Sunday, 25 July 2010

Punishment or Rehabilitation?

As for the wicked man, if he repents from all his sins that he committed and he observes all My decrees and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he committed will not be remembered against him; he shall live because of the righteousness that he did. Do I desire the death of the wicked man? - the word of the Lord. Is it not rather his return from his ways, that he might live? Ezekiel 18:21-23.

Every now and then something occurs that causes people on either side of the punishment/rehabilitation debate, to resume the ideological battle. And this is fair enough, as the issue is of great importance. I am often upset by the polarised positions often expressed on this issue, ranging from on the one hand a rejection of rehabilitation as impossible and undesirable to the other extreme, that punishment is an abuse of human rights and ineffective. At the heart of this debate is I think opposing understandings of the nature of crime and of human responsibility.

There is a perception amoungst many, that crime is caused directly by social/behavioural factors which are assumed to be almost if not totally beyond the control of the criminal, and as a result he or she is a victim of circumstance and is not in fact responsible for the criminal acts they committed. Many who accept this understanding are passionate advocates of rehabilitation and restorative justice, and often seek to minimise the use of prison as a punishment, which as a concept they reject as barbaric. There is also amoungst many people the view that crime is caused exclusively by at best the evil choices of people and at worst the product of an irredeemably evil nature. Any other factors are understood as self serving excuses best ignored. The best response to crime, according to the purveyors of this view, is harsh punishment. If possible the permanent removal of the criminal from society trough incarceration in unpleasant prisons. Even when released it is assumed that the criminal is as evil as he was when he went in, and should never be trusted again.

Clearly the above are only a synopsis of the views at each extreme, but the debates on this issue are often couched in such terms.

Any fair minded person need only look at statistics and the observation of his own eyes to see that areas of high poverty, squalor, familial breakdown and unemployment are often the sites of a great deal of crime, both petty and serious. But this correlation is by no means proof of causality. And the very presence of people exposed to the same conditions, who do not turn to crime, is a death blow to any causal theory. So what is happening? It is my belief that a person's environment exposes him to conditions that make certain criminal activity more accessible, and that the circumstances of a person's life can shape his personality in such a way, that his temptations are directed towards things that another person in a different environment with different circumstances, would not be enticed by.

As an example imagine a child educated in a dysfunctional family, and starved of affection. Imagine that this child so hungry for approval and belonging is excluded and mercilessly taunted in school because of a lack of all the "right stuff". Looking at how those classmates with possessions are recognised and accepted, this child begins to develop an unhealthy view of material possessions. He begins to view them as the source of happiness and acceptance. It is not beyond reasoned imagination that this child when older, if having an opportunity to steal something of worth, would be moved by a powerful temptation, the result of his life's circumstances, to do so in order to acquire that which he mistakenly believes will bring him happiness. We have all been caught in the vice of powerful temptations so in some way we can understand his mindset. Despite all this, if he chooses to give in to his yearning, and in fact does steal, then he is completely responsible. Nothing and no one else forced him to do it. This must never be forgotten.

It is clear that a person's upbringing and environment have a part to play, but we must for ourselves and our society never let go of the essential freedom a person has in choosing what behaviour to engage in. We loose this concept at our peril. As individuals who might have been wronged it is desirable, even obligatory, to try and extend compassion and forgiveness to whomever has harmed us. We must strive to understand the position they were in, and their motivations. As the Sages of Israel said "do not judge a person until you have stood in his place" and Jesus, echoing this teaching enlightens us with his words when he said "judge not, lest you be judged". For each and every one of us does wrong, subject as we are to desires and temptations, and our Father can either take into consideration those powerful emotions that lead us into temptation, and seek to mitigate our wrongdoing, or he could follow our own example towards our fellow man, by ignoring our negative inclinations and deeming us as simply wicked for the very act of transgression. "For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

But should the legal system operate like this too? I think not. For it must be objective. It must focus on the facts such as whether the crime was committed or not. If subjective calculations are factored in, then justice is in danger. And beyond that, our honoured courts are not in any position to forgive the wrong that was committed against others. Their job is to declare publicly that there are acts that society believes are beyond the pale. That there is a line which must never be crossed. They are there to bring justice to the victim. And they are there to deter others from pursuing the path of criminality. And to testify and defend the notion of free human beings responsible for their choices.

But it is also there to punish, but what is the purpose of punishment? Is it retribution? Restitution? Revenge? Rehabilitation? From our Holy Scriptures we see that the purpose of punishment is to bring the sinner back to goodness, and to atone for his crime. We see this when the Bible teaches us in the book of Deuteronomy;

From there (where they were exiled as punishment) you will seek the Lord your God and you will find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul...For the Lord your God is a merciful God, He will not abandon you".

That should be the intention of our legal system when punishing. To bring the criminal back to decency, and to atone for his wrongdoing, so that when the punishment is over he is an upstanding citizen re-entering society with a clean slate.

Prison is necessary and does work. But it needs serious reform. In my own opinion it must be reserved as a punishment for the worst crimes, and for those who pose a true danger to others. It should not be used for monetary crimes. It most certainly should not be used for the genuinely mentally ill or for children.

Those who do end up in prison, as much as those who's punishments are of a community nature, must be educated. They must of course be given the practical skills and knowledge to function in society so that they can when they are released, earn their way honestly and decently, so that they can minimise their exposure to that which tempted them before. But above this they must have moral instruction. They must be taught, and if possible experience, the transcendent beauty of a life of goodness, kindness and honesty. So often in prisons there develops a society with its own rules, rooted in power, anger, greed and hatred to which people become entangled. Little wonder prisoners so often reject the values of civil society when they are released, being as alien to them as prison values are to us.

True change can happen and does happen, and it can usually only be effected when the wrongdoer is shown love and personal responsibility. When he or she understands that they have value, the true value of being made in the image of God that is, and not the puffed up self-esteem that often degenerates into self adoration, and if they understand the value of a life well lived, most will seek to embrace it and will be loathed to loose it. In our generation I give the example of Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, who's love for those less fortunate is unquenchable. He left his sheltered home in Jerusalem to move to a crime infested town in the Galilee that had fallen victim to many vices. Through his love, focus on duty and responsibility and guided by eternal values, he turned that community around and his work with prisoners has been the most successful in his country.

There need not be any division between punishment and repentance/rehabilitation. And the purpose of the former should be to lead to the latter.

Sadly, true human evil and depravity exist. It exists in the heart of those who knowing what they do is wrong, and having been shown and offered a better way, continue to harm others and enjoy it. There is very little that anyone can do about such people, and it is best to keep them far from others until God opens their hearts to decency, or takes them from us into the world of truth. There are also those who despite punishment, or repentance, must not be freed. Those who have wilfully taken the life of an innocent human being.

We can all play a part in shaping a society that repels crime. And although it can never be 100% effective we must not stop striving. And as usual it starts with ourselves. We must strive to have a clear understanding of right and wrong. And we must recognise and do away with the little excuses we make for ourselves and the silly rationalisations we concoct. We must each day overcome our inclinations and do what is right, and by so doing raise the banner in defence of human free will and duty. We must help support families, that crucible of society, and assist them in what ever way they require. We must offer young people a greater purpose than self-gratification. At the very least we can have the courage to speak about issues of morality and right and wrong and not ignore them so as to avoid "rocking the boat".

With God's help our society will improve and more and more people will opt to live lives of service in place of selfishness.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Big Society

"If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your land, that the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him". Deuteronomy 15:7-9

I am very heartened to hear Prime Minister Cameron promote what he calls "The Big Society" I do not intend in this post to question the Government's intentions, or to delve into the significant economic arguments surrounding it. Others have and will do this. My interest is in the principle. Is the concept of the Big Society workable? Desirable? Moral?

The issue of whom has the prime responsibility for society and its welfare has a long history. Some have argued that the individual members of society have sole responsibility, others argue that the State has sole responsibility, some have gone as far as to deny that there exists such a thing as a society distinct from the state, and finally some have argued for a mix of responsibility.

Mr Cameron's "Big Society", seems to rest on the notion that people have the prime responsibility for society and that the state's duty is to support them and to help them in the fulfilment of their duties. If this is the case then I agree with him.

Many voluminous books have been written on the subject, and more can be written, but I think that in essence the simple truth is, that a society built on the inter-personal relationships of free, moral people; bound together with horizontal bonds of goodwill, kindness and generosity, would be a far healthier model than one bound vertically to the coercive, faceless power of the state.

This view has been expressed many times in scripture. The constant calls for people to care for the infirm, the widows and the poor. The constant message of personal responsibility and the cautionary voice it expresses against the State. These thoughts were central to the philosophers of the Enlightenment who strove to create better more equitable societies as can be seen in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville

"Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate...It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood. For their happiness such a government willingly labours,but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry...What remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?"

It was the understanding of personal and social responsibility that led to the explosion of volunteerism in the Victorian era. A phenomena in which Unitarians, with their deep faith and social conscience, played such a huge part.

What a country we would live in, if everybody without fail, took into account the needs of the less fortunate, and actively acted on that great command given by God on Mount Sinai and repeated by Jesus to "love your neighbour as yourself". If people did this then they would, as Jesus informs us "live". Eternally and better.

For who better knows the needs of a neighbour or stranger for that matter, than a person who has regular contact with them and who can speak directly with them, and who can discover exactly what their needs are, and feel in their heart the pangs of divine empathy? An impersonal bureaucracy? I think not.

But in reality we are human, and all of us are subject to moments of selfishness, tightfistedness and simple nastiness. And this, compounded by the nature of our society in the industrial/post-industrial era with its atomised families, urban anonymity and hedonistic individualism, means that to rely on man's goodwill alone is not enough. Even the immense outpouring of charity and social enterprise in the Victorian era still did not remove the horrific sight of starving children and miserable squalor sadly so prevalent in many places at that time. And so it was realised that the State has its role to play.

I feel that for many years now the balance has been wrong. And the Welfare State has become detrimental to the proud heritage of duty, altruism and initiative, for which this Country was once rightly famed. And if Mr Cameron honestly and carefully tries to remedy this problem, then I pray that God assists him in his work. But we must be careful not to pull away too fast the support of the state, before a culture of giving is created.

Society as much as charity, starts at home. The family is the private world in which to learn how to be a moral social being. If we want to improve society we must strive to better ourselves and our families. To act generously, kindly, and unselfishly to those who are most close to us (who often face the neglect of familiarity) and also to all those we come in contact with. We must ask at the close of each day, what have I done to make someone else's day better or more pleasant. Woe to the person who finds that his days are spent making others' lives harsher and darker. And we must all learn to be courageous. We must overcome our shyness, fear or indolence, to take an active part in our communities. We must use those gifts conferred on us by our Creator, to further a culture of kindness. For example if you are a local business person or professional, why not work with your competitors to set up a fund that would help pay for students to go to top universities to learn your trade? If you are a writer of novels or for television, why not use your talent to promote the ennobling nature of kindness, instead of focusing on all that demeans us. If you have time, use it for others. If you have money to spare donate it. If you have nothing, then smile at a downcast person, and offer them a few words of support. We can all do something.

So much is already done by individuals and groups all over the land, and these wonderful exemplars should point the way forward to the rest of us. Unitarians have a proud history of social activism and so many of the reforms, the fruit of which today we are blessed with, came about in large part through the indefatigable work of Unitarians. Being small in number is not necessarily a bar to achievement.

The chief voice of German Jewish Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, put it perfectly when he said;

"God loves and cares for all His creatures.. so you should also love His creatures as your brethren. Let their joys be your joys and their sorrows yours. Love them and with every power which God gives you work for their welfare and benefit, because they are the children of your God"

Let us strive, and with God's help, we may be successful.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Religious Education.

"For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of the Lord, doing charity and justice.."(Genesis 18:19)

What are the rights and wrongs of state funded religious schools? Are they a good idea? Is there something fundamentally wrong with admission policies that favour children of particular faiths? Clearly there are many opinions on this issue, and some of these views are held passionately if not vehemently. Anyone who thinks deeply on this issue, must not loose sight of the fact that faith schools vary considerably from place to place, and certainly from one religious group to another.

I feel somewhat qualified to comment on this issue, as I myself was educated in a state supported Catholic faith school. Both at primary and secondary level. And subsequently have involved myself in learning about Jewish religious schools.

The principle reason for addressing this subject was a sermon I saw on YouTube, given by Stephen Lingwood, the Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton. This thoughtful and intelligent man exposed many of the flaws present in the faith school system and asked some very pointed questions. I would, however, have to disagree with some of what he said.

Are faith schools fundamentally unjust? Is an admissions policy that favours children of one faith, unjust? I would say no. It is true that we all, as tax payers, have money taken from us by the state to fund education and so, the argument goes, it is unfair that some of the schools we are funding are unavailable to our children. But this is not unique to faith schools. There are single sex comprehensives that are unavailable to one gender or other. There are special needs schools that are unavailable to children who do not have those specific needs. Why is it wrong to assume that children of one faith or another have needs that only schools that cater for them can provide? And should we not all strive to be generous with how our tax money is used, even if we don't personally benefit from it, let us be glad if it is used to help others to maximise their unique contribution to society.

I give the example of a typical Jewish school. The aims of these schools are simple. To educate young Jews in their religious heritage, and to show them and guide them in how to live as successful observant Jews in the wider British society. Would a Gentile child require an education in how to be a good British Jew? No, so why should Jewish children who do need this, loose a place in oversubscribed schools to provide a place for Gentile children? This may seem "ungenerous" or "inhospitable". However it is not either. One only need be acquainted with the products of many of these schools to see how generous of heart and how hospitable they are.

It should be the hope of us all, that the money that is taken from us to fund education, should assist families in educating their children to the best possible standard, and to cater to the particular needs of our varied population, to the betterment of us all.

Segregation is not desirable, it is a curse that divides and destroys society. The Government must ensure that schools in receipt of communal money, who have a faith identity, engage in cross-community work, to help build bonds of trust care and respect. Most faith schools already do this, and can testify to many such projects. But we should not seek to deny our differences.

Chief Rabbi Sacks, in his eloquent style has said "If we all were completely different, we could not speak to each other. But if we were all the same, we would have nothing to say". This to me gets to the heart of the faith school argument.

Mr Lingwood's example of a hospital, used to show the unfairness of faith schools, is I feel, slightly wrong. The point of a hospital is to heal the body or mind of the patient coming through the door. To care for them. All of us, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Black or White need love, care and healing in times of distress. To reject someone in need is always wrong. All children need a good education, and we must all strive to ensure that every child has access to one. Sometimes children have specific needs, that others do not have, and schools should be created to address those needs. As King Solomon said "Train the child according to his way".

Anyone with any sort of sense, must listen to the concerns that Mr Lingwood raises. There are faith schools that do encourage dishonesty, and punish integrity. There is an issue regarding the freedom of children not to be forced into worship that they do not wish to take part in. And there are on occasion issues of segregation that must not be ignored. Those of us who support the freedom of parents to educate their children in faith-schools, should be the first to seek remedies to the negatives found in these educational models.

Unitarians can rightly be proud of the non-sectarian schools that were founded by various churches and chapels. There is a great need for such schools, that while maintaining a specific ethos, are open to all. Unitarianism itself allows for this. But we must not assume that what is right for us, is right for all communities, or that ours is the only way.

And finally all of us must focus the majority of our striving to bettering the non-faith education sector which is suffering from many, many problems, and where the true injustice of selection based on the ability to purchase a house in expensive neighbourhoods, is so prevalent.

Let us not forget, that as Jesus said, God's Kingdom belongs to children, and from them we can learn how we can also enter it.


Welcome to my Blog. This is the first time I have chosen to share my views in some sort of ordered way. Over the last few years I have become very involved in thinking about all aspects of our society in Britain, how it has developed into what it currently is, and in which direction it might travel. My faith has always informed the way I understand the world around me, and much of what will be on this blog will have a religious angle to it. I look forward to adding my voice to the great debates that surge across the internet, as much as to the small and parochial issues that effect me and those in my circle.