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RE:QUEST

A space for resources to help RE teachers and their students explore the Christian faith

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Crime and Punishment

An overview...

Log onto any news website and you will read about crime across the world. It is something that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every day and pervades every area of our society. You might read about acts of theft and 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-fashioned irresponsibility and negligence.

Why do people commit crimes? Although from a sociological point of view there are many reasons, Christians would probably point to selfishness that seems to live in the heart of people, a desire to please ourselves, and very often at other people’s expense. This is what the Bible calls sin, and also a misuse of the free will that God has given us.

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.

CRIME = An act against the law of the country.  SIN = An act against the law of God.

You can find out more about the difference between a crime and a sin by clicking here.

What are the key aims of punishment?

The six aims of punishment are:

  • Protection - criminals are sometimes sent to prison if convicted, so punishment offers protection to society.
  • Retribution - punishment for the crime committed, the criminal should be made to pay for what they've done
  • Deterrence - the punishment should work to put people off of committing crimes.
  • Reformation - the punishment should focus on rehabilitating the criminal, making them see the error of their ways and helping them become a better person.

What do Christians believe?

Christians have personal opinions about punishment based upon their interpretation of the Bible. In consideration of punishment, there are two key principles that the Bible promotes: justice and mercy.

Retribution and Reparation

Justice is about making things right for the victim. This may involve the need for reparation, for the offender to make things up to the victim, paying for any wrongdoing. This is perhaps where famous verses such as ‘eye for an eye…’ (Leviticus 24:19-20) fit in with the idea that if something is taken, reparation should be made in kind so that the victim is not left without justice for what they have suffered.

Indeed, the books of law in the Old Testament give specific guidance on penalties and reparation for victims, clearly aligning with retribution and reparation as the key aims of punishment:

'6 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way, and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.' Numbers 5:6-7.

Reformation

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: Jesus took the punishment for sin in the place of humankind.

In some circumstances, they may see that treating an offender mercifully may be the best option. For example, if they have made significant steps to change, or show deep remorse and a desire to make reparation themselves. This principle of mercy would also influence the way they see the aim of punishment: it should equip people to live better lives afterward, 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).

Adding weight to this is the Christian gospel - the 'Good News' of Jesus Christ - which is central to the Christian faith. When a person becomes a Christian, they are given an opportunity to repent of their sins and have a new life. Whatever they've done wrong is wiped out through Jesus dying in their place. Therefore, many Christians believe that the main aim of punishment should be about the reformation of the criminal, helping to give them new skills, 're-programming' them to turn their lives around and become valuable members of society.

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 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.

 

Bearing in mind the idea of justice in the Bible, what does this suggest the purpose of punishment should be? Taking into account the idea of mercy in the Bible, what does this suggest the purpose of punishment should be?