Saturday, January 24, 2015

Explanation, Justification, Sanctification

My daughter, Kira, is 10 years old. That is old enough to engage with fairly sophisticated ideas and young enough to to still care what your parents think about them. I don't know how long this window lasts. 

I hope, of course, that Kira will continue to be interested in the insights Nicole and I have to share for many years to come. But no matter how open she remains, there's a rapid expansion from age 10 to 20 in the size of her world. Kira will, sooner than later, be dealing with a much wider range of problems and integrating a much wider range of voices into her responses. That is good and exciting, but also somewhere between humbling and terrifying. I accept and respect her fundamental independence now and in the years to come, but also feel a God-given obligation to give her the best foundation I can to build on. And the years are getting so short lately. So terribly short. 

Most of what I will give my daughter is not conscious. Things like my belief in the strengthening and healing potential of humor aren't talks or lessons, they just leak out of me in my day to day responses to the world. As do lessons I don't want to give at all, like "when you are feeling frustrated anyway, it might help to lash out at people you love." 

There are a few, valuable times, though--like when I tuck Kira in for bed or when we're having Family Home Evening or sometimes when we're driving together in a car--when I can try to consciously teach something. And for the most part, I've chosen to focus those times not a specific subject, but on giving her an underlying vocabulary for how to think things through. 

My latest emphasis came to me a few days ago after the kids had a fight. For all the inventiveness of children, there's still a grinding repetition that comes with being a parent, and as their narratives of events (with all the usual complaints, accusations, and excuses) washed over me, I found myself thinking about the genre of children's post-fight storytelling. Why do we tell the stories we do about conflicts? 

And as Kira told me why she hit her brother, I realized it would be well worth my time to focus on the difference between an explanation and a justification

An explanation, I told Kira, is about why you did something. What motivated you? Your explanation for why you hit your brother usually has to do with something he did. Elijah did x or y, which made you upset and then motivated you to hit. 

But an explanation is not necessarily a justification. A justification has to do with whether something is wrong or right. Understanding how your brother's actions made you want to hit him is not the same as making it right for you to hit him. 

Don't treat an explanation as if it were a justification, I told her. There will be a quiz, I said. 

That night, I asked her to tell me the difference between explanation and justification, as we'd defined the terms. It wasn't easy for her to do--and led, actually, to a discussion of circular definitions. But after a little while, she did pretty well at coming up with examples of each and correctly identifying examples I would come up with. She started to really see the difference. She's even been able to talk about tough cases of justification: when is it right to do a lesser wrong to prevent a greater one? The terms have opened up a way for us to start talking together about different problems. 

So last night, I added a third term, sanctification, and gave an example from the chapters she is about to read in Alma in the Book of Mormon. 

There's a king named Lamoni coming up, I told her, who sometimes kills his servants. This usually happens when the servants get sent out to guard his stuff and come back empty-handed. He gets mad, and so he kills them. 

Kira correctly identified this as an explanation. It's a story about why the king does what he does, but not about whether it's right. 

Then I pointed out that the king can attempt a justification: he can explain that his stuff is very important, and that doing your job is very important, and that when his servants run away instead of doing their job to protect his stuff, he has a right to have them killed. 

Kira agreed that this was an attempt at justification, but rejected it on the grounds that life is more important than property (as we'd previously discussed when considering the justification offered by a certain Jean Valjean). 

I complimented Kira on her analysis and then told her more of the story. King Lamoni, I said, later learned about the gospel and realized his own justification hadn't been enough. He felt terrible about what he'd done. What do you think he did then? I asked Kira. 

He repented? she said. 

Yes, I said. He repented. And he decided not to do those things anymore. But there were other people who didn't like the changes he was making. Who thought he was showing weaknesses. So they attacked his kingdom. 

At that point, I asked, would King Lamoni and his people be justified in killing the people who attacked them? 

Not necessarily, Kira said. Are the people who attack trying to kill them or just take their stuff? And is there a way to fight them off without killing them? Killing is very serious. 

That's true, I said. But assuming that the attackers are trying to kill them, Lamoni and his people would be justified in fighting back, even if they had to kill, I said.Think of soldiers in war. Think of the cartoon Justice League. 

Yes, Kira agreed, in certain cases of self-defense, killing would be justified. 

I believe that's true, I said. And I think Lamoni and his people believed it was true. But they didn't fight back because they wanted something more than justification. They were worried about sanctification. Explanation is about why you did something, justification is about whether it's right, and sanctification is about whether it makes you holy. 

Lamoni's people knew what it was like to kill out of anger. They knew how tempting it could be, how powerful it could make them feel. And they didn't want that any more. They wanted to be holy. They were willing to turn down something they had a justification to continue their sanctification. They were willing to die for it. 

 There will be a quiz, I said. 

I'm looking forward to talking quite a bit more with Kira about explanation, justification, and sanctification. Maybe we should talk about how sometimes your actions have no justification, but it's important to figure out the true explanation of why you did them so you can figure out how to change. Maybe we should spend more time on the complexities of justification and all the dilemmas it creates. And maybe 10 is not too young to get more detailed about how Jesus fits into all three kinds of stories and to start working together on figuring out what the scriptures have to say. 

And for now, maybe all this will be good for is slowing down the next post-fight discussion and separating why she acted the way she did from the question of whether it was right. Though I suspect I'll also be seizing opportunities to go through what explains some of my bad behavior and why those explanations also fail to justify it--and maybe in the process undo some of the inevitable bad teachings my example leaves behind. 

And I hope the concepts, abstract as they are, will start to have power for her. So that in a few too-short years when friends and loves and factions loom larger in her world, she'll have tools for understanding herself and others, tools to sift out the different parts of difficult relationships. 


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