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Why is punishment so popular? Collective vindictiveness often dresses itself up in the language of morality

A picture of Shamima Begum being held by her sister. Credit: Laura Lean / PA

A picture of Shamima Begum being held by her sister. Credit: Laura Lean / PA

March 22, 2019   5 mins

Some years ago, I was talking to a senior church leader who was preparing to visit Christians in Zimbabwe. There was a chance that he would also get to meet the then president, Robert Mugabe, a Roman Catholic. “What would you really like to say to him, if you get to meet him,” I asked?

The bishop thought about it for a bit and then replied, half-joking, half serious: “That there is no immunity from prosecution,” he said, “even when you are dead.”

One of the fundamental principles of justice is that you should get what you deserve. Immanuel Kant argued that one of the reasons he believed in life after death was that he believed the universe had to be just, and that meant wrong-doers must be punished. And given that wrong-doers are often not punished in this lifetime, there had to be some final judgment in order to keep the universe balanced for the good.

When I lived next to St Paul’s Cathedral, I could see the scales of justice from my bedroom window on top of the Old Bailey. Justice requires balance. Sin has to be paid for with punishment. It is a basic principle of law that is enshrined in the way many people understand the requirement for Jesus to be nailed to a cross.

The argument is that humanity has sinned, and sinned to such an extent that no human punishment can be weighty enough to balance the scales. So God offers himself in the place of punishment to take the consequences of our sin, and thus right the requirements of justice. Sin requires pay-back. For many, this is the heart of the Easter story.

I have long disliked this formulation. It turns God into some sort of vicious, vindictive monster, requiring the blood sacrifice of his own child to achieve some sense of cosmic balance. Others have strongly disagreed with my conclusion, including Ian Paisley.

“What an outrageous blasphemy, that any man should write that which [Giles Fraser] has written. Remember, his words are from the lips of a so-called Protestant clergyman. To libel God Almighty as a ‘vicious God’ because He sacrificed His only Son on the Cross to make possible the freeing of sinners from the damnation of sin and hell, is the language of Satan’s vocabulary. … The whole message of the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus is that He came into the world to save sinners. There was a debt to be paid. There were sins to be erased. There was a ransom to be paid. … To decry these objectives is the howling of the beasts of hell’s pit, and the roaring of the Devil himself.”

I was reminded of Ian Paisley’s characteristically trenchant response to my opinions on the death of Jesus while interviewing the extraordinary Marina Cantacuzino last week for my Confessions podcast.

Marina is the founder of The Forgiveness Project, a charity that seeks to collect powerful stories of forgiveness, of victims and perpetrators seeking a way forward that does not involve the use of vengeance to right the scales of justice. Christianity is not the inspiration for her approach – forgiveness, she says has been “barnacled by aeons of piety”.

But I think the reverse is almost true. Christians especially may talk a good game about forgiveness, but it often does not find its way into their core doctrines – especially when it comes to understanding Easter.

Yet Cantacuzino is right, of course, that the call to forgiveness is found throughout the Bible. You may remember, back at the turn of the Millennium, that many of us were marching for the abolition of Third-World debt under the banner of Jubilee 2000. The reference to the Jubilee was a reference to a powerful tradition in the Hebrew scriptures in which prisoners are freed and debts are written off every 50 years on the Day of Atonement. The Jubilee is often referred to as “the year of the Lord’s favour”.

Here, for instance, is the first sermon Jesus gives in the Gospel of Luke. This is Jesus announcing what he is all about:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke, 4:18

Elsewhere, Jesus famously counters the idea that justice requires “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – the classic definition of pay-back theology – with a call for forgiveness. As the anthropologist René Girard was to explain: the only way to draw a close to an escalating cycle of tit-for-tat vengeance is for one party not to respond in violent kind to the other. It doesn’t make sense to me that the death of Jesus has to be understood in terms of pay-back when he so clearly repudiates this very idea.

But there is no doubt that forgiveness is morally problematic, amoral even. It feels like letting people off, and a blow against the foundations of a moral society. Take Shamima Begum. Let us assume, just for the sake of argument, that she is indeed guilty of many of the crimes levelled against her.

Yes, she deserves to face justice – the justice of a British court, I believe. But what of the tradition that the demands of justice should be tempered with mercy? What of the idea that something like forgiveness should be at least a theoretical possibility? Or are her crimes really so heinous that no such possibility should ever pertain?

She must express remorse first, is one line on the Begum case. And because she hasn’t, no forgiveness can exist for her. This, of course, is just a way to withhold forgiveness, to grant it only to those who have become ‘acceptable’.

One of the reasons I am so keen on the idea of original sin – that human beings are constitutionally broken – is that it establishes some sort of solidarity among human beings as collectively fallen. Those who cannot say “there but for the grace of God go I”, suffer from a lack of imagination and self-knowledge. You are a wrong-un, as am I.

As Hamlet replies to Polonius, “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” or – in modern English – would any of us really escape punishment if we got what we deserve? This is the reasoning that made Martin Luther come to hate the idea of a just God. Because if God is just – that is, treats us according to our merit and gives us our due – then we are all buggered. The only hope is in a forgiving God. A God of the Jubilee. And if fairness is giving people what they deserve, then what we need is a God who is not fair. This is why Christian theology is not an especially moral business.

Of course, I am not suggesting that a ‘not fair’ forgiveness is any useful basis for judicial policy. The concerns here are more existential than practical. The stories collected by Cantacuzino are beautiful and inspiring. And it is shocking, but not surprising, that some of those who have chosen to forgive are often themselves abused for having the courage to do so. They are “hated for not hating” was how Cantacuzino put it.

The Shamima Begum case has highlighted once again how collective vindictiveness can dress itself up in the language of morality. Punishment is popular. Forgiveness is not. And politicians know that.

Nietzsche had it right:

“But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangmen and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice!”

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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