Caring for Criminals

12 January, 1999
I have sympathy for people who do cruel, selfish and destructive things – in many cases these correspond to committing crimes – because I think these people would be happier if they did not do these things, and this quite apart from the punishment often inflicted on them by their societies. I do not sympathize with the sick culture of much American music, film, and television that romanticizes crime. I do not fail to sympathize with the victims of crimes, or – for that matter – with the victims of injustice. But I am concerned about criminals, whether or not they are apprehended.

If they are apprehended and justly convicted, they ought to be treated in whatever way will best make up for their crime – including confronting their victims, apologizing, agreeing to work toward making restitution – and in whatever way will best avoid future crimes, whether by them or others. One important element in meeting this goal must be rehabilitation, and rehabilitation can best be facilitated by people who care about criminals. The idea that there should be a conflict between caring about criminals and caring about crime victims is an example of the extremely anti-christian thinking that grows in America together with the growth of Bible-thumping fundamentalism. The governor of my state has recently declared that the state needs to kill people in order to demonstrate that it values human life – this in a state that is decades away from electing anyone who does not shout about being a Christian.

It is entirely possible as well as socially beneficial to love one’s enemies. Many people have done it. Groups like Relatives of Murder Victims Against the Death Penalty suggest that Americans still can. But we are in danger of forgetting to try to love our enemies, largely because the name of a leading proponent of that attitude (Christ) has been co-opted by purveyors of hatred, vengeance, bigotry, and Republicanism.

Perhaps on next week’s Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday every American should take a half-hour to stop and think what loving one’s enemies could possibly mean and what a politics of loving one’s enemies might look like. Would we continue to punish civilians in Iraq and Cuba? Would we continue to pour excessive billions of dollars into our military and our spy operations? Would we continue to treat the environment as if we do not care about our grandchildren? Would we continue to allow people to suffer from poverty while others suffer from wealth? Would we continue with our mania of prison construction? Would we continue with our petty stonings of adulterers? Would we continue to allow the governing of our society to be determined by those who legally bribe political candidates?

It is only three decades since MLK gave the world an example of how to live. Have we forgotten everything? Perhaps we could love our enemies and continue with our current ways. Perhaps there really is some connection between right-wing policies and the religion of love. If so, I wish someone would explain what it is.

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