Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 August 2011

Are we off our heads? Capital punishment is back on the agenda

Judging from the hype, it seemed likely yesterday morning that the first e-petition to garner the 100,000 e-signatures required to qualify for a debate in Parliament, under the government’s new system, would be a demand to restore capital punishment. Specifically, the petition reads:

“We petition the government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment. Following this review, the Ministry of Justice should map out the necessary legislative steps which will be required to restore the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty.

“The findings of the review and the necessary substantive legislation to be presented to House of Commons for debate no later than 12 months after this petition passes the acceptance threshold.”

This petition was set in motion by the blogger Guido Fawkes and has now been triumphed by the Daily Mail, that paragon of enlightenment.

I’d previously lazily assumed that the petition was calling for a referendum on capital punishment. Instead, as is evident from the above text, it calls for Parliament to decide on the merits of the case and to pass the necessary legislation. It’s somewhat ironic, to say the least, that a blogger who has devoted himself to discrediting Westminster and the political establishment – deservedly so, to a great extent – should now be crediting Parliament with the wisdom to decide on such a matter. Perhaps this is an example of the same sort of bad faith that Parliament itself displays when it sends young men and women into battle to kill on our behalf: transferring to the ‘professionals’ the dirty work it wouldn’t wish to do direct. Similarly, if it’s Parliament that restores capital punishment, not the people in a referendum, then Parliament can be seen to carry the ‘guilt’ for any actual executions, not the broad mass of people that has demanded those executions take place.

For all the ethical complexities surrounding the issue of capital punishment (capably explored elsewhere), for me it comes down to this: you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you yourself would be prepared to stare into the eyes of the condemned man, tie the noose around his neck, pull open the trap door and let him swing. If you thought it was right for the condemned person to die but couldn’t yourself kill them, then it is hypocritical to expect someone else to do the dirty work for you. And if you were willing to take on the role of executioner out of a sense of social responsibility, then I would doubt your humanity and capacity for compassion.

Similarly, if you yourself were condemned to death but were innocent of the crime attributed to you, you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you believe it would still be right for your life to be taken under those circumstances.

I think many, perhaps most, of those who demand the restoration of capital punishment would be unwilling to apply the penalty to others – directly, face to face – still less to themselves.

Again, I think it’s rather ironic that this petition is being sponsored by someone whose historical predecessor – the 17th-century Guy Fawkes – was himself executed for high treason. Would the 21st-century Guido advocate the death penalty for a plot to blow up Parliament today? Presumably not, as only murdering children and police officers – not terrorism or murdering MPs – are on his petition as meriting the final sanction. Why this selectivity? If you’re going to bring back hanging, why not apply it to all murders, conspiracy to commit murder and manslaughter resulting from armed robbery? Why stop there? Why not terrorism? Why not the arguable treason committed by Parliament itself in handing over so much of its and our sovereignty to the EU without our permission?

The trouble is, where do you stop? Would Guido think that driving a man to suicide by ruthlessly exposing his misdemeanours and hypocrisy merited the death penalty because it constituted a form of indirect murder? Presumably not, as this is a ‘crime’ that he himself is perpetually in danger of committing. Ultimately, it’s pretty arbitrary which crime you feel does or does not constitute a capital offence, and society is effectively playing God when it ascribes to itself the right to take life in some grave circumstances but not others.

While we’re on the subject of God, I feel that, from a Christian perspective, one has always to try to imagine what Christ would want and say if he were walking among us as a man again. Would he be an advocate for capital punishment? Not likely. I couldn’t see Christ urging others to do something – kill criminals – he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And, lest we forget, Christ was that innocent man who was condemned to death and executed. Yes, he submitted himself to that ordeal and assented to his Father’s providential purpose in the matter. But that doesn’t mean he regarded his execution as just or right in itself, from a purely human perspective. Quite the opposite: it was the perfect expression and symbol of the injustice and sinfulness of mankind. And the crucifixion reveals the true meaning of execution: that it’s the deliberate destruction of the image of God incarnate in a human being.

But if the death of Christ is the archetype for all executions, could we not argue that capital punishment fulfils a redemptive, restorative purpose? Christ was crucified alongside two actual criminals – though thieves, not child or ‘cop’ murderers – one of whom expressed remorse for what he’d done and was told by Christ that he would enter paradise that very evening. Is not the prospect of being executed precisely what hardened criminals need to concentrate their minds on their misdeeds and to come to repentance: to offer their death, Christ-like, as an atonement for their sins and ours, and a plea for divine mercy?

Well, I do actually believe in restorative justice. Punishment for crime should be used not just to satisfy society’s need to avenge wrongdoing and protect itself from wrongdoers, but as a means to bring home to offenders the harsh reality of the suffering they’ve inflicted on their victims: to lead them to repentance and atonement, and to eventually encourage reconciliation and forgiveness between the perpetrator and the victim. But few of those advocating capital punishment today view it in that redemptive light: they want to restore it, but not because of any restorative purpose it may fulfil. It matters little to them whether the executed man is like the thief who comes to repentance or the thief crucified to the left of the dying Christ, who expressed no such remorse, and merely voiced anger about why Christ did not save himself and them. It does not matter to today’s supporters of capital punishment whether the condemned person goes to their death expressing genuine repentance and hope in divine mercy, or cursing God and society in a state of non-reconciliation: they should both die, and we should not concern ourselves with what happens to the condemned persons’ souls ‘beyond’ death, if there is such a thing.

This only goes to show how godless and mean-spirited we have become as a society; and those arguing in favour of capital punishment generally neither do so nor can do so out of Christian conviction.

In fact, there was a third man who was spared as a result of Christ’s crucifixion: Barrabas – an actual brigand and murderer – whom the baying masses had the chance to send to his death instead of Jesus. But under the instigation of their leaders, the people insisted on Christ’s execution, meaning that Barrabas was freed. This also expressed God’s providential purpose: Barrabas was in effect shown mercy by God, indirectly through the workings of imperfect human justice. Barrabas was given the opportunity and the time to come to repentance and reform his ways. We should do no different: lock murderers up, yes, to protect society and penalise wrongdoing; but use the punishment of imprisonment, and make that punishment as severe as necessary, to bring offenders back to their senses and repent of their sins.

Well, I can’t see our present-day penal system adopting such a Christian approach to punishment in the too-near future, either. But I’d still rather we showed mercy to murderers by sparing them the execution they meted out to their victims, whether they deserve that mercy or not – because God forgives the virtuous and evil man alike, and we should do no other. Fortunately, enough people seem to agree with me that, as I write, a petition to retain the ban on capital punishment is outpolling Guido Fawkes’ petition to restore it by over 80%.

Mercifully, perhaps, we are not as off our heads as a society as those who’d have murderers’ heads off.

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7 April 2010

Paedophile Priests And the Possibility Of Redemption

I confess: I’m a Roman Catholic. Being a left-footer is something you increasingly have to apologise about these days; understandably so.

It’s as if being RC is something you have to confess in the other sense of the word – to make your confession about: a sin in itself, as opposed to a particular sin, such as child abuse, which a practising Catholic would ‘normally’ be expected to confess. It’s as if the sins of the Fathers, some of whom actually used the confessional to get to their innocent victims, are now being visited upon all Mother Church’s children.

The world has been turned upside down. Or perhaps, rather, the world is already upside down – sacred things routinely abused and violated – and the Church has ended up making itself in the world’s image, rather than the other way round.

Is there any hope in the midst of this horror? Is there any sign of redemption? Jesus would say, ‘Ask the little children’. But the children are hurting right now; and they’re angry.

For once, the Church doesn’t have all the answers, and it needs to seek redemption – forgiveness – from those it has wronged. But who will hear its confession now?

One supposes that many, but presumably not all, of the paedophile priests confessed and continue to confess their sins in what, since the Second Vatican Council, has in fact been called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And one can only presume that their Confessors gave them absolution, rather than making their pardon conditional on their fellow priests carrying out the penance of going to the police to confess their crimes before the secular authorities, too. The priests hearing confessions about priestly child abuse would have been well within their rights to demand that their brothers first endure the world’s condemnation for their transgressions as a condition of receiving the effects of the sign of divine redemption given to them in the Sacrament (absolution).

But how many instances of priests voluntarily admitting to child abuse down at the local nick have you heard of? Perhaps the other Nick will now take care of them.

The confessional is in fact a fitting metaphor and example of the culture of secrecy and cover-up that has allowed the paedophiles to ply their trade under the priestly cloak of respectability for so long. Indeed, Confession provides the ultimate context in which not passing on information about crimes, which could also prevent re-offending, is justified on sacred grounds: the Confessor (the priest hearing the confession) is sworn to the utmost secrecy and may pass on what he hears in the confessional to no one, without exception, because this is the only way to ensure that the sinner will reveal all and stand spiritually naked before the priest as he does before his Lord, in true repentance. But to what avail if the same sinner abuses the Sacrament to wipe his soiled slate clean, and go on to reveal all and stand physically naked before another innocent conscience?

There’s not much of a leap from the secrecy of the confessional to the view that in no circumstances should a priest report another, child-abusing priest to the police, even if he has suspicions about that priest independent of what he may have learned in the confessional booth. This is especially the case if the Church authorities – the hierarchy and the local bishop – impose other types of vows and duties of secrecy to enable paedophile priests to be dealt with ‘discreetly’, without causing ‘scandal’. Indeed, the confessional might even be the cement that holds the whole edifice of self-contained ecclesiastical ‘justice’ together: consolidating the sense that this sin needs to be dealt with pastorally and spiritually – in the privacy of individual confession, penance and prayer – rather than through the criminal law in the first instance.

But can there be forgiveness without true penance? And what about the Church’s duty to ensure that justice is done by the victims – its own children – and that they, too, may be reconciled to the Church and to their Father in heaven?

Justice has not only to be done but to be seen to be done. And it seems to me that the Church shares collective responsibility with its sacramental representatives for the crimes that have been done to its most vulnerable members. I feel that nothing short of a public confession of its failings – its sins – in this matter will do. At the very least, the paedophile priests should publicly get down on their knees and beg the forgiveness of those they have wronged, in true repentance; and those who effectively allowed them to get away with it by dealing with abuses discreetly, without involving the forces of the secular law, should also lay bare all that they did and failed to do.

Only a Truth and Reconciliation process of this sort can begin the slow, painful work of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation that can restore the Church to the position of love and moral authority it once held in the affections and minds of its faithful children. For once, it is the faithful that must forgive the Church, not the other way round – forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Whether the actual victims of abuse themselves will ever be able to forgive and be fully reconciled to the Church, God alone knows; but without true repentance from those who were supposed to have the care of their souls, that forgiveness will never take full effect.

The mystery of Easter teaches us that new life and hope can arise from the carnage of sin and despair. But we have first to die to our sins.

Is the Church truly willing to confess its own?

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