Thursday, October 21, 2010

Law and Order

What should the Christian approach be to criminal justice? Should we take a strict view of upholding the law? After all, we are told to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). But we do need to put this in perspective. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), who are deserving of God's wrath (Romans 1:18), but the punishment due us has been taken by Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2 :24-25) on the cross. Now this should not result in condoning evil. In fact, it should result in a new pattern of life (Titus 2:11-12). But it requires a careful balance in dealing with the wrongdoing of others, even the criminal wrongdoing. Now it is important to hold criminals responsible, but we need to avoid going to the opposite extreme and requiring draconian punishments.

Now there is a red herring here that needs to be dealt with. It is the current opinion of our culture that a person's behavior comes not from their responsible choices but their psychological condition. There is therefore a desire to replace the idea of punishment with that of rehabilitation. This sounds more humane and merciful, but it has dubious results. It means dealing with the person, not as a responsible individual, but as an automaton to be adjusted. It can result in inappropriate leniency. But as C. S. Lewis points out in his essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," it can also result in a person being imprisoned until they are cured, even if it is well beyond what they deserve. Also, it is easier to reinterpret psychological normalcy than moral dessert, allowing society to punish whoever they want to punish. Now I am in favor of trying to rehabilitate criminals whenever possible (though I believe the best source of rehabilitation is the gospel), but making rehabilitation the main issue distorts the process.

However, we can replace this view with the idea of punishment as a deterrent, or as protecting society. While these are appropriate elements in the process, if seen as the sole goals they become radically unjust. If the only purpose is to deter, then the most severe punishment, even if it is disproportionate to the crime, becomes appropriate. And if our only goal is to protect society, then anything that removes the criminal from society for as long a time as possible is to be encouraged, whatever the criminal really merits. In the end, I do not believe there is anything that balances the rights of both the criminal and society so well as traditional retributive punishment, properly tempered with mercy. And I feel this is important, because the way we treat the extreme cases of our society tends to affect how we approach the more commonplace forms of human conflict.

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