(and Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul and others)
On Crime and Justice
I dedicate this post to the lawmakers of the State of Mississippi, Senators and Representatives and Governor, who carry a heavy burden and have a long season of criminal justice legislation ahead of them.
This Book Site, as a celebration of difficult and dangerous writing, should probably have considered The New Testament rather sooner. I mostly read dark fiction. The New Testament is pretty dark (a psychopath massacres some babies at the start, and its climax is the state execution of an innocent man) but all the same it is a little distant from my usual genres.
It wasn’t a book I’d thought about for years. Having been force-fed it at school, I viewed it rather like those plates of uncertain stew that they delivered at lunchtime – for which we had to close our eyes and plead with the Lord to make us truly grateful. Unwelcome, overcooked, far from fresh, and a recipe I wouldn’t aspire to. I was happy to leave it all behind. (I’m European. There’s not much obligation in Europe to cleave to the church. Mostly we don’t.)
So why go back? The call of Mississippi, a Christian country…
I have returned to the New Testament now, because I want to understand the good Senators and Representatives of the State of Mississippi, who in this session, in the Spring of 2020, are faced with a raft of legislation about Criminal Justice. In your hands, dear Senators and Representatives, rests the future of many thousands of Mississippi people.
One percent of your population is in prison right now. Many of these citizens are serving long sentences – thirty, forty, fifty years. I don’t know if there are any ‘decent’ prisons in Mississippi, but recent riots have resulted in plenty of exposure for nightmarish ones. Prisoners in cage-like cells in solitary confinement that goes on for years. Some prisoners in cells without electricity, without water. Many with no access to daylight, activity, education, books, visits, conversation even. Decrepit buildings, inadequate food, mold and vermin. And overarching this, a legislative framework which prohibits parole for most offenses, gives longer sentences than almost anywhere in the world, and allows the death penalty even for minors.
This session there are many Bills before the Senate that would, if you passed them, change this framework. I am told that such a raft of Bills comes to you every year, and every year they are thrown out, for lack of majority support. I’m wondering whether this year, woken by recent events to think more deeply, you lawmakers of Mississippi might depart from this tradition. So I wanted to understand what values might drive you.
I have read your brief biographies on the government website. I was struck by how many of you declare your allegiance to various churches. You are Christian people. This book is important to you so I want to understand it. Breaking with the negligence of several decades, I have therefore read the New Testament from cover to cover.
I was profoundly shocked.
The New Testament I read this month wasn’t in any way the book I thought I had been taught at school. How could my teachers have rendered it so anodyne? How did they manage to enlist it to the service of the status quo? What I find now are writings – of which the gospels are the beating heart – which are clearly amongst the most radical, subversive and challenging to have come from the western world. How could I have missed this?
What The New Testament proposes is nothing short of a new way of being human. The New Testament demands that we rewire ourselves.
The Old Testament wiring
The Old Testament wiring is so familiar to us all that we barely notice it. In its core are evolutionary forces that work on all social animals: ants, wolves, apes. Survival. A power structure based on control of resources (let’s call it wealth), strength, status. Stratification. Enforced by rules and sanctions and ultimately violence: teeth, claws, horns, armies, a police force, a fair bit of smiting, a prison system. Modest rewards for compliance. Retribution for stepping out of line. Major rewards – though also major risks – for being at the top.
One of the many resources that the powerful co-opt to themselves (though not always without a struggle) is virtue. Godliness. Goodness. Right. Entitlement to salvation. Kings and priests and Pharisees (dare I also say Judges and Senators and Representatives? Dare I look in my mirror and say ‘over-educated white people with comfortable incomes’?) are generally confident in moral superiority. We are guaranteed a place in heaven, surely. And from our position of superiority, virtue, morality, we have the right – no the duty even – to stand in judgement over others. To approve or condemn. To punish. To imprison. Even to kill.
I have put it rather brutally. I’m sorry. It’s not ugly like that. We aspire to high ideals, we have nice houses, write nice books and wear attractive hats.
So what did the New Testament change?
I will not speak here of all the ways that the New Testament tries to change the social order. Others have done that. My interest here is only in Crime and Justice. What does the New Testament tell us about that?
Everyone knows that much-quoted bit about turning the other cheek, a departure from the ‘eye for the eye’ of the Old Testament. Forgiveness is big in the New Testament.
‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’
Familiarity renders it mild. But think about it for a moment. Really think about it. Resist not evil? What? Is this a joke?
And there is more. A little less-quoted, but still familiar: we must not judge.
‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven’.
At this point it’s only advisory – you’ll do well if you don’t judge others. Later it becomes more emphatic: if you do judge others, you’ll suffer for it.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
Again, one does a double-take. It’s all very nice but this cannot be serious. What you dish out will come back to you? Seriously? That Judge meting out a life sentence to a criminal ….? He’ll get that back? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
There’s a great deal of judgment and punishment in the Old Testament, most of it recorded with grim approval. But The New Testament is quite emphatic in its turnaround. We are simply not to do it! Only God can judge a human being. And just as we must not judge, we must not exact retribution. Vengeance is forbidden to humans: we have to leave that to God: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. We, mere humans, have no right to it.
I hope, lawmakers of Mississippi, that you are still with me. I know, if you have generously read this far, you are probably thinking ‘Yes, well that’s all very well, this forgiveness thing! But we actually have laws to make, a country to keep in order. And no judging? No retribution? This doesn’t get us far when it comes to managing criminals!’
Big sigh. That’s exactly how I feel as well! Not resist evil? Not judge? Not punish? What do you want, dear Jesus? Murderers left running around? Lawlessness? Anarchy?
Wrongdoing in the New Testament
Reassuringly, the gospels are quite firm about wrongdoing. The words of Jesus demand the highest standards of behavior. The Sermon on the Mount sets it all out in detail.
– Every jot and tittle of the law must be obeyed.
– Every debt must be honored
– Whoever even thinks of doing wrong is guilty of that wrong.
– It is better to cut off your arm or pluck out your eye than let it commit a sin.
– And every last wrongdoing will in due course be punished, God will see to that.
This isn’t, in any way, a gospel about anything goes. But there is a shocking message buried here.
When Jesus talks about wrongdoing, it has a weirdly homogeneous quality. He doesn’t talk of big wrongs and small ones, only of wrongs. The message is spelt out distinctly, in case we don’t get it. As a reversal of the old law, the following passage is even more radical – though more difficult, dangerous, and correspondingly less quoted – than the one about turning the other cheek.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say a word of contempt to his brother shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool’, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Sin is unitary. Everyone sins. Here on earth (a sociologist would say ‘in society’) we make a meal of the idea that there are gradations of sinning, and we have a whole criminal justice system nicely set up for weighing and measuring it: the scales, after all, are the very symbol of justice. There are good people (as a start, let’s say judges and State Senators and Representatives, but personally I think I’m in there too) who are just and right (or at least we don’t do the really bad stuff). And there are others who are criminals – the whole gamut of them, too many to list, and they are different from us. So of course it’s perfectly proper to stand in judgement. Some of our most talented and respectable people make a good career from it.
But Jesus shakes his head. It’s all the same, really, whether a man kills his brother or just treats him disrespectfully. It’s all sin and none of us is innocent. All of us stand to be punished in the end. None of us is better than anyone else. We all need exactly the same forgiveness. And this is why no one is entitled to stand in judgement over another: whatever we think about the matter, our sins – and we all have sinned – are just the same as theirs. Only God, who is perfect and without sin, is entitled to judge. We have no right.
The Gospel of John offers the limit case here. The scribes and the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who has been caught in the very act of adultery – a capital offense according to their law. They are entitled to stone her. The law suggests that they ought to stone her. Will Jesus gainsay that?
‘Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?’
Jesus thinks for a while, staring at the ground and fiddling in the dirt as if the very question embarrasses him. Then his reply.
‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’
Take note he does not say ‘Let him who has not committed adultery punish her’, or even ‘Let him whose crimes are not very big…’ or even, as we might prefer, ‘Well show her a bit of lenience, dammit! She’s a woman after all, and it takes two to tango, and maybe we’ve got it a bit wrong about adultery…’ No. He says ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. She has sinned. The stoning is in the law. But who is entitled to do it? Everyone has sinned. One by one, the accusers melt away.
When they are finally alone, Jesus turns to the woman and asks ‘Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?’ She said, ‘No man, Lord’. And Jesus said unto her, ‘Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more’.
Don’t miss the flip side of the message. It is not an instruction that anything goes, that everyone sins so it does not matter. He does not tell her to behave a little better. He tells her to sin no more. There’s no compromise here.
Kind Senators, I have tested your patience. You have laws to make, taxation to worry about, voters to woo. And in the midst of this you have the Mississippi Department of Corrections to sort out. A problem of mass incarceration. A problem about needing to rebuild your prisons. You can’t afford it. And there’s the rioting. You have a federal investigation on your hands about the conditions in your prisons. And here is this ridiculous woman on her fanciful website, talking to you about Jesus. It’s just not helpful.
I’m sorry. Let me try to do better. Jesus wasn’t such a bad man, and the Bible’s not a bad book, so perhaps if I look a little harder I will find some help there for you. You clearly have to do something about crime and criminals. You can’t just fiddle in the dust a bit, wave your hands and tell your criminals to sin no more. That may have worked for Jesus, a couple of millennia ago, but it’s not going to cut the mustard in your line of business, today.
So what can you do, as good Christian men and women charged with this responsibility, facing a load of potential legislation?
Where to, Criminal Justice in Christian Mississippi?
I’ve talked about the ‘criminal’ bit – what about ‘justice’? The need to do something about wrongdoing is hard-wired into human beings. It gives rise to the concept of justice – a desire for balancing out. But retribution – balancing the suffering of the victim by piling suffering on the wrongdoer – is clearly ruled out by the New Testament message. What then?
‘Provide and Promote Public Safety’ is embroidered on the badges of MDOC. Jesus doesn’t object to people being controlled, to keep others safe. When a person is dangerous and violent– like the man inhabited by devils – it is taken for granted that he may be bound and fettered to protect other people.
But only for as long as strictly necessary, this one: once the devils are cast out, then the man is unfettered, no matter the violence that he carried out before.
How about restitution? Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, either. What we have done wrong we need to put right. To the man in the debtors’ prison, he says I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite. We do need to pay for wrongdoing – but we can do this not by fruitlessly adding to the suffering in the world but by restoring the value that we have taken from the world. Crimes can rarely be undone: life isn’t that simple. But restitution is about giving something back, restoring value where one has previously destroyed it.
A criminal justice system based on restitution needs to find ways for offenders to make amends – not by the waste of their lives, but through productive work, through repentance, and ultimately through returning to society and making a contribution. If one rules out retribution, which the New Testament certainly does, there is no place for sentences without access to parole. There is no justification for continuing imprisonment once the offender has reformed, repented, and is ready to make amends.
There are many references in the New Testament to prisons. Jesus accepts prisons as part of the social order. But most of what he says is about visiting the prisoner: kindness which is without condemnation, a duty as straightforward as visiting the sick. In the Sermon on the Mount, he describes the Day of Judgment.
The King shall say unto them on his right hand… For I was a hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me…. Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
That’s a pretty strong reaction to a failure of compassion towards those in prison. Think about it.
The Senators of Mississippi have been visiting their prisons recently. I am pleased. It’s a privilege that the families of prisoners too rarely get: prison visiting is regularly cancelled and every obstacle is placed in its way. Many prisoners, even those with families, have been unable to have visits for years.
Reform and rehabilitation
In the Mississippi Department of Corrections Mission Statement (almost at the end, rather grudgingly) there is a single reference to rehabilitation, (the stated object of which is only to protect good people from harm, not to redeem the criminal). There is no reference to reform or redemption. But prison, in a Christian world, should always be about that. Jesus was very clear about the need to bring the wrongdoer back to righteousness, whatever the resources required to do this. The prodigal son. The lost sheep. The duty is enduring. There is no option to give up on those who have gone astray.
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
The State of Mississippi has given up on a lot of its prisoners. They have no programs, no access to education, no books, no hope of parole, no visitors, no promise of redemption. That abandonment is what ‘good people’ have given them.
Respect and Humility
A criminal justice system under the eye of the New Testament would remove the gulf – material and moral – between offenders and those who sentence and control them. Jesus has plenty to say about Pharisees, who view themselves as so much better than sinners, and are so confident of winning the race to heaven. They are oh-so-wrong about that!
We are all sinners, from the most deranged or depraved of prisoners to the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections and even you, dear Senators and Representatives. (Even me – who’d have thought it?) God won’t notice any difference between us, unless we dare suggest that we are better than the criminal, as the Pharisees do, in which case, at best, we return to the end of the queue and at worst we face damnation for our pride.
(Like I said, the New Testament is dark and dangerous and difficult. I didn’t tell you it would be comfortable).
So, here to finish, is one last quote from this radical book. Dear Senators and Representatives, as you plough through the mountain of criminal justice legislation that you face this session, I hope you find it helpful. The whole chapter is worth a read – I’m serious here, it’s Romans 12 – but this is a flavor.
For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think… Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Recompense to no man evil for evil. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’, sayeth the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
Subversive stuff. But I’m relying on you.
The New Testament is available from Amazon, bookshops, and hotel bedrooms, pretty much everywhere in the Western world. I chose the King James Version here, which I grew up with, but others are perhaps more accessible. I enjoyed reading it on a Kindle.
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