Issues

Crime and Punishment

What do Christians believe about crime and punishment?

ISSUES-CRIME-CUFFS

Open any newspaper and you will find out about crime. It is something that impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every day and pervades every area of our society. You might read about acts theft – from house burglaries to large scale fraud within a company – or acts of violence – from knife crime on the streets to domestic violence indoors. Crime can be driven by addiction, or emotion, or materialism, or just plain old irresponsibility and negligence.

What do Christians believe about crime and punishment?

Why do people commit crimes? Although from a sociological point of view there are many reasons, Christians would probably point to a selfishness that seems to live in the heart of people – a primary desire to please ourselves, and very often at other people’s expense. This is what the Bible calls sin. Not all that Christians call ‘sin’ is against the law – for example, adultery (sleeping with somebody else’s spouse) is not illegal. However, many of the acts that are classed as illegal in this country would also be seen as sinful, having selfishness at their heart.

When it comes to dealing with this – punishment – there seem to be two key principles that the Bible promotes: justice and mercy.

‘Justice’ is about making things right – right for the victim, but also right between the victim and the offender. This may involve the need for recompense – for the offender to make things up to the victim, paying for any wrong-doing.  This is perhaps where famous verses such as ‘eye for an eye…’ (Leviticus 24:19-20) fit in – the idea that if something is taken, recompense should be made in kind so that the victim is not left without justice for what they have suffered. Many of the books of law in the Old Testament give specific guidance on appropriate penalties and means of recompense for victims, relevant to the ancient Jewish society it was written in.

But equally, the Bible has a lot to say about ‘mercy’ – that people can be spared what they ‘deserve’ for the crime or sin committed. God is spoken of as being merciful throughout the Old and New Testaments, and Christians see Jesus’ death on the cross as the ultimate example of God’s mercy – that Jesus took the punishment for sin in the place of humankind. In some circumstances, they may see that treating an offender mercifully (as opposed to following the letter of the law) may be the best option – for example, if they have made significant steps to change, or show deep remorse and a desire to make restitution themselves. This principle of mercy would also influence the way they see the purpose of punishment – that it should equip people to live better lives afterwards, as opposed to being a mechanism simply to pay for wrongdoing.

The Bible asks Christians to ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God’ (Micah 6:8). For many Christians, this element of ‘humility’ is important when thinking about crime and punishment. The Bible teaches that all have sinned, no-one is perfect. It is not for anybody to point the finger, but humbly recognise that all have committed sins against each other. As such, many Christians recognise a need to provide help and hope for those who have committed crimes, as well as those who have suffered from it.

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