Science in Christian Perspective



Notes on "Science and the Whole Person" -
A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives

Part 15

Determinism and Free Will
(B) Crime, Punishment and Responsibility

Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 33 (June 1981): 105-112.

The increase in crime in this country, not even considering the rest of the world, has reached such proportions that changes in our way of life to compensate are already taking shape. Although we know that violence has been present in every age, and that compared to times in the past and other places in the world today, the violence in the United States is still relatively small, we have a growing awareness of a steadily mounting violence in our society. It is becoming increasingly dangerous to walk the streets of our cities, and even our suburbs, after dark. Murders, robberies and rapes are supplemented with senseless killings and bombings. It seems as if "law and order" have ceased to be the idealized goals of a civilized society, and even this phrase has been perverted so that to most people it has a pejorative ring since it so often amounts to nothing more than ruthless maintenance of the status quo. Nor should we forget that violence need not be physical, but can be psychological and economic as well; the appearance of "law and order" can be only the sign of transformation of open violence into hidden violence.

Christians are not surprised by the presence of crime and violence in the world. It is the optimistic humanist pledged to the innate goodness of human nature who is being refuted by current events. Although the human being is the most highly valued of all creatures, since he/she is made in the image of God and has the potentiality of living as a child of God, still Christians recognize that this same human being in rebellion against God is capable of the uttermost in inhumanity. Although it is clear that the ultimate resolution of this human problem can be made only when individual men and women regain a restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ, it is not always so clear how Christians are to live and relate to a non-Christian world. In particular, the question of how to regard the law-breaker in society and how to fashion a suitable social reaction to the criminal plumbs deeply into one's perceptions about the significance of determinism and free will in human experience, The last installment attempted to show the limitations on an absolutization of either of these concepts; here we face the very practical question of what guidelines for action our attitudes provide in the context of a very difficult problem.

Testing Attitude Consistency

As an introduction to this topic, I offer a quite nonscientific test to check on the consistency of your own attitudes on the relationship between human responsibility and the form of punishment for crime. On p. 107 there is a box titled, "Freedom of Human Beings;" select the category that comes closest to your own perceptions. On p. 108 there is a box titled, "Attitudes toward Punishment for Crime; " again select the category that you most closely agree with. If you subtract the number of the category that you selected from the first box from the number of the category from the second box (and take the absolute value of the difference), the result will be a measure of your attitude consistency. A difference of 0 indicates complete consistency (which is not to say complete correctness!), whereas a difference of 3 indicates complete inconsistency. A typical maximum inconsistency found in many people (you may wish to try this test on others) is to affirm the complete freedom of individuals to act responsibly in all areas (thereby affirming the commitment of optimistic humanism), while at the same time arguing that all criminals should be treated as if they were sick victims of societal injustice deserving nothing more than proper treatment and cure (thereby affirming the commitment of subjective liberalism.)

The Purpose of Punishment

No one would probably debate the thesis that the best way to deal with crime is to prevent it. There is little doubt that a considerable portion of crimes committed could have been prevented by altering environmental factors in the life of the person involved. There are many for whom the road to a life of crime is paved with poor nutrition, bad education, lack of love, unemployment and social rejection. Yet it cannot be denied that many undergo these handicaps without turning to crime, and that many turn to crime without undergoing these handicaps. Although poor genetics and environment are certainly determining factors, therefore, they do not appear to be ultimately determining, nor should we expect that their removal will thereby automatically remove the existence of crime. There is an equally impressive set of statistics that indicates that too much affluence, too little want, too much freedom etc. tend to lead also to a life of crime. But suppose that the crime has been committed. What then is the purpose of the punishment that society imposes? Unless we attempt to be clear about the purpose of punishment, we will be at a complete loss to decide how to handle the punishment problem.

There are at least six ways that we can define the purposes of punishment to illustrate the spectrum of possibilities. In the following we briefly summarize the basis for each approach and then follow by some discussion.

Six possible purposes for punishment: retribution, deterrence, public safety, correction, rehabilitation and treatment.

1. The criminal is punished as retribution for the crime he has committed, because retribution is the just recompense for crime. The effect of this punishment on the criminal is not of principal significance. The criminal is punished because he/she deserves it, and because the constitution of the world is such that crime must be punished. The criminal is regarded as acting responsibly; a responsible act that breaks the law must be punished. The biblical record, for example, plainly teaches that one who is guilty of breaking the divine law deserves to be punished; it is this very necessity of punishment of violation of the divine law that provides the basis for the death of Jesus Christ in the place of all those who put their trust in Him. God in His mercy bore the punishment due to us in our place. Since human law is derived from divine law, the same concept of deserved punishment is carried over. It does not matter what the effect is upon the criminal or upon society; it matters only that cosmic justice be satisfied.

2. The criminal is punished as a deterrence (a warning) to others in society who may be tempted to commit crime, so that potential criminals will realize that their breaking of the law will be painful for them and thus be intimidated from committing crimes. Again the effect of this kind of punishment on the criminal him/herself is not of principal significance. Since crime is socially undesirable, it must be demonstrated that "crime does not pay" by showing how unpleasant the results of crime can be. If retribution is inclined to seek "the punishment that fits the crime," deterrence is inclined to seek the worst possible punishment, since that will constitute the best possible deterrence. It does not really matter whether the criminal being punished was responsible for his/her actions or not; it matters only that an example be made for others. It is this positive consequence that justifies the punishment.

3. The criminal is punished by removal from society in order to provide public safety, to protect society from him in the future. A person who is a danger to public peace and order is prevented from inflicting his anti-social attitudes and practices on society by being taken out of society and maintained elsewhere. It is important that the freedom of the criminal constitute real danger, otherwise his incarceration constitutes an injustice, The removal from society is not by itself supposed to have any positive effect on the criminal, and how he is cared for is really incidental to the purpose of this mode of treatment.

4. The criminal is punished as a means of correction. Correction sometimes requires apparently harsh measures, but these measures are justified by the effects that they have in the life of the criminal. Correction is designed to lead the criminal to see that a life of crime is really less pleasant than a law-abiding life. Just as the true love of a parent for a child requires the parent to be stern and exercises a variety of corrective measures that the child does not consider pleasant at the time, so true concern for the criminal as well as society requires that sufficiently harsh and unpleasant corrective methods be used that the criminal leaves at the end of his sentence with a firm resolve not to repeat his offenses. At the same time the treatment must not be so harsh or inhuman that its principal effect in the life of the criminal is to lead him to seek revenge. Nor should conditions of imprisonment be so inhumane that the criminal is dehumanized and desensitized by his time in prison. Punishment for correction therefore requires a fine balance: the punishment must be sufficiently severe, but the total context must not be negative and destructive.

5. The criminal is removed from society in order to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation. It is assumed that the majority of criminals have become involved in crime because of environmental (or heredity related) factors, and that education and an opportunity for anew beginning will enable them to return to society as contributing members. The criminal is treated as a person who is confused, but who is capable of responding to the offer of new opportunities. He is not punished because he is guilty of a moral failure, nor is he corrected to condition him against further involvement in crime; rather he is helped to see the error of his ways and is put back on the road to a productive life. The restoration of the criminal to society is the goal of this

This continuing series of articles is based on courses given at Stanford University, Fuller Theological Seminary, Regent College, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Foothill Covenant Church and Los Altos Union Presbyterian Church. Previous articles were published as follows. 1. "Science Isn't Everything," March (1976), pp. 33-37. 2. "Science Isn't Nothing," June (1976), pp. 82-87. 3. "The Philosophy and Practice of Science, " September (1976), pp. 127-132. 4. "Pseudo-Science and Pseudo-Theology. (A) Cult and Occult," March (1977), pp. 22-28. 5. "Pseudo-Science and Pseudo- Theology. (B) Scientific Theology, " September (1977), pp. 124-129. 6. "Pseudo-Science and Pseudo- Theology. (C) Cosmic Consciousness, " December (1977), pp. 165-174. 7. "Man Come of Age?" June (1978), pp. 81-87. 8. "Ethical Guidelines, " September (1978), pp. 134-141. 9. "The Significance of Being Human," March (1979), pp. 37-43. 10. "Human Sexuality. (A) Are Times A'Changing?" June (1979), pp. 106-112. 11. "Human Sexuality. (B) Love and Law, " September (1979), pp. 153-157, 12. "Creation. (A) How Should Genesis Be Interpreted? " March (1980), pp' 34-39. 13. "Creation. (B) Understanding Creation and Evolution," September (1980), pp. 174-178. 14. "Determinism and Free Will. (A) Scientific Description and Human Choice, " March (198 1) pp. 42-45.

Freedom of Human Beings

1. Human beings are completely free to make responsible choices in almost all relevant situations.
2. Restraints exist on the freedom of human beings to make responsible choices in some areas, but they are free in all moral or ethical questions.
3. In most areas of life human beings are conditioned by genetics or environment without realizing it so that to speak of free choice is meaningless, but it is still possible for them to make responsible choices in the major moral questions of life.
4. Human beings are so determined by genetic and environmental factors that free responsible choices really do not exist.

approach, and removal from society for a time is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

6. The criminal is removed from society so that his sickness can be cured. It is assumed that the criminal is sick and therefore in need of a doctor, not of punishment, correction or rehabilitation. The criminal is so overcome by environmental and genetic factors that he cannot be considered responsible for what he has done, nor capable of simply taking charge of his life after recognizing the error of his ways. The criminal is not only confused; he is basically incapable of helping himself. He is as much a victim of life as the ones against whom his crime was committed. The sciences of biochemistry and psychology must be brought to bear to help restore him to health. The healing of the criminal's illness is the goal of this type of approach, and removal from society is the hospitalization necessary to achieve this goal. The criminal returns to society, not when he has paid the price of his crime, nor when he feels ready to take charge of his life, but when his doctors pronounce him cured.

Evaluation of Types of Punishment

In the summaries given above of the six possible approaches to punishment, the first three are not concerned with the effects on the criminal, whereas the last three are concerned in different ways. These are evidently not six mutually exclusive categories, but several purposes for punishment are frequently simultaneously active.

In proceeding from the first to the sixth of these approaches, there is more or less continuous shift in emphasis from regarding the criminal as a morally responsible, intelligent human being, to regarding him as an unfortunate and incapable victim of social sickness. It is a paradox that, although this progression seems at first view to be characterizable as a progression from less to more humane, deeper reflection raises the question as to whether it is more supportive of human dignity to regard human beings as morally responsible individuals capable of paying the penalty for a crime and then returning freely to social life, or as sick and irresponsible victims of society who commit crimes

Attitudes toward Punishment for Crime

A law-breaker is punished as retribution for the crime since punishment is the just retribution for breaking the law.
2. A law-breaker is punished primarily for correction and instruction in the moral error of criminal activity.
3. A law-breaker is punished primarily for rehabilitation and preparation for useful life in society.
4. A law-breaker is punished so that his socially unacceptable perceptions of life engendered by unfortunate genetic and environmental factors may be psychologically and medically cured.

because they cannot help themselves. A person who breaks the law, is punished in some definite way and for a definite time for it, and then emerges as the same responsible person can command respect and provide limits to the degree of compulsion directed against him. The creature who breaks the law irresponsibly because of a presumed physical or mental deficiency, is at the mercy of his physicians who may compel him to any length deemed desirable.

C.S. Lewis comments pointedly on this possibility,

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing, and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable? One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as complusory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments.1

Lewis then goes on to point out that punishment as retribution is the closest link with justice; we can understand justice as the administration of punishment according to what a person deserves, but if each criminal is a "case" for the physician, justice ceases to have meaning in connection with the application of the law. "Even as in ordinary medicine there were painful operations and fatal opera tions, so in this. But because they are 'treatment,' not punishment, they can be criticized only by fellow-experts and on technical grounds, never by men as men and on grounds of justice."' In a sense, therefore, to forsake the concept of punishment as deserved retribution for the other pole of punishment as medical treatment for sickness, is to open the door for uncontrolled persecution of any minority in the name of medical cure. If our news reports are reliable, such an approach has become a standard part of the policy in many countries of the world today who cannot understand dissent from the official ideology in any terms except mental illness. It seems clear that our concept of punishment for crime cannot completely forsake the principle that in some sense at least punishment is received as a result of and in a measure commensurate with the crime itself.

These views of Lewis have been echoed and amplified by other Christian commentators on the scene, as they reflect on the consequences of deterministic worldviews for the administration of society. Van Leeuwen, for example, points out that

One result of the ascendency of a behaviorist view of crime has been the unquestioned assumption that it is only environments, not people, that can be held accountable for crime. Consequently, the state whose penal system rests on such an assumption may violate the biblical imperative in two serious ways: ... it assumes that persons are not born prone to evil, but are merely tabulde rasae ("blank slates") on which the environment alone writes the program of our subsequent behavioral tendencies. In the second place, in refusing to exercise its retributive mandate against the wrongdoer, the behaviorist-leaning penal system, and the state which condones it, have failed to strike the balanc8' between justice and mercy demanded by biblical norms for society.2

She also cites the fact that since the introduction of rehabilitative, behavior modification prison programs in California, the median term served by "felony first releases" has risen to twice the national average, incorporating the evils of an "indefinite sentence" system as a natural outgrowth of this perspective. This aspect is treated by Professor Rodes of Notre Dame Law School,

If the object of punishment is to assert just over unjust povvvr, a short, strict, and definite restraint would seem to serve the purpose better than indeterminate sentence or a period of probation .... the punishment of wrongdoers is not a mere social expedient, it is a basic human need.3

A further elaboration on the same theme is given by Ashey, who casts the whole issue of crime and punishment into a Narnian situation and puts the following words into the mouth of Aslan:

As for your assertion that knowledge of the causes 'determining' crime inhibits our implementation of retribution, or that it stands in the way of our discovering techniques for social control, may I remind you that regardless of the causes of crime, man is responsible for his behavior. You must overcome your sentimentalism and accept the paradox of the coexistence of soft determinism and moral responsibility. Beyond this, there are some positive aspects of retribution. Retribution contains and reinforces both deterrence and rehabilitation: deterrence insofar as a belief in retribution is the deepest and most effective form of deterrent, and rehabilitation insofar as the first decisive step towards genuine reformation comes when a man acknowledges that his punishment is deserved. And above all, retribution witnesses to the righteousness of God, to a character of unyielding justice and incomparable love, which demands that transgressors receive their just deserts.4

This conclusion still leaves open the form of punishment, which we consider in the next section.

The above perspective is essential for any perspective on the relationship between determinism/ free will and crime/punishment. At the same time, the administration of justice in the real world calls for some additional restraints, perhaps not directly dictated by the ideal situation. Any theory of punishment that neglects completely the consequences for the criminal must be carefully inspected. Retribution alone may be an appropriate consequence of the breaking of human and divine law, but in a world of lawbreakers with fallible judges and legal systems that consistently favor the rich and powerful over the poor and helpless, to argue for retribution alone as a basis for punishment must often foster only injustice. In some broader sense as well, the Christian sees the punishment for sin borne by Jesus Christ on our behalf on the cross of Calvary; insofar as retribution for crime is seen as punishment for sin, the extraction of retribution alone overlooks what Christ has already done.

Punishment as deterrence alone must be rejected: an innocent person will serve as well as a deterrent as a guilty one. The protection of society by removal and restraint of the confirmed criminal is a necessary aspect of life in our present world, but to be so callous in our removal and restraint that we pay no attention at all to the effect on the criminal can hardly be defended.

Maximum inconsistency is found in affirming the complete freedom of individuals to act responsibly, while arguing that all criminals should be treated as if they were sick.

In some ways punishment as correction combines the best features of considering the criminal as a responsible human being and attempting to produce positive results as a result of his punishment. This approach is supported by our experience as parents; the goal of parental punishment of children is correction. What we tend to forget, however, is that parental punishment is effective as correction only when it is coupled with a sustained atmosphere of love, and when it is carefully measured to be consistent with the offense being corrected. Such conditions are in general totally absent in our present prison system. Punishment as correction is transformed into oppression in an atmosphere of fear and hatred, so that it is only in the unusual situation that a person emerges from a prison term without having had his anti-social tendencies hardened by experience. Although punishment as correction might well be high on the list of desired interpretations of punishment, therefore, we need to examine carefully whether our current system really operates in this way.

One way to increase the positive outcome of a system regarding correction as one of its prime goals is to truly consider rehabilitation as another. Again it appears that genuine efforts at rehabilitation are the exception rather than the rule in our present prison system. One's consideration of a criminal as a responsible human being need not be decreased by recognizing that there are a number of actual societal factors in producing a life of crime, not least of which is simply the inability to make a living in any other way. As in other matters, we tend to go to extremes: either a person must be totally responsible for all that he does so that no mitigating circumstances can be allowed to have any weight in determining his punishment, or a man must be totally irresponsible for all that he does so that no claim can be laid to his responsible choice of a better way. There are, to be sure, genuine cases where the criminal should be treated as a basically sick person; to claim that there are no such cases is as foolish as it is to claim that all criminals fall into this category. Needed is that great luxury that prisons have little time or facilities to develop: attention to individual cases according to individual circumstances.

The Form of Punishment

To inquire about the form of punishment for crime may seem to be a curious approach when the answer is presumably well known to all: a sentence to prison. Yet this answer that we take for granted may be a major part of the problem; it may well be that prison sentences are inherently unable to fulfill the goals we would like to set for punishment.

We would do well to remember that prison sentences were not always the mode of punishment given to criminals. Bonhoeffer makes the following statement,

I have been thinking out an alternative penal system on the principle of making the punishment fit the crime; e.g., for absence without leave, the cancelling of leave; for unauthorized wearing of medals, longer service at the front; for robbing other soldiers, the temporary labelling of a man as a thief; for dealing in the black market, a reduction of rations; and so on. Why does the Old Testament law never punish anyone by depriving him of his freedom?5

A consideration of the Old Testament law reminds us that confinement to prison was totally absent. The only practice even remotely related is the establishment of cities of refuge to which accidental killers of human beings could flee to be protected from the relatives of the victim as long as the refugee stayed within the walls of the city of refuge; but this is as much a vehicle of mercy as it is of justice. In many ways the Old Testament law was stricter than present practices to be sure; e.g., the death penalty was decreed for striking father or mother, stealing a man, cursing father or mother, adultery, intercourse with animals, or idolatry. There were certain offenses that could not be tolerated among the people of Israel if they were to be preserved as the people of God in the midst of heathen abominations. But also implicit in the Old Testament in many places is the principle of restitution as punishment,6 i.e., let the punishment in some direct way help recompense for the injury done. The man who injures another man in a quarrel is responsible for paying the injured man for the loss of his time and for seeing that he is thoroughly healed. If a master caused a slave to lose eye or tooth by striking him, he was to let the slave go free. If a man's livestock fell into the pit dug by another, the one who dug the pit had to buy the dead animal from its owner. A man who stole an ox or a sheep was required to pay back fivefold if he had killed the animal, or twofold if he were caught with the animal still alive. A man whose livestock grazed on another man's field was required to pay for the injury from the best of his own harvest.

It is this principle of restitution as punishment that we totally neglect in most instances today, which has the potentiality for providing punishment with the possibilities of both correction and rehabilitation. Except for the rare case where a person is a constant danger to others and himself, in which case his humane confinement is a necessity, efforts to involve the offender in acts of restitution are likely to be far more beneficial than seeking retribution alone by locking him up in prison. One could conceive of a choice being offered on many occasions, so that the guilty offender himself could choose whether he would prefer the opportunity for service as a responsible free person in acts of restitution, or whether he would prefer the loss of his freedom in prison.

Any alternative to prison seems desirable. Menninger78 describes prisons as branding a person as hopeless, as a leper, and as destroying what good judgment and common sense and sanity he may have had. Instead of education and training to pave the way for a law-abiding life, prisons all too often offer only bitterness, loneliness, hate, vengeance, sexual frustration and abuse, sexual perversion, and futility.

Capital Punishment

In few cases does the dilemma of the form of punishment become more acute than in the case of capital punishment. The taking of human life is a unique situation that demands a unique punishment; adequate restitution is difficult to conceive. As mentioned above, there is certainly ample evidence from the Old Testament that capital punishment was invoked for a variety of offenses, and the New Testament seems to continue with the approval of capital punishment at least for the crime of murder.8 Furthermore it can be argued that true regard for the value of human life causes one to place the taking of it in murder as a crime deserving the ultimate punishment; if the taking of human life in murder can be tolerated at all, the basic value of human life has been diminished for that society. The argument that imprisonment for many years or for life is a more humane treatment than capital punishment can be questioned directly on its own merits, and it is suggested that those who see lifelong imprisonment as far preferable to capital punishment do so because they see life exclusively as limited to the present existence.

Although a strong case can be made, therefore, for the retention of capital punishment as part of the penal system in extreme situations, such a case must be severely tempered by the realization of likely inequities in any real situation in this world. It is for this reason that I find myself curiously arguing in favor of allowing capital punishment in a society that has turned its back on the intrinsic value of human life and responsibility, but arguing against capital punishment in a society that see all things as black or white and will use capital punishment as one of several devices to achieve a particular political ideology. It seems far better to forbid all capital punishment on principle, than to put the power for capital punishment into the hands of men for a variety of reasons. If capital punishment is retained it must be only under the strictest definition of the offenses to which it applies. As nuclear weaponry becomes an effective deterrent against world war only as long as it is not used but everyone believes it would be, so in some ways capital punishment serves a meaningful social function only so long as it is not inflicted but everyone believes that it will be. Not to have it, cheapens human life and opens the door to societal disintegration and degradation; to use it regularly and indiscriminately has exactly the same ultimate effect. We know empirically from the historical record that by far the majority of those who have suffered the death penalty have been the poor, the persecuted minority, the uneducated; those with sufficient money and power seem able to hire lawyers with sufficient skill at delaying and manipulating the system that the death penalty is seldom if ever finally executed. We need to hedge the death penalty, therefore, to such an extent that it will not be unfairly invoked against only those in disadvantaged economic, political and social groups.

Efforts to involve the offender in acts of restitution are likely to be far more beneficial than seeking retribution alone by locking him up in prison.

The facile assumption that imprisonment for life is more humane than capital punishment is questioned by Wenham,

Long imprisonment is a living death. A man is separated from his wife and family (often causing them prolonged, unmerited hardship), he is put in a single-sex institution where a normal sex-life is impossible, his companions are criminals, he is shut up to his own bad conscience, but in conditions ill-defined to effect repentance and reformation and with slender hopes of satisfactory rehabilitation after release ... It is a poor defence of long-term imprisonment to say that it is merely substituting one dehumanizing process for another. 9

The decision is not a simple one that yields directly to sentimental inquiry. In a world of crime and sin, there are no easy solutions; yet the Christian is called upon to work constantly for the bettering of every situation with which he is confronted. The substitution of lifelong imprisonment over capital punishment guarantees no greater compassion unless major changes are made in our concepts of imprisonment.

Justice vs Mercy

We usually want justice for others when they are in the wrong, but mercy for ourselves when we are in the wrong. Former President Nixon, for example, did little more than reflect the common reaction when he adamantly opposed amnesty for those who had refused to fight in the Viet Nam war, but quickly - and gratefully accepted pardon for himself. It has been the traditional stance that governments acting on law are to administer justice and not mercy; yet, it seems that we do encounter circumstances where justice seems unjust and mercy seems required. To insist on justice in such chases leads to little more than a depreciation of law and a disdain for justice.

Justice and mercy are complementary and cannot both be exhibited simultaneously unless we change our definitions of them to suit the case. The common assertion that the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is a case illustrating both the satisfaction of God's justice and the exercise of God's mercy, is better restated as a case illustrating both the demands of God's holiness and the demonstration of God's mercy. God's holiness requires that sin be punished and God's mercy provides the way in which the Son of God bears this punishment on behalf of men; to claim that justice is obtained through the punishment of the innocent is to obscure the way in which these terms are ordinarily used. In the operation of our legal system, therefore, we cannot expect to obtain both justice and mercy, but this ought not to desensitize us to those cases where mercy is more humane (and certainly more Christian) than justice.

Consider the extreme hypothetical case, for example, of a young man in his twenties who is involved in a robbery (we will not belabor possible extenuating circumstances) and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After 2 years he escapes from prison, changes identity and starts a new life. When his true identity is rediscovered some 20 years later, he is the mayor of his town, happily married with a wife and children, and with no trace of lawlessness in his public spirited behavior for the past 20 years. Justice, i.e., the requirement that a crime must be paid for by the criminal, requires that this man be removed from society and made to spend a number of years in prison to complete his original sentence and pay for his jailbreak. An appreciation for the goals of punishment, however, would lead to the conclusion that his man has already been corrected and rehabilitated from his crime, i.e., the goals of punishment have already been achieved, particularly if the man exhibits genuine repentance for his youthful crime and is living in daily restitution for it. Certainly this is a case where the further pursuit of justice becomes injustice, and where mercy for his past mistakes is appropriate.

As justice without mercy becomes unjust, so mercy without justice becomes merciless.

On the other hand, this plea for a tempering of justice by mercy cannot neglect the fact that mercy cannot be forced on someone; mercy must be accepted (like forgiveness) if it is to be effective. Confirmed criminals with no regard for human value of life, committed revolutionaries whose goal is to the spread of terror regardless of the consequences to the victims of that terror-these are examples of individuals for whom mercy has neither meaning nor value. Again C. S. Lewis has instructive words,

The Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish justice and substitute mercy for it. This means that you start being 'kind' to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which they in fact had a right to refuse, and finally kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties. ... Mercy, detached from justice, grows unmerciful.10

As justice without mercy becomes unjust, so mercy without justice becomes merciless. How many people have been tortured in how many different situations through the years of history for their own good?

Should Sin Be Made Crime?

As a final facet of this present discussion of crime, punishment and human responsibility, let us consider how to relate the moral convictions of minorities to public policy in a pluralistic society.

There are two types of question that might be asked: (1) If Christians were in the majority, should they impose their moral values upon minority non-Christians through the legal system? (2) Since Christians are in the minority, what specific approaches does life in a pluralistic society require?

Even if Christians were in the majority, it would clearly be inappropriate to attempt to legislate in matters of personal belief. It is just as inappropriate for non-Christians in the majority to attempt to legislate in matters of personal belief. Acceptance of beliefs, if they are to have any value, must not be coerced. For Christians in the minority to attempt to legislate beliefs is not only inappropriate but also foolhardy, for it gives approval to all other conflicting minorities to proceed in the same way. It is sometimes difficult to affirm that we should protect the freedom of speech of all, no matter how offensive, obscene, or disruptive, but it is much easier to defend the free speech of all on grounds that Christians are included in that "all." The subtle ways in which "freedom of belief" may be in fact circumscribed when there is an "official belief" are revealed in the section on Religion and the Church in the Novosti Press Agency Year Book of the USSR,

Any citizen may belong to any denomination or to none at all. Most Soviet citizens are atheists, with a materialistic world outlook ... The principle of the freedom of conscience, as specified in the Constitution of the USSR, implies not only the right to espouse any religion, but also the right to voice atheistic convictions, in short, to conduct anti-religious propaganda. Scientific atheism helps the belivers to rid themselves of superstitions and develop the right materialistic outlook on the world and what takes place in it.11

There is such a short distance between the Inquisition and this Soviet attitude! So-called scientific materialistic atheism is in fact the "religion" of the USSR political elite. While criticizing the USSR for its indirect and often direct infringement upon the freedom of "religion," the Christian must be careful not to act in a similar way.

At the other extreme are those clear issues such as murder and stealing where it is fairly clear that the human consequences of these actions are harmful to society. The Christian recognizes that it is not only the human consequences that are of importance, but that such actions also involve violations of divine law. Christian and non-Christians will generally agree, however, that regardless of whether the basis for the law is human only or human and divine, laws against murder and stealing are necesary for humane living.

The difficult issues are those that fall in the middle ground, where the Christian believes that there is not only divine law at stake but also the quality of human life because of the manifestation of divine law in human life, but where the non-Christian sees no moral or ethical issue at all. Such issues include, for example, legalized gambling and prostitution, legal sanctions against the use of "mindexpanding" drugs, divorce and abortion. Fortunately these issues do not split strictly along religious/non-religious fines, and there is some foundation of awareness in general that at least aspects of these practices may have ultimately deleterious effects for mankind. The course for the Christian in a pluralistic society seems to be the following: if he chooses to argue for legal expression of his convictions, in a political sense he must base this argument on the level of human needs and responses, and not on the level of his Christian convictions alone. This is no great limitation, for the faithful application of Christian convictions must lead in God's ordered providence to the meeting of human needs. If a Christian, for example, chooses to press for legal sanctions against abortion, it must be on the basis of consequences to the fetus and to society, and not on the basis of his own religious faith. After all, making all abortions legal does not in itself force the Christian into actions contrary to his religious convictions (unless of course his involvement in the medical profession is the focus of tension), no matter how unfortunate may be the ultimate effects of such a policy on society. It would be totally different if a law were proposed that made abortion mandatory under generally prescribed conditions; such a law would be a fundamental violation of the conscience of every Christian and many other sensitive persons in society, and would deserve to be strenuously resisted with every means available.


We get what we do; not what we intend, not what we wish, not what we hope, but simply what we do... you would think that after six thousand years of socially organized violence (war) and the present state of the world, it would be perfectly clear. But, alas, it is not. Not yet..12

The violence. Yet, if we take the position that all evil will disappear if only we forsake violence in every form, vig are again mistaken; we have committed the other great error of mistaking the ideal for the real.

Six purposes of punishment for crime may be formulated: as retribution, deterrence, protection of society, correction, rehabilitation and treatment. In recognizing that there are genuine environmental and genetic causes of crime in many cases, we must be careful not to overlook the close connection between punishment as retribution and the administration of justice, and the close connection between treating the criminal as a responsible human being who deserves punishment and the recognition and upholding of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. No punishment can be allowed to be totally indifferent to the effect on the criminal himself, and our present prison system has major shortcomings in both principle and practice. The recovery of the concept and practice of restitution as a way of achieving both correction and rehabilitation within a positive framework seems one positive possibility for change.

Justice and mercy are both essential to a humane society. They are complementary, and any attempt to concentrate exclusively on one or the other is destructive. The effort to achieve only justice will ultimate produce injustice; the effort to administer mercy without justice soon becomes merciless.

Cogent theoretical argument can be adduced both for and against capital punishment. The intrinsic value of human life makes the wanton taking of human life a unique crime deserving an extreme punishment. But the inequities of justice in the real world make the most stringent restraints on capital punishment necessary. On the other hand, the belief that lifelong imprisonment is more compassionate than capital punishment needs to be reexamined.

In establishing legal requirements in a pluralistic society, no group can be allowed to make its beliefs into law, so that dissent becomes crime. Laws must be guided by the consensus on the effect of actions on society, and not on particular belief or religious systems. Such laws must be permissive and not restrictive in form; those things that are not allowed to certain individuals because of their belief system must not be arbitarily imposed upon them by law. Such conclusions, however, do not contradict the basic conviction that Christians will have insights into those requirement that should be incorporated into human law because of the needs of society, since it is exactly these needs which are the concern of divine law.


1C. S. Lewis, The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, Marcharn Manor Press, Appleford, Abingdon, Berkshire, England, 1966.
2Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, "The Behaviorist Bandwagon and the Body of Christ. 111. A Christian Examination of Applied Behaviorism," Journal ASA 31, 129 (1979)
Robert E. Rodes, Jr., "Just and Unjust Power - A New Look at Punishment Theory," New Catholic World, November/December, p. 251 (1978)
J. Philip Ashey, "Responsibility and Retribution: A Narnian Dialogue," JournalASA 31, 43 (1979)

D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Macmillan (1967), p. 78
6See, for example, Exodus 21 and 22.
'K. Menninger, The Crime of Punishment, Viking (1969).
8See, for example, Matthew 26:52, Romans 13:4, Revelation 13:10.
9J. W. Wenham, The Goodness of God, InterVarsity (1974), p. 104.
10See Reference 1.
11USSR 72, Novosti Press Agency Year Book, Moscow (1972), pp. 332, 335.
12I. Sandperl, A Little Kinder, Science and Behavior Books (1974).