What would Jesus think of our criminal justice system and why should you care?

Benjamin Perrin

Benjamin Perrin is a law professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law on the UBC campus. He teaches Criminal Law & Procedure and International Criminal Law. He spoke to a group of about 25 law students at the school November 19 on the topic ‘Jesus & Justice: What would Jesus think about our criminal justice system and why should you care?’

He thanked the Christian Law Student Association for organizing the event, and said:

I’ll be drawing on some of my own professional background and experiences, but this is a talk in my personal capacity so that I can speak to you as a follower of Jesus and share some of the insights that he’s led me to in thinking about this topic. 

The full talk was almost 6,000 words, while this extract is not much more than 1,000. For the full text go here.

Having rejected . . . two extreme positions (a theocratic approach where Biblical rules are legislated, and the opposite approach that ignores how the criminal justice system is designed and operates), I wanted to turn now to . . . challenging the dominant retributivist criminal justice model favoured by many Christians.

In Canada and the United States many Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, are supportive of conservative political parties. They represent a significant and influential political constituency of motivated and reliable political activists, donors, and voters. The political parties many Christians generally support – the Conservatives and Republicans, respectively – have enacted criminal laws that:

  1. Treat criminals as “bad people” and the rest of us “good people” as pure and innocent – a stark dichotomy of people creating an “us” versus “them” mentality
  2. Punish harshly with increasingly lengthy terms of imprisonment and condone solitary confinement
  3. Give little, if any, attention to rehabilitating offenders
  4. Only recently have shown any care or concern for the victims of crime, and often have done so as another way to justify increased punishment for offenders
  5. Have viewed restorative justice with suspicion and hostility, and opposed it

Retribution trap

As we will see, each of these aspects of conservative criminal justice policy are contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus. The rationale for this “tough on crime” approach is based, in part, on what I’m calling the “retribution trap.”

I’m going to argue that such an approach, like many deceptions, is based on a kernel of truth – but it has been twisted and contorted. It has led many, many Christians astray in their support for a harshly retributivist system of criminal justice. These punitive, law and order criminal justice politics seem trapped in a misunderstanding and misapplication of a memorable Old Testament verse.

The kernel of truth that I’m referring to is a verse from Exodus 21:23-25 (NIV): “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” As I will argue, this verse is among the most misunderstood and abused in the entire Bible.

A prominent example of this is U.S. President Donald Trump’s response when he was asked what his favorite verse in the Bible is:

“Well, I think many. I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think many. So many. And some people – look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. And they laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country. And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”[1]

Canadian jurisprudence has even mentioned the concept of an eye for an eye.. A notable example is Rex v. Childs, [1939] O.R. 9 (Ont. C.A.): “Corporal punishment of adults provided by the Code is necessarily severe. Many think that it is brutal. It represents the revulsion of the judicial mind from the horror of the crime committed. The villain who inflicted injury upon another, shall he not suffer? It is a survival of the lex talionis, an eye for an eye.”

This retributivist outlook has clearly permeated into the mindset of many modern Christians; 53 percent of practicing Christians in the U.S. agreed with this statement in a Barna Group poll: “It’s important to make an example out of someone for certain crimes, even if it means giving them a more severe punishment than their crime deserves.”[2] . . .

[The context, history and theology of the “eye for an eye” verse were then unpacked in the talk to show it was never intended to be a literal rule but was a principle of proportionality to guide judges in compensating victims of harm.]

Remembering Jesus

I’ve now rejected three approaches to the criminal justice system from the perspective of Christians: theocracy, silence  and harsh retributivism.

What then are the principles that we see in Jesus’ life and teachings that could bring some inspiration for Christians seeking to reimagine the criminal justice system? [These were dealt with in depth, including scriptural references, during the talk.]

  1. We have all fallen short of God’s standards
  2. God’s grace – his free gift of forgiveness through the sacrifice of his Son Jesus – is what makes us right with God, if we accept it
  3. Jesus called us to forgive and reconcile with each other
  4. Jesus called for justice for those who have been harmed or oppressed, and mercy for those who have done wrong
  5. Sanctions are to correct, denounce, and rehabilitate
  6. Jesus taught us to show love and compassion for those in prison
  7. Finally, trust and have faith in God’s eternal judgment

Radically different approach

To close, God both judges and extends grace, loves every one of us beyond measure and upholds justice, and promises both mercy and accountability. He is all of these things. For Christians, we know that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31-39).

If you’re here today and you haven’t yet prayed to God to ask for his forgiveness and for Jesus to come into your life, I don’t want you to miss that opportunity. You can get right with God, stop relying on yourself, and instead put him in charge of your life. Don’t leave another day without doing that if your heart is telling you this very moment that you need him.

If you already know Jesus, I want to challenge you to put aside worldly counsel, political ideology, pride, and anything else that’s holding you back from genuinely knowing and living out the truth, life, and love of our saviour. When we step back and compare and contrast the way of Jesus with the prevailing approach taken by conservative justice policy that is supported by many Christians, we see that they are literally worlds apart.

Prevailing conservative criminal justice policy The Way of Jesus
Criminals are “bad” and we’re “law abiding” All have fallen short of God’s standards
Lengthy imprisonment and harsh conditions Love and compassion for people in prison, justice and mercy, leave room for God’s eternal judgment for those who don’t repent
Little attention to rehabilitation Sanctions are to correct, denounce, and rehabilitate
Recent concern for victims, often to justify harsh sanctions or jail conditions Justice for those who have been harmed or oppressed
Suspicion and hostility towards restorative justice Forgive those who wrong you, and reconcile with those who you have wronged

We need to be that light in the world he called us to be. In confronting challenging issues in our society, that means setting aside moralism and legalism, replacing them with the compassion, love, justice, mercy and truth of Jesus.

[1] https://www.politico.com/blogs/2016-gop-primary-live-updates-and-results/2016/04/trump-favorite-bible-verse-221954

[2] https://www.prisonfellowship.org/2017/06/evangelical-leaders-push-for-criminal-justice-reform/

This comment is re-posted by permission. Do visit Benjamin Perrin’s blog for the full text of his talk. He provides a fuller account of how he came to deliver the talk and offers considerable scriptural support for his views. It is well worth the read.

Following is his profile from the law school site:

Benjamin Perrin is a Professor of Law at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia and a Senior Fellow in Criminal Justice at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy. His current research projects include victims of crime, social media crime, and the opioid crisis.

Professor Perrin’s principal teaching and research interests are Criminal Law, Constitutional Law and International Criminal Law. He is the author of Victim Law: The Law of Victims of Crime in Canada (Thomson Reuters, 2017) and Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking (Penguin, 2011), which was named one of the top books of the year by the Globe and Mail. He is also the editor of Modern Warfare: Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations and the Law (UBC Press, 2012) and co-editor of Human Trafficking: Exploring the International Nature, Concerns, and Complexities (CRC Press, 2012). He is also the author of numerous law review articles and book chapters, and provides commentary in the media.

Professor Perrin served as Special Advisor, Legal Affairs and Policy in the Office of the Prime Minister. In addition to acting as legal counsel, he was lead policy advisor on all matters related to the Department of Justice, Public Safety Canada (including the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Correctional Service of Canada, and Parole Board of Canada), and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Prior to joining UBC, Professor Perrin was a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada, judicial intern at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, assistant director of the Special Court for Sierra Leone Legal Clinic (which assisted the Trial and Appeals Chambers), senior policy advisor to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and executive director of a non- governmental organization that combats human trafficking.

Professor Perrin received a Bachelor of Commerce (with distinction) from the University of Calgary in 2001, a Juris Doctor from the University of Toronto in 2005, and a Master of Laws (with honours) from McGill University in 2007. He was called to the Bar in Ontario in 2007 and the Bar in British Columbia in 2010. He is currently a non-practising member of the Law Society of British Columbia.

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2 comments for “What would Jesus think of our criminal justice system and why should you care?

  1. Jesus would be really disappointed in this justice system; that’s what my honest opinion is. But, of course, Jesus would also be very disappointed in the whole world.

  2. I enjoyed reading the full text of Prof. Perrin’s speech. I doubt that most Canadians, however, would consider the criminal law system in our country to be overly harsh. We are more often shocked by reports of criminals receiving very mild sentences for very brutal crimes. We have a system that is so inefficient that accused persons are set free because their trials are not held within a reasonable period of time.

    Solitary confinement, I believe, is finally undergoing reforms. I remember Prof. Jackson speaking against solitary confinement many years ago. There may be other aspects of prison life little understood by the public which could also use reform.

    People who work on the front lines – social workers and charity workers – know just how complex is the goal of rehabilitation. What motivates them? No doubt many are motivated by the Christian principles so well articulated by Prof. Perrin.

    Still, we know very well that the criminal law system must preserve and protect society. We cannot be naive or dismissive of this paramount concern.

    Finally I can only say I am thankful for this speech which is courageous and thought-provoking.

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