Watching the verdict and sentences come in at the end of the rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio, the first thing we ought to feel is a sense of satisfaction—a sense, unbecoming as it may seem, of giddiness that two rapists will be held accountable for what they did. It’s not Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond’s fault that the justice system has largely spared or ignored their fellow rapists over the years, but alas, all of our pent-up feelings of schadenfreude from those other cases will have to be visited upon their heads instead.
It’s also satisfying to see the trial end in a way that rebukes Big Football for its systematic culture of brutality, thuggishness, and unaccountability from Steubenville to Penn State. Football isn’t the only sport whose athletes are allowed to act how they please with near-total immunity, but given its college and professional status as cash cow and its high-school status as the social force that holds many wholesome Middle American communities together, it’s the sport whose foundations it’s hardest to shake.
But looking at the reaction to the guilty verdict, I see two major traits of American culture at work. The first is the tendency to consistently downplay the severity of rape, or assume rape victims have done something to deserve it. In this case, the news media could not stop reminding us that the victim was drunk, when we don’t apply this “drunkenness” standard to victims of any other crime. And then there’s the way we assign victimhood itself. On TV, there was the now-infamous moment where CNN’s Poppy Harlow referred to the two rapists as “young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students,” as if the loss of this promise were the real crime here—as if the emotional difficulty of the trial stems primarily from watching Mays and Richmond cry in court and hug their lawyers. Writers such as Laurie Penny have cited this as an example of what they call “rape culture,” and they’ve spent enough time thinking about this topic to write about it far better than I can. So go read their work.
The second thing this case has revealed is just how much the United States remains a Christian nation. Not in terms of its laws, of course, but in terms of assumptions about guilt, repentance, and empathy—assumptions that I, having been raised Jewish, am currently feeling grateful I don’t share. The idea that we are now expected to “feel for” Mays and Richmond because they seem remorseful derives from a very Christian way of understanding guilt, in which a person is absolved of a crime by repenting. Repentance is a matter between oneself and God, and so to question its validity or importance would probably seem out of line to most Americans. But I remain unmoved, and the more I think about it, the more I believe my religious upbringing is one of the reasons why.
Jewish law, as set down in the Old Testament and Talmud, largely concerns itself with how to maintain tribal unity in exile. The idea of a personal, intimate relationship with God is a later, Christian innovation. God’s law for the Jews spends a little bit of time on how to interact properly with him, and a lot of time on how to interact properly with each other. This is especially the case in matters of transgression and forgiveness. The injured party is the only one who can truly grant absolution to the injurer, and even on Yom Kippur, Jews are required to ask forgiveness of the specific people they’ve hurt over the past year before they even think about asking it of God. This is not to say that asking forgiveness of other people is anathema to Christians, of course, but the idea of confessing sins to God or a priest as a first step, rather than an absolute last resort, would strike most Jews as a way of dodging the problem. The way to atone properly is to own the fact that actions have real-world consequences, and accept the fact that you will have to deal with them.
Americans, especially those fond of holding forth on “personal responsibility,” love to give lip service to this idea—action and reaction, cause and effect, and so on. But when news reporters lament that two high-schoolers’ lives and career prospects have been ruined because they will henceforth be registered as sex offenders wherever they go, it reveals how inconsistently people actually believe it. Mays and Richmond will be labeled as sex offenders because they are sex offenders. That they are remorseful after the fact (that is, if they regret anything besides getting caught) is a nice thing to know, but it shouldn’t suddenly tempt us to let them off the hook morally, legally, or otherwise.
Of course, keeping our hearts hardened like this is easier said than done. For most Americans, trained in the Christian ethic of guilt and redemption, turning rape into the opening act of a morality play is far more emotionally uplifting than treating it as a crime to be paid for. But that’s another, more stereotypical thing about being raised Jewish: I tend to strongly distrust anything that’s too emotionally uplifting. There are times when this makes me seem cynical and misanthropic, but in situations like the one in Steubenville I believe people are well served by this sort of skepticism. Otherwise we succumb to the message, in effect, that we ought to feel sorry for Mays and Richmond because they feel sorry for themselves. And can they repent and be saved? The majority of Americans may think so. It’s not indecent to hope that one day, they turn their lives around and come to terms with what they’ve done. But when we think of sin this way, we make it abstract. That they might be redeemed one day in the future isn’t a comfort to me, and it probably isn’t a comfort to their victim either.