Thought for the Day - 19/12/2013 - Rev Dr Michael Banner
Anyone judging us from yesterday’s news might have concluded that as a society we are somewhat conflicted in our attitude towards crime. On the one hand, a fairly heated debate seems to be brewing about whether prisoners should have the vote, as required under a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. On the other hand, the reporting of the death of Ronald Biggs could hardly fail to reenforce what the reports referred to as the celebrity status he enjoyed after his escape from prison – he liked to think of himself, we were told, as a lovable rogue, and it seems that quite a lot of people were prepared to accept that rather generous self-appraisal. We don’t seem sure whether to take what MP Crispin Blunt called ‘an attitude of revenge’ towards prisoners, which he insisted ‘should not drive policy’, or instead to regard some crime as a bit of lark.
Is there a Christian perspective which might help us achieve some consistency? There is a suspicion in some quarters, of course, that Christianity is soft on crime. Hardly. Pretty well the first word which Jesus utters in the first of the Gospels is the word ‘Repent’. And throughout the Gospels he is tough on sin and on the causes of sin. On a number of occasions he repeats and endorses the commandments: do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness. To the woman taken in adultery he declares: ‘Go, sin no more’. There is nothing sentimental here and nothing equivocal. The sinner is never the hero of any tale.
What is striking about the stories of Jesus, however, is his persistence in pursuing sinners, challenging them time and again to return to the fold – and this, of course, caused comment and scandal at the time. He went to eat in the house of Zaccheus, a rich and probably corrupt tax collector. He allowed a woman – a notorious sinner – to wash his feet with precious ointment and with her still more precious tears. He even addresses a word of comfort and promise to the penitent thief who hung beside him on the cross. But these stories are not in conflict with the urgency of that initial call to repentance – they are what it requires. So serious is Jesus in challenging and claiming sinners, that he searches them out and refuses to regard any one of them as a lost cause.
Criminals, by their crimes, place themselves against and outside society. Society, if it is thinking straight, cannot tolerate, let alone celebrate, that decision. So even whilst we denounce crime, something important is symbolized by our refusing to accept the choice of criminality as a profession, so to speak, by repeatedly challenging the criminal to be rehabilitated and restored to the community. Far from being soft on crime, such an approach is far more intolerant of it than any sneaking regard for supposedly loveable rogues.