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Whipped in Love


"I did a hundred in three hours!" I exclaimed to Reinhard and Jeremy as they entered the camper.  I had finished early and was resting back in the vehicle, which doubled as a house for the three of us.  We were parked next to the University of Memphis, where Jeremy and I had been distributing copies of the novel Survivors to the students.  Being the summer semester, a hundred books in three hours was a pretty good pace, hence my boast.

Reinhard had been using the power from inside the library at the uni to charge his computer as he translated various articles on the website into German from English.  Because of his injuries, walking around all day with a heavy bag of books was no longer an option.  But it had freed him to do things that he had been neglecting for months.

"That's great," said Reinhard in response to my comment.  "I'm sure you must be itching to do more, but we need to get going soon.  We have to be on the other side of town by five, and there's an important letter that we need to read and discuss when we get there."

An hour or so later, we had reached our destination, and the letter came out.  "Dear brothers and sisters, Dave here."  We were parked outside of Kroger's, near the back of the parking lot.

Dave was writing from Kenya, where he had been helping with the English-teaching program that we had set up there.  Several boxes of brand new English dictionaries had been stolen from the community volunteer center there, and the culprit had been located by the police.  The letter explained that it was someone we knew, and that he had been whipped.  But the most shocking part was that he had been whipped by a member of the Jesus Christians.  Dave's email sought to explain how this had happened.

The thief, a young man named Nicolas, had been assisted in spiriting the boxes away from the compound one night, by another Kenyan who was not from that area.  Police informed members of the community that they had located the accomplice, and invited a representative to attend the police station while they "dealt with" the culprit.  Fran volunteered to go along, and was shocked to see that the young man was beaten severely by the police, with a whip, and told to leave the area when he revealed that Nicholas was the mastermind behind the robbery.

Fran and Nicolas had been very close friends, and while Fran could do nothing to save the first culprit from his treatment by the police, he came immediately back to the compound to discuss with other Jesus Christians what should be the right approach to take with Nicolas.

In Kenya, a thief (or ‘mwizi’) is often beaten to death by the locals if he is caught, or even suspected.  The police were not much better when it came to thieves, routinely beating them before they were even tried.  Because of the corruption in the police department, people could be held in remand for years before even appearing in court to answer the accusations leveled against them.  Jail and prison conditions were terrible, with many prisoners dying from tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.  The first day of formal incarceration often included a routine whipping, just to make it clear that the wardens were not to be toyed with.  

There had to be a more humane alternative that would still deal with the need for denouncing the crime.

The letter explained that there had been much discussion amongst the team in Kenya on the issue of justice and mercy.  They had observed that the traditional approach to both justice and mercy allowed for little overlap.  There was infinite mercy supposedly available for those who ‘sinned’ in church circles, but stone cold ‘justice’ for anyone who broke the law.  

In his letter, Dave explained that the community in Kenya had agreed that for true reform to take place, the offender (Nicholas, in this case) would need to be willing to accept responsibility for his wrong doing.  But they could not agree with what was happening at the local police station on a regular basis.

The team then came up with a controversial alternative... one that would require some co-operation from the local authorities.  With Fran taking the lead, they had come up with a concept of ‘substitutionary punishment’, which seemed consistent with Christian teaching about Jesus taking the punishment for us.  It was on the basis of that sacrificial act by the perfect Son of God, that churches everywhere felt they could offer forgiveness and remission of sins.  So was it possible for some mini-version of this to work with regard to criminal offenses?

Fran had suggested that they approach the local police superintendent (who also happened to be a personal friend and a professing Christian), with a radical suggestion for how to deal with Nicholas.  They would hold their own ‘trial’ (although Nicholas' guilt was pretty much a foregone conclusion, as he had already admitted to stealing the books, several boxes of which were discovered in his room).  As a way of ensuring that the punishment would not be too harsh, the person giving the punishment would have to be willing to take the punishment themselves, as a Christian expression of love for the criminal, but contempt for the crime.  It would be entirely up to Nicholas whether he accepted the offer or whether he took the punishment himself; but if the police superintendent would go along with the offer, we would almost certainly do something far less extreme than what would have happened if Nicholas were to be dealt with by the police.  The whole concept was based on Jesus' famous Golden Rule, which says that we should try to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated under similar circumstances.

The police superintendent was skeptical, but intrigued at the same time.  "It sounds very Christian," he said, "but you know that my men could never do that.  You try it and tell me how it goes."

Nicholas and a few other witnesses were called to the compound there in Kenya, and the trial was held in the presence of several local policemen.  There was a lot of interest in how it would pan out.  A statement was made about the theft, presenting evidence for the case, and charging Nicholas with the crime.  Nicholas admitted to having taken the books.  In the end, a punishment of five lashes from the same whip that the police would have used, was prescribed as punishment for having stolen the books.  Nicholas had a long record of dealings with the police, and knew that at least 20 lashes was just the beginning of normal police justice.

The fact that Fran, Nicholas' best friend, was willing to take the lashes for him, meant that Nicholas could walk away scot free, having received no punishment at all.  He knew that it had been agreed on by the local police that the matter would be considered resolved when we had finished with our trial.

Fran was hoping that by offering to take the punishment, Nicholas would see both the love that Fran had for him, and his own need to change. 

Debra, a young Kenyan Jesus Christian who was also good friends with Nicholas, volunteered to give the lashes, whether it turned out to be Fran or Nicolas who received them.  She felt the issues might get confused if a White person was the one doing the whipping, as people would surely latch onto that in an effort to compare it with colonial punishments (which really bore no resemblance, because colonial masters never volunteered to take the punishment for those whom they beat).  Being both Kenyan and a female, she felt the message was less likely to be misinterpreted as an act of cruelty if she did it.

When a punishment of five lashes was prescribed, and when Fran offered to take them, Nicholas was deeply touched.  He was, however, quick to accept responsibility for his own mistake, something he had never done previously when confronted by the local police.  Nicholas chose to take the five lashes himself.

Debra dealt out five lashes as he lay prostrate on a bench with his pants on.  Two or three tears escaped from Nicholas' eyes, due to the emotional aspect of what had happened more than the pain he was feeling physically. Fran and others were also holding back tears.   

At the time it was hard to tell what would happen with Nicholas.  Nevertheless, Dave reported that the team in Kenya was happy that he had taken responsibility for his own mistake and this gave them hope that the relationship would move forward positively. (An update is that Nicholas has had no further trouble with the law since then, and he testifies to the fact that the trial marked a turning point in his life.)  

A couple of days later, Nicolas came back to live at the compound as a volunteer, and things returned to normal.  There seemed to be a change in his spirit, and the team was confident that he would be less likely to steal again.  The fact that he had returned to work with them (and that he did not steal from them again) was at least proof that he was not bitter about the punishment given to him, and that he had understood the message of love that was shown through what had happened.  Because he had chosen to take the punishment himself, there was, we believed, a much greater chance that it would lead to true reformation.

That letter from Dave started a whole new chapter in my relationship with my family.

Click here to read Part 5 of Joe's Story
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