The Stubborn & Rebellious Son

How often do we punish individuals before addressing the ills of our social structures?

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Though we must fill in the gaps with our imaginations, one can picture the first son, the hated son--perhaps the son of the foreign captive, plucked as spoil during a period of violence and turmoil--as he begins to disobey, turns to alcohol and petty crimes, soon to robbery, perhaps to murder.

Now, he is bound in the town square and awaits execution.  

Root Causes

On the one hand, the inclusion of this story may teach us that strict justice must be applied. His behavior is dangerous and will become only more so. On the other hand, if the seeds of his behavior were planted a generation earlier, as his unwanted place in society was carved out by a lust-filled soldier turned insensitive and cruel father, then the execution of the stubborn and rebellious child is not a triumph of justice, but a failure of humanity.

This is true on an individual level as well as on a larger scale. The story is a complex warning against punishing the individual for the ills of the social structure. Societies carry out the ritual stoning of their "stubborn and rebellious sons" in various ways; criminal justice systems worldwide treat the final evils, the violence, the crime, without treating the systemic causes of crime--poverty, discrimination, and injustice.

Internationally, nations such as China, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have earned the derision of the West by dint of their domestic civil rights abuses. And while we may have the responsibility to call this behavior out for what it is--crimes against humanity--this scenario must also be considered the symptom of a larger illness.

To what extent do the roots of this behavior go back to previous regimes? What role has military occupation, colonialism, and imperialism played in the development of the nation's own self image? What role does it continue to play?

Before we pick up the rifle or the stone, before we turn to incarceration or execution to diminish a society's evils, we must ask, "Have we considered the source of this behavior?" If we do not, then while we may act justly in the short term, we perpetuate the behavior in the long term. While blindness to the systemic causes of crime leaves us only with a deadchild and inconsolable parents, education, empowerment, and the fair sharing of resources may extinguish the cycle that created the stubborn and rebellious son. The outcome is a just and functioning civil society.

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.