Thought for the Day - 04/03/2014 - Rev Dr Jane Leach
Last week, following the ruling of the court of appeal that whole-life sentences can be used for the "most heinous crimes”, two whole-life tariffs were handed down - one to Michael Adebolajo, killer of Fusilier Lee Rigby and one to multiple murderer, Joanna Dennehy.
Whilst no-one could deny the brutality and premeditation of either of their crimes - or that there aren’t some people who need to spend the whole of their lives in custody for the protection of others - detention for the whole of one’s life, as the European Court of Justice’s judgment had previously recognized, raises issues about what it is to be human – in particular what does it say about human hope and the capacity for change?
Perhaps it is not easy to see how some of those serving whole-life tariffs might be capable of reform. But already Michael Adebolajo’s lawyer has protested against this sentence saying that whilst his crime has shocked the nation, he believes his client to be capable of change and redemption.
The possibility for change and redemption are themes at the heart of the Christian understanding of what it means to be human – that whatever we have done; however misguided our motives; however appalling the impact of our actions, there is hope for us because God sees all and yet refuses to withhold his embrace, which is ours if only we can begin to recognize our responsibility for our actions and ask for help. So Jesus, crucified with two criminals either side of him, tells the one who acknowledges that he is being punished justly, that he will join him in paradise.
Some of our young Muslims are being formed in the belief that paradise will come to them through martyrdom and acts of jihad – even outside a battle zone. And whilst this may be incomprehensible reasoning to many of us, locking up those who act on such thoughts and throwing away the key may not resolve the cycle of violence.
I had dinner recently with a Muslim prison chaplain. He is acutely aware that prisons can be environments in which attitudes harden or alternatively can become contexts for transformation. After all it was in prison on Robben Island that Nelson Mandela renounced arms and found a non-violent way to give his people hope. The chaplain was explaining his work with the young men in his care and in particular their need to understand better the teachings of Islam around jihad. Similar thoughts were echoed by a former member of Al Qaeda on the Today programme yesterday when he asked for a stronger counter-narrative to be articulated by the British government, to help imams work with their young people within the rule of law.
A dose of scepticism is undoubtedly wise when dealing with the claims of some prisoners to have reformed but I find myself wondering whether it can be right that from the outset we pronounce that anyone’s sentence can never be reviewed.