatist: one who recognizes the need to endorse provisionally some behaviors, actions or institutions that one may disagree with for the sake of ultimate social change.
Prophet: one who recognizes the need to denounce some behaviors, actions or institutions that one may disagree with, even if this limits the opportunities for imminent social change.
David is a British member of Parliament in 1720 who, while supporting the institution of slavery, is actively campaigning for new humane treatments of slaves. David’s ultimate sentiment and hope is for the abolition of the slave trade, but he recognizes that speaking as a prophet in 1720 will quickly result in him losing his seat in Parliament. And so he provisionally endorses an institution he ultimately rejects for pratical means. This is the spirit of the pragmatist, and it is one with which we can undoubtedly find some sympathy.
But there are limits to practical accommodation. Some issues are of such a nature that the spirit of the pragmatist is morally indefensible, and it is critical that we discern when those moments arise. Imagine, for example, that one of David’s colleagues in Parliament is troubled by the number of sexual assaults to which female slaves are being subjected by their slave owners. And so he introduces a bill into Parliament that limits the sexual assault of female slaves to not more than once a day. Should this legislation be passed and enforced it might result in a better life for female slaves who are being raped more than once a day. But at the same time, David might conclude that pragmatism is no longer defensible in this situation. Instead, he must speak out and declare that all sexual assaults of slaves is wrong and should be illegal, even if that means voting against the bill of his colleague which in turn results in temporarily perpetuating a worse situation for female slaves.
The challenge of the ethical life is to discern when one can act as a pragmatist and when one ought to act as the prophet.
Webb portrays God as the consummate pragmatist for he consistently endorses mandates, principles, stipulations, maxims and so on that he does not in fact agree with. And he does so for the end of leading society through a further transformation to the point where it will ultimately leave those inferior mandates, principles, stipulations and maxims behind in favor of a heightened moral awareness.
While I have much sympathy with aspects of this theory, I have a serious problem with the way Webb develops it. The problem is that God is not like a relatively impotent member of Parliament who is forced to make all sorts of unsavory alliances and compromises for political ends. (For a sobering depiction of how such compromises destroy the soul of a noble politician see George Clooney’s film “The Ides of March.”) I talked about this problem a bit in my review of Corporal Punishment in the Bible. But here I’m going to grant Webb’s apparent assumption that God is relatively impotent to actualize broad based societal change, rather like the member of Parliament. Even if we grant this for the sake of argument, there is still the problem that not all compromises are justifiable. Some cases present such egregious instances of immoral abuse that the spirit of the prophet is required. So while it is in principle okay for God to be presented as a pragmatist, Webb’s theory faces a serious objection if he presents God as acting as a pragmatist when he should have acted as a prophet.
A thick description of punitive appendage amputation
In our introductory section I gave two examples of accommodation for our eighteenth century parliamentarian David: slavery and rape. I conceded that David might lend his support to slavery for pragmatic goals of social change. But this doesn’t mean he can lend his pragmatic support to any reformatory measure. And I provided the case of rape. Certain actions present such egregious cases of evil that we simply must speak out against them.
Webb believes that in Deuteronomy 25:11-12 God accommodates to a type of punitive action. We read:
11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, 12 you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
While other law codes of the time advise gouging out the woman’s eyes or amputating her breasts, the Torah stipulation given here commends a relatively mild hand amputation as punishment. The question is whether this is a legitimate pragmatic accommodation (like support of slavery) or whether it is one that must be rejected in favor of a prophetic response (like legislation that approves of limited slave rape).
It seems clear to me that this is the kind of maxim that requires a prophetic rejection rather than a pragmatic accommodation. In my view, acts of punitive appendage amputation (PAA) like this are clearly wrong and always require a prophetic response. But what if somebody disagrees with me? What if they think this is a legitimate point of accommodation?
One way to try to sway others over to my side might come through the provision of a thick description of PAA. And that’s what I’ll provide here. Our account will be drawn from Stephen King’s novel Misery. The protagonist in the novel is a bestselling novelist named Paul Sheldon who finds himself kidnapped by his ultimate fan, a psychopath named Annie. That backstory is not really relevant for the thick description. What is relevant is that one person acts punitively against another person by amputating their foot with an axe. And I think the narrative, as horrible as it is to read, illumines through a thick description just how horrifying this kind of punitive measure is. If you already agree with me and would like to be spared the grisly details then please skip down to the end. For the rest of us, we join the narrative in progress:
“Just a little pain. Then this nasty business will be behind us for good, Paul.”
She tossed the open bottle of Betadine over her shoulder, her face blank and empty and yet so inarguably solid; she slid her right hand down the handle of the axe almost to the steel head. She gripped the handle farther up in her left hand and spread her legs like a logger.
“ANNIE, OH PLEASE PLEASE DON’T HURT ME!”
Her eyes were mild and drifting. “Don’t worry, she said. “I’m a trained nurse.”
The axe came whistling down and buried itself in Paul Sheldon’s left leg above the ankle. Pain exploded up his body in a gigantic bolt. Dark-red blood splattered across her face like Indian warpaint. It splattered the wall. He heard the blade squeal against bone as she wrenched it free. He looked unbelievingly down at himself. The sheet was turning red. He saw his toes wriggling. Then he saw her raising the dripping axe again. Her hair had fallen free of its pins and hung around her blank face.
He tried to pull back in spite of the pain in his leg and knee and realized that his leg was moving but his foot wasn’t. All he was doing was widening the axe-slash, making it open like a mouth. He had time enough to realize his foot was now only held on his leg by the meat of his calf before the blade came down again, directly into the gash, shearing through the rest of his leg and burying itself deep into the mattress. (Misery (Viking, 1987), 222-23)
Are there conceivable cases where PAA could be ethically justified? Perhaps. But I’m not interested in considering such cases. The point I think we need to focus on is that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 does not represent such a case. The punishment is wrong for the crime. And the unspeakably brutal way the punishment would have been carried out — in a matter echoing the horrifying description in Misery — leads us to one conclusion. Such stipulations seem to require prophetic denouncement, not pragmatic accommodation. To the extent that Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic attributes to God pragmatic accommodation of an immoral case of PAA, his proposal should be rejected.