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The Penal Implications of the Jesus Christian Alternative


Although we expect a strong reaction to the culturally offensive practice of flogging a convicted criminal, we believe that, in time, people will come to see that what we Jesus Christians are suggesting goes far deeper than a return to a cruel form of punishment that was used (and then largely discarded) in the past.

What any form of punishment should ultimately seek is reform. If whipping had worked in the past, then it is unlikely that we as a society would have stopped using it. So we fully accept the truth in the saying that "a person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still." In other words, any form of punishment inflicted on a person against their will is unlikely to result in a lasting change in behaviour. And this also applies to forced imprisonment, fines, etc.

Punishment, in and of itself, seems to say something more about society's overall sense of justice than it says about reform. And on that basis, we would ask that people focus on what is REALLY revolutionary about our approach to punishment and reform, and that is our requirement that the convicted person willingly accept the punishment, and that the person or persons passing judgment be prepared to accept the same punishment themselves.

We enthusiastically hope that what we are doing will create a kind of cognitive dissonance in the minds of people who are committed either to vengeance or to total lack of responsibility on the part of criminal offenders. We believe that the tendency to polarise opinions at one extreme or the other of this issue often overlooks the truth that is being put forward by the opposing side.

Something really HAS gone wrong with our criminal justice system, when people who are obviously guilty get off on technicalities, and when multiple offenders keep getting a slap on the wrist instead of the punishment they deserve. On the other hand, we can see that vengeance is definitely not the Christian (or, if you prefer, pacifist) approach to dealing with injustice in the world, and that many years of imprisonment cost society not only in the money needed to police and accommodate such a system, but also in the loss of fruitful labour from those who have been locked up. Hate begets hate, and cries for harsher and harsher penalties start a vicious cycle which could quickly fill our prisons with the greater percentage of the population.

Jesus said to the people who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery, "Let the one who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone." He was trying to impress upon them, that if everyone got what they deserved, we would all be dead in a short time. Surely the woman was relieved to hear him say that! However, he said to the woman, "Go and sin no more." (John 8) A few chapters earlier, he said the same thing to a man who had been healed of a terrible disease and then disobeyed a simple instruction, except that in that case he added the words, "lest a worst thing come upon you." So it is quite likely that his instruction to this woman also implied a punishment at least as bad as stoning if she re-offended. We have here what we Jesus Christians call "the soft line" and "the hard line" being illustrated at the same time.

We realise that what we are proposing is not going to be accepted by the, system as a whole. It is too idealistic, and it is too costly for the jury. But we believe that we have formed a fellowship in which such a policy could be implemented, because we do have people who are committed to the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated. We believe that, from the time of Jesus, it was God's plan for his people to have their own system of accountability, which is not dependent on the penal systems of the world, and which reflects a standard of love and discipline which far outshines the love and discipline of the world.

Past attempts by religious bodies to administer their own forms of punishment have not, on the whole, been any more successful than those instituted by the system, but what gives us hope that we can change all that is that we have come up with something that was left out of them, and we believe it is consistent with basic Christian doctrine. Church leaders in the past, who tried to administer justice, imitated the values and traditions of the world, and occasionally found out that they were even LESS qualified to do a fair job of judging criminal matters than were professional judges in the world. We are assuming that it was because of these failures that the churches finally handed all responsibility for punishing offenders over to the courts of the world.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, "I have heard that you have taken legal action against one of your members. Don't you know that the saints will one day judge the world? So why can't you take care of a little matter like this yourselves?" We would tender this as our justification for returning to a system of justice administered by sincere followers of Jesus Christ, with special emphasis on the two changes mentioned above (consent from the offender and a willingness to act as his substitute on the part of the jury), in order to usher in something that is truly revolutionary with regard to dealing with offenders.

We accept that there are some offenders (e.g. paedophiles in particular) who can be almost guaranteed to re-offend, and who need to be isolated from at least certain social contacts which would endanger others. However, even in these instances, we do not believe that their isolation should be seen as punishment, and we would be keen to find parallel ways of bringing about genuine reform which could ultimately bring an end to their isolation.

This matter of reform vs punishment is a serious one, and one which we have given serious consideration. The Christian message is one of forgiveness, on the assumption that the person who truly believes that they have been forgiven will ultimately reform better than the person who is preoccupied only with guilt and with fear of being found out or punished. But the universal desire for justice also says that there are some behaviours which need to be strongly marked as anti-social, if not evil, and that the best way to communicate that is through punishment of those who practice such behaviour.

Our decision to return to the whip as a form of punishment is actually based on a desire to shorten the period of punishment at the same time that we sharpen the message about punishment. Whips have been used in just about every culture, as a form of punishment, because they inflict a lot of pain without causing much more than superficial and temporary injury to the body. (We will be writing a separate article on the topic of pain, and its relation to hate/violence.)

We have already experimented in a small way with an offender in Kenya, where it is customary for police to routinely flog suspects during interrogations, and where a prison sentence usually includes 25 lashes a day for the first three days of imprisonment. A young man had stolen some things from us and sold them to buy home brewed wine. We offered him the option of receiving five lashes of the whip (and signing a paper to the effect that he had done so willingly, that it was because he had in fact stolen from us, and that he was sorry for his behaviour). He gladly accepting the flogging, which was carried out in the presence of local village representatives. The young man is now back working with us as one of our volunteers.

One could argue that in a Western society, the choice would be between a whipping and a relatively painless prison term. And yet we are confident that the prisons would empty out very quickly if prisoners were given the option of taking a beating in exchange for release. So you have to ask yourself which system is more cruel and inhuman! Obviously, the number of lashes from the whip is important, and for very serious crimes, it might be necessary to administer quite a sincere beating in order to impress upon people the seriousness of the matter. (We already suspect that our friend in Kenya is quietly boasting about how easily he got away with stealing from us.)

Of course, when we gave the young man a choice between being turned over to the police or accepting five lashes of the whip, we also offered him a third option. Fran said that he would be prepared to take the beating for him. Fran was his closest friend. The young man refused to let Fran take the beating on his behalf, and we believe that this was something of a miracle in itself. Added to that was the fact that he would not have needed to confess to the crime if Fran had taken the beating for him. So he cannot be said to have taken the beating just because he was being threatened with harsher treatment by the police.

There is much more that we could say about this new experiment. We are trying to be realistic about the problems we are going to face with it; but we are also hopeful that we have hit upon something which is truly Christian and truly revolutionary.


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