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Christian ethics and American Criminal Law

Updated on February 21, 2013

How can Jesus’ ethic of forgiveness be reconciled with the typical American belief about crime? In order to answer this question, we must first define what Jesus’ ethic of forgiveness is as well as clarify what the American belief about crime is. First, let’s start with Jesus. There are many scriptures indicating Jesus as Judge. One can be found in John 5:22, “In addition, the Father judges no one. Instead, He has given the Son absolute authority to judge…” Furthermore, we can also see that Jesus proclaims himself to be a just judge, “I can do nothing on my own. I judge as God tells Me. Therefore, My judgment is just, because I carry out the will of the One who sent Me, not My own will. (John 5:30)” What was the Father’s will? John 6:39 and 40, “And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those He has given Me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. For it is my Father’s will that all who see His Son…should have eternal life.”

According to The Blue Letter Bible Lexicon, The Old Testament Hebrew word “judge” can be defined as “plea, avenge, execute, condemn, punish, judgment.” On the other hand the New Testament word for “judge” is defined as “ask question, examine, search, discern, waver.” The word “judge” in the New Testament carries an entirely different connotation than that of the Old Testament. Seemingly, the Old Testament definition was more retributive. For example, “eye for an eye…” and so on, but the New Testament carries seemingly a new weight to it that the former did not carry. What is it? The judgment of Jesus was not based on outward acts, but on the state of the heart. The Pharisee and Saducee sects were morally clean in every way, but Jesus regularly condemned them. He also says of those who stand before Him on judgment day in Matthew 7:22, “On judgment day, many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in Your name and cast out demons in Your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from Me, you who break God’s laws.” What law had been broken? The law of love that says, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength.” So by these examples, it is obvious that Jesus judged by a different standard, not by acts alone.

On the opposite extreme from the morally clean and the miracle workers that will be sentenced to hell, are the criminals- the ones who acted wrong. How did Jesus judge with these social outcasts and dirty people? If we look at the story of the adulterous woman again in John 8, we see forgiveness extended. She was excused, and her “lawful” sentence pardoned. As Jesus hung on the cross, we see that even the criminal hanging beside him had enough discernment to realize Jesus as God. He says, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die….Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom (Luke 24:40 and 42).” Jesus’ reply in Luke 24:43 was, “I assure you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” In both of these scenarios Jesus extended forgiveness. Was it just? Well, according to the previously mentioned scriptures, it had to be. So, in these two examples and perhaps even in our own lives, we surprisingly see justice demonstrated in the form of forgiveness. Jesus took the law to a higher standard, that of the heart. When we come to the realization that we cannot measure up to that standard, forgiveness is extended, but it also has to be received. The Pharisees could not receive, because they were too busy justifying themselves by and through observance of the law, all the while being blind to the fact that it was not what Jesus was asking. They could not justify themselves through the law, only through receiving forgiveness. But the ones that were poor, broken, destitute, prostitute, etc. they were able to receive, and hence, were justified through grace and mercy in the form of forgiveness.

How does this tie in to the American beliefs about crime? Quite honestly, it doesn’t. The American mentality is very retributive-punishment for misdeed. It is very Old Testament in its way of removing the person from the equation and simply seeing the deed-quite contrary to Jesus’ approach. In America, criminals are seen as the “scum of the earth” and second class citizens. It is prevalent with the “us and them” mentality of what we referred to in class as the “criminal/non-criminal” mindset. For the most part, Jesus form of judging by intent of the heart is not seen. Rarely are criminals pardoned in America, but we see this is the case quite often in New Testament scripture. What is the bridge in this gap? How can the forgiveness of Jesus be integrated into our beliefs about crime?

First of all, people need to be enlightened to the fact that everyone is not like them and extend mercy to those that are not. If you live in suburbia, you forget about those living in the next city in poverty. It’s human nature to assume that everyone is just alike; therefore it is human nature to expect the same of someone else that you would expect from yourself. Take for example, myself. I grew up in Hendersonville, daughter of a doctor and housewife. I have the blessing of my education being paid for. While I was growing up in Hendersonville, my husband, an African-American, grew up in North Nashville in close to poverty conditions living with different family members at different times in his life. As a child, I had seen situations like his on the movies and heard about them on the news from time to time, but it wasn’t real to me, until it affected me first hand. I had heard references from my father about how African American criminals should “just get an education” or “were stupid.” Now I understand why it is so hard for some African Americans to “just get an education.” There are several different factors that affect this race that I had no understanding of until I met my husband. I have gained understanding of a different culture, which allows me to feel compassion and extend mercy. If we are to extend forgiveness, we must gain understanding. This goes not just for the African American race, but for every culture represented, as well as each individual. Granted, culture is not just race or ethnicity, but culture can even be defined as the prevalent situations and surroundings in your life that have shaped the way you think and perceive, which leads to my second point.

In order for forgiveness to be integrated into America’s beliefs on crime, there must be a consideration of intent. Was there anything that drove this person to do what he/she did? If so, what? Poverty, racism, mental illness, past abuse, etc. are all contributing factors which have to be considered if we want to see forgiveness reconciled to our beliefs on crime. Jesus was a master at discerning people-thoughts, motives, and hearts. I believe this is why he was able to offer the forgiveness he did, because he had a deeper understanding of people which allowed him to feel what the other person may have felt. Throughout New Testament scripture, there is not an instance where forgiveness backfired. We need to integrate a more Jesus-approach in our judging and less of an Old Testament approach. Again, the New Testament word “judge” is defined as “ask question, examine, search, discern, waver.” Jesus contemplated what was best for the person through discernment. Perhaps this kind of judging would pardon sentences or perhaps it would change them. Another example of this kind of judging is King Solomon. He could discern the people, and offered up solutions to test that discernment. In the case of the two women and the baby, the writer says of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:28 “……the people were in awe of the king, for they saw the wisdom God had given him for rendering justice.”

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    • Julianne Burkett profile image

      Julianne 4 years ago from Dallas, TX

      A very enlightening and well-thought out article. Great work.