The Pleasure of Hurting Others Through the Law

In psychoanalysis there is a technical term for someone who is incapable of questioning the law and whose entire effort is aimed at establishing the law. This sort of individual disavows any inadequacy or the notion of anything lacking in the law and wants to ensure that the law is fulfilled or completed.  Completing or establishing the law may involve her own or other’s transgression which results in punishment.  It is precisely through punishment that the law is “felt” to be established and that pleasure is derived.  This pleasure is found in the fact that “the Law is doing it” so that the immediate suffering/pleasure is the assurance the Law is being served/serviced. Children torn from their mother’s breast, wailing at the border, are a living proof that the border laws are effectively established. The Law knows no tolerance as zero tolerance serves to define the sharp and absolute edge of this autonomous god-like force.

A border law is the perfect sacrificial ground in that the suffering serves to locate the Law and its work – keeping those favored by the Law hedged in so long as they pleasure the Law through suffering and sacrifice.  The cries of the children are the sacrificial assurance that the Law is an absolute reality receiving the proffered sacrifice.  The Law needs its transgressions and sacrifice so as to assert itself as Law. This closure of the Law upon those in its grasp or “protective embrace” is simultaneously its reward and its punishment.  The greater the sacrifice the more absolute the protection so that true adherents/worshipers are provided absolute security and are freed from questions. The Law is doing it, and like marionettes animated by this force, the servants of the Law are relieved of all threats and fear through total adherence (pure pleasure).

To question the law would be the equivalent of opening the border – the geographical and psychic border. The resulting chaos and hysteria would produce an unending series of questions: “What is a citizen?” “What is the Law?” or “What am I?” The closed border and unquestioning mind mute the hysterical questioning and maintain the order and stability of a closed world animated by (Other) transcendent forces. The danger of questioning is that the Law and identity attached to the Law would turn out to be an impostor and that one’s desire – equated with the Law – would be exposed as pure evil.

The religious support of the Law, in which the law is established, protected as absolute, is practically definitive of the function and need for religion. Idolatrous and sacrificial religion personifies the Law – the Other (the god or its equivalent) through sacrifice and punishment. The gods offer zero tolerance lest their deity and existence be opened to questioning.  The irony in Jeff Sessions quoting Romans 13 to squelch questions in regard to the Law, is that New Testament Christianity and Romans in particular, is an intervention into a religion and identity which would absolutize the Law.  In other words, the very book Sessions quoted is a denial of the absoluteness of the Law.

Paul provides a genealogy of pure evil in which the law, made absolute, generates and supports evil and transgression. “Shall we do evil that grace may abound?” “Is the Law Sin?” Paul answers, “God Forbid.” Yet, Sessions is not alone in drawing upon his Christian faith as a support for absolute obedience to the law – this in spite of the fact that Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the Apostles (excluding John and Judas), defied both Roman and Jewish law and died at the hands of the legal authorities.

This “law and order” Christianity, which imagines faith obliges submission, need not question whether abuse is occurring – in the case of the immigrant, the asylum seeker, the abused wife or child, as it presumes their suffering is a punishment – a result of transgressing the law. When a local man died at the hands of police after being subdued and tasered multiple times, it was shocking to hear a mild-mannered mother and teacher explain he had it coming for challenging the authority of the police. Undocumented workers, insubordinate women, blacks killed by police, are presumed by the very circumstance of their life to have it coming – to be deserving of punishment. Authorities must be obeyed and issues of social justice, racism, misogyny, caging children, are a secondary concern. Christ himself was required to die at the hands of his Father so that the Law would be established. Penal substitution, complementarianism, patriarchy…all combine to render the law absolute. Romans turns out not to be a book about intervening in this evil orientation to the law but a means of establishing it. Christianity of this kind cannot care for widows, orphans, and outcasts, as they are on the wrong side of the wall/law.

Of course, the one who practices this faith has his immediate reward in the pleasure and power he derives through enacting it. The misogynist derives pleasure from his abuse of women, the patriarchal authoritarian enjoys oppressing those within his power, and the policeman or politician who abuses his power proves his power and satisfies his desire through the abuse. The authoritarian enjoys exercising his obscene authority and if his religion provides support for his pleasure there is little possibility he can glimpse his own evil. The Nazi camp guard, the abusive father, the sadistic policeman, and the domineering husband derive an immediate pleasure from enforcing and establishing the law.  The mafioso does not consider murder a requirement but a perk of the job. The sadistic administrator enjoys wielding his authority and enacting it through punishing and sacrificing those under his power. The difference between the Christian administrator and the mafioso is that as a Christian he can be assured he is enacting God’s will.

Jeff Sessions assures us the children must be made to suffer so that the law is established, and his appeal to Romans indicates, he thinks, he is doing God’s will. (Trump, the political pragmatist has already reversed course as it is not God but the electorate that whispers in his ear.) The psychoanalytic term for this sort of individual is “pervert.” The pervert serves the Other/the Law/God through a short circuit in which the Subject sides with the law in the attempt to partake of its surplus enjoyment. The psychoanalysts, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, deploy the word, not as a derogatory description of the sexual deviant, but as a technical description of one who seeks to serve the law through a direct move to punishment/pleasure. Both Lacan and Žižek, though they are atheists, are convinced that, in Romans 7, Paul is identifying the pervert as the one who equates the law with sin.  The pervert says, “we shall indeed sin that the law will be established and grace abound.” The pervert presumes that the law is sin and that he has access to the power of the law through sin and punishment. Paul simply identifies this individual as “dead,” though he is still biologically alive: “sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Ro 7:9–11). The practitioners of this dead religion may be perverts or among the living dead, the one thing they are not is followers of the faith of Paul and Jesus.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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