Written by Glen Chancy
Mary was a sixth-century hooker in the Eastern Roman Empire. She had been one from her youth. She wasn’t in it for the money, as she told a monk named Zosimas later in life, but “out of insatiable desire”. One day she saw the crowds of pilgrims preparing to go to Jerusalem, to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. She decided to go with them, out of curiosity perhaps. She went along, announcing to her fellow-travelers, “I have a body and that will serve as both fare and food for me”. The trip was an eventful one, as Mary put her body to prodigious use with her fellow travelers.
In Jerusalem, when the day of the Feast came round, Mary tried to enter the church, but something happened. At the doors of the church, Mary was driven back “by some kind of force” as she later told Zosimas. Try as she might, she could not enter, although those around her went in with no difficulty at all. Then she understood. The sinfulness of her life prevented her from entering the church. Praying fervently to the Theotokos, Mary begged forgiveness and tried to go in again. She was eventually able to enter and venerate the precious and life-giving Wood of the Cross.
Then, guided by a vision of the Theotokos, Mary left at once for the desert beyond the Jordan River. In her vision, she was told that she would find rest there. She lived in the desert for years, eventually telling her story to Zosimas who found her there.
Mary of Egypt’s story is such a powerful one of repentance and rebirth that the Orthodox Church celebrates her life during the fifth Sunday of Great Lent.
Her story does bring up an interesting question though – how would the story have been different had she been arrested and done some serious jail time?
You see, one of the keys to the story is that Mary was left to the judgment of God. She was on the street looking for something new and exciting when God stirred her heart to go to Jerusalem. She was trying to enter a Church when God revealed to her the depth of her sinfulness.
If she’d been locked up in a Byzantine jail on prostitution charges, how would that have changed the story?
The reason that St. Mary was free to find God was because the Eastern Roman Empire, despite its thorough Orthodoxy, didn’t go around locking up prostitutes. Prostitution was not a criminal affair. Most sins weren’t, as a matter of fact. This situation was not confined to just the Eastern Empire, either. In Czarist Russia, prostitution was only illegal if the conjugal actions took place publicly.
Does Orthodoxy condone prostitution? Absolutely not, as the story of St. Mary exemplifies. God is merciful to the penitant, but the Bible clearly states that the sinners should perish before the face of God as the wax melts before the fire.
But sin is one thing, law is quite another. That which is sinful is harmful, but that which is sinful should not necessarily be illegal. All manner of vices are rampant in the world, and at one time or another, almost every one of them has been outlawed somewhere for the good of the public. No human vice has ever been thus eradicated, nor usually even seriously impaired. No legal system ever devised can make people better than they are.
Making people better than they are requires Jesus Christ. The legal system cannot perform the same salvific function. Governments can punish, but they can not save. The state can mandate compliance with rules under the threat of force, but it cannot make people love the path of righteousness.
Therefore, all purely moral legislation will fail. What do I mean by moral in this context? I mean legislation designed to save people from themselves. I mean a law against a willing woman selling her body to a willing buyer. Or against a willing buyer handing over money in exchange for cocaine from a willing seller. Or against two consenting adults cheating on their spouses, or engaging in homosexual sex.
Outlawing self-destructive behavior will never succeed in making a society better. Rather, it only produces what we have now, which is a large prison population, a growing police state, and one tale of tragedy after another of the ruined lives of people caught up in the criminal justice system.
America has the largest prison population on Earth with around 2 million inmates. With over 10,000 Federal crimes on the books, that population is growing daily. Many of those imprisoned are there because of drug use and other sin-related crimes, or because they blundered into the Federal law enforcement buzz saw by violating laws originally designed to combat drug-dealing/organized crime.
The carnage of our war on sin spills over in other ways as well. There are an estimated 40,000 SWAT raids per year. In a SWAT raid, heavily armed police, who are dressed and armed as soldiers, invade the homes of (usually) nonviolent drug offenders, bystanders, and wrongly targeted civilians. Sometimes, they even sweep up a mayor or two .
Usually a politically conservative Orthodox thinker will interject at this point, “The government must enforce a moral order!” The fear is that failure to outlaw bad or self-destructive behavior will lead to moral anarchy, as if the Church were somehow silent on such questions. I understand the idea of course. The Orthodox concept of personhood is life lived in communion with others. An atomistic view of humanity is alien to Orthodoxy, which means that the sins of an individual influence and affect the souls of those around him or her. We are all connected one to another, so there is no such thing as a ‘victimless’ crime if that crime involves an actual sin.
From a metaphysical perspective, I do not deny this. However, there is another way to look at the problem of sin and the legal system. For me, because we are all connected to each other means that there is all the more reason for mercy. The Church is grounded on mercy, the justice system is not.
Let us look at a simple example. A middle-aged man with a family yields to temptation on a business trip and dallies with a prostitute in his hotel room. When he picked her up on the street, he was spotted by an undercover cop who calls in backup. The cops bust him with the prostitute in his room. The police arrest him and charges are brought. Now instead of just dealing with the effects of sin, of which he might very well repent, his life is ruined along with those of his wife and children. The tragedy of sin is compounded by a court case that can completely destroy all of the innocents connected with the sinner.
“Serves him right!” the uber-Christians say, “He should have thought of that before he did what he did!” So the fact that he goes to jail, loses his job, and can’t support his family is just so much justice, I suppose. What are a few ruined lives when a moral principle is at stake – after all?
Sorry, I can’t buy this as the Christian message. I am too attached to mercy for the sinner and those innocent people around him or her.
Not all sins should be a matter for the police. Those sins which directly harm others – rape, murder, theft, child molestation – those must be against the law. It is to suppress such things that governments even exist. But beyond a limited set of crimes against others, legislating in an effort to improve the moral climate of a society simply does not work.
People are fallen beings, and will sin. The Church is here to call them back to Christ, a job which cannot be outsourced to the local judge.
Some final points on this topic. First, from an Orthodox perspective, abortion is murder. Murder, as I stated above, is naturally a crime as it involves the taking of the life of another human being. This article is not a backhanded endorsement of abortion rights.
Second, failing to criminalize a behavior is not at all the same as endorsing it. Through most of the history of Christendom, heresy was illegal and vice was mostly tolerated. We have now reversed this equation and made many forms of vice illegal, while open denunciation of God and perversion of the faith are tolerated. Since heresy is legal, do we condone it? Not at all, but we have moved beyond putting people in jail for having wrong opinions about God. Perhaps we could also move beyond putting people in jail for having the wrong private behavior?
Nor does failing to criminalize behavior require you to positively endorse that behavior at some point in the future. Simply because private sodomy should not be criminalized, does not mean that same-sex marriage is somehow inevitable. Having multiple sex partners is currently legal in most jurisdictions, but no one is making the case that plural marriage is on the horizon. It simply isn’t. Not interfering with private deviant behavior does not force you to condone it down the road.
God made man free to sin and to find his path, through Jesus Christ, back to repentance and salvation. Civil society should do likewise. I hope to live long enough to see our society revert back to a time when sinners are not in jail being gang-raped by thugs, but are instead in freedom to find their own path back to God. It worked for St. Mary of Egypt, and it can work for modern sinners just as well.