Justice according to the Gospel



They must pay for what they did !

Every time a crime is committed against property, but especially against human beings, people are shocked, upset, indignant, worried and angry.

Everybody is expecting from the Government the properly reaction because “The Law must run its course!” Those who committed crimes must be pursued, arrested, found guilty by the court and put behind bars until the end of the sentence. The public opinion is calling for the “certainty of a harsh punishment!”

Most often we hear: “ they were wrong, they must pay for what they did, they must go to prison and suffer the way they made others suffer!”

Surely, at the first place in our minds, is compassion for and solidarity with, the victims of crime. They too often see their lives irremediably destroyed, because of sufferings and traumas they endured.

How was this possible?, we wonder,  what was the problem? What is not working?,  Which mistakes were committed?  What is necessary for us to do in order to avoid such crimes being committed again?

All of these questions lead us to talk about Prevention!

What does the Government do in order to defend people from criminals?

For the time being, prevention is all about intimidation: If you commit a crime you go to prison! and incarceration is designed to make you suffer, therefore think very well what you are planning to do!  (="general prevention" in order to avoid future crimes) ; and if you are in prison because you committed a crime we put you behind bars and make you suffer so much  that you will learn, by suffering, not to commit crimes anymore.

But just in case you were so stupid to commit crimes again , we'll hold you in prison the whole life (three strikes and you’re out!):  That's neutralization: as long as a criminal is in prison he or she is unable to  crime.  (= "special prevention").

(Actually for the past four millennia – i.e. since the first law-givers: Hammurabi and Moses -, the only answer given to those who used to break the law has been…violence. The pattern is this: When they commit acts of violence anyway, retaliating with more violence of our own, which we call “punishment” and “justice”. Now after four millennia trying to use this option, we can say without,  any reasonable doubt,  that it’s been a total failure! It’s been such a total failure that the XX century has been considered the bloodiest in all human history. (See the interesting book by James Gilligan: “Preventing Violence”, from Thames & Hudson publishers 2001)

Jail is seen as the only punishment for every crime!

Far away from the community, removed from the family, no basic freedom… We believe in matching the evil life behind bars against the evil represented by crime.

Our concept of Justice is symbolized by a woman with the “scales of justice” in her hand. Actually this means: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"… The famous law of retaliation!)

We hear “If they are in prison they must have done something horrible”, Often of course that’s right; too often, though, innocent people are jailed.

The average citizen, you know, doesn’t care about the “hows”and the “whys”   people are in prison, He doesn’t care about details. It’s a sort of psychological removal from the conscience: "out of sight out of mind" . You don’t want to know about, you don’t want to talk of, you don’t want to go into depth, unless some scoop, well-manipulated by the media, will force you to think about or confirm for yourself  that:

-          Justice doesn’t exist.

-          The certainty of the punishment is a Chimera.

-          That criminals go into jail one day and get out the next.

-          That criminals are arrested by the police and made free by the judges etc. etc.

 That's why many claim:  “They go in and get out, no real rehabilitation takes place; furthermore everything  you could do in order to rehabilitate criminals is useless because they don't want to change their lives!. It is all a waste, there is no hope for them! They are irremediably lost!


Can committed Christian People think this way? 

 I’ve come into the world to seek and save those who were lost! (Jesus)

Jesus Christ the Founder of Christian Faith was arrested, put behind bars, He was found guilty by the Sanhedrin,  tortured and sentenced to death by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate.

According to the Gospel of saint Luke, the very first person who entered the Kingdom of Heaven was a Criminal:

 “One of the criminal hanging there hurled insults at him: are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well’ But the other spoke up and rebuked him. ‘have you not fear of God at all? He said. You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom. He answered him: In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” ( Luke  23, 39-43) 

Jesus is convinced that criminals, tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Paradise before those who believe to be saints: “ So Jesus said to them, I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you…” (Mt. 21,31c)

What do you think : Aren’t these words from the Gospel a good reason for a Christian to think a little bit more about Criminal Justice?


To fight and win evil with good!

In fact the revolutionary practice launched on earth by Jesus Christ, the Son of God,  in order to save the entire humanity, can be expressed this way: Overcome evil with good! (Jesus came to save the entire humanity because in front of God nobody is right,  nobody is without sin, everybody in outside the law).

Through all his life Jesus Christ showed  the power He had to turn the stone hearts of the people  into the hearts of God’s own children.

After His Resurrection from the death,  Jesus got power over the whole creation : " I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth..." (Mc. 28,18)


“Prevention” according to the Gospel


“He was despised, the lowest of men,

A man of sorrows, familiar with suffering,

One from whom, as it were,

we averted our gaze,

Despised, for whom we had no regard.

Yet  ours were the sufferings he was bearing,

Ours the sorrows he was carrying,

while we thought of him

as someone being punished

and struck with affliction by God;

whereas he was being wounded

for our rebellions,

crushed because of our guilt;

the punishment reconciling us fell on him,

and we have been healed by his bruises..” ( Is. 53, 3-5)


That’s the way the prophet Isaiah foresaw the mission of Jesus Christ who burdens himself with the suffering that should have been ours and “carried" our sorrows.

Now,  if Jesus Christ, the innocent Son of God, wanted to bear the suffering we deserved and paid for our sins how much more we, as a society, should take our responsibility about the committing of crime because we are all involved in the cause of it!

As stated by Luciano Eusebi, teacher of criminal law at Catholic University of Milan, in Piacenza seat, Italy – in his essay about  “Penal System Reform and Mediation”:  “We are far away  a century from the controversy about positivism, about  free will; nobody denies that men are free, … But once you have accepted this truth, it is beyond  doubt that there exist also structural preconditions which interfere with the free will  of men” .

It is necessary that the society, as a whole, be aware of its joint liability in the making of crime. This awareness lead us to the problem of  a serious prevention : "if society truly wants to fight crime, must  intervene into the economic-financial factors, into individual disturbs, into social factors, which play a very important role by paving  the way  for criminal behaviour”,  Mr.  Eusebi adds .


“Punishment”  according to the Gospel

The holy Father John Paul the II,  in his message for the Jubilee in Prison , July 9, 2000 said:  We are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of having done everything possible to prevent crime and to control it effectively so that it no longer does harm and, at the same time, to offer to those who commit crime a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society. If all those in some way involved in the problem tried to...develop this line of thought, perhaps humanity as a whole could take a great step forward in creating a more serene and peaceful society.”

And speaking to the Church and the whole World about peace,  in His Message for the Peace day, the 1st January 2005 titled “Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good”  the same great Pope states that:

Evil can’t be defeat by evil: In that way, in fact, rather than win evil, you’ll be defeated by it…” that is why   “the only way out in order to defeat the vicious circle of evil is to put into practice the word of the Apostle Saint Paul (Rom 12,21 ): “Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good” (n. 1)

Card. Martini former Archbishop of Milan and famous Bible Scholar, in a Seminar held in Bergamo  on May 13, 2000,  about “Crime and Punishment, for a new culture of Justice”,  explained the passage from the book of Genesis about the killing of Abel carried out by his brother Cain,  and, inter alia, said:

“In this basic context you can understand what the Biblical Revelation says about punishment: it can be summed  up this way:

a)      Guilt brings in itself already a punishment: in guilt, in fact – as   sinners in the Bible gradually became aware – there is an inherent defeat, a failure, a humiliation, a suffering.;

b)      Punishment implies a new and a greater responsibility: the one who commits a crime, in fact, will have to take upon himself or herself, as punishment, heavier and harder  responsibilities in order to regain life;

c)      In any case, punishment doesn’t destroy human dignity and doesn’t deprive the offender of basic rights: Nobody gets uprooted to be incarcerated in an unreal and inhuman place. The one who commits a mistake, denying God’s  fatherhood and breaking the peaceful relations with others as well as  with him- or herself, will have to go through a purifying journey toward rehabilitation in order to get his or her dignity back so that re-entry into the community might be possible. In this sense, punishment consists in undertaking a real  journey of conversion,  a real  turning point in his or her life;

d)      However God doesn’t fix the sinner up, identify him or she with their guilt; but God gives to all sinners the hope for a better future, He aims at their complete rehabilitation, asking them to sin no more and to do good in order  to make up for the evil done.”  (Atti del Convegno page 29)

In this context, so H.E. Card. Martini, says “…punishment that goes through incarceration should be considered as an emergency intervention, as last resort in order to stop violence, a free, unjustly, crazy inhuman violence; jail  turns out to be  the necessary way out to stop those, that lead by selfishness and destroyed impulses, lost their self-control crushing the holy values  of life,  people and community ” (page   31)

In his demolition criticism about the prison Mr. Eusebi says.

“Depriving of personal freedom, represents, for the time being, the only statutory answer to crime  … And, he adds, in fact, prison is seen as the “analogical reaction, reproducing, relate to the offender, the negativity of crime, according to a reciprocity perspective (malum pro malo = an evil for an evil). Even though the modern criminal law , in Italy, states that it acts in a preventive way, the truth is that this preventive way is a retributive way: to prevent through retribution…”.

“…At this point it is pretty clear that the idea of Justice that supports punishment identified as deprivation of freedom intends punishment as a suffering that opposes a suffering, a fracture that opposes a fracture, as evil that opposes an evil.”   (An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth… The famous law of retaliation!).

 On this subject Mr. Eusebi, has no doubt: “No good can come out from evil. This is true  whether from an ethic point of view or a rational one”.


“Justice”  according to the Gospel

The Pope John Paul the II in his calling to the Leaders of the World, through the Message for the Jubilee in Prison July 9, 2000, stated: 

 “On each occasion the celebration of a Holy Year has been an opportunity for the Church and the world to do something in favour of justice, in the light of the Gospel. Jubilees have been an incentive for the community to reconsider human justice against the measure of God’s justice. Only a calm appraisal of the functioning of penal institutions, a candid recognition of the goals society has in mind in confronting crime, and a serious assessment of the means adopted to attain these goals have led in the past and can still lead to identifying the corrections which need to be made…” 

Card. Martini, in the above-named essay, put the new idea of Justice,  coming out from the Bible, in this way:

“In this reflexions, it needs  pointing out that, on one hand, we have got to rethink and verify the desire of Justice we feel inside when we are offended and hurt, or when we see our neighbour assaulted and killed. It is necessary, in fact, to be constantly watching so that our desire for justice doesn’t turn into vengeance. A long punishment inflicted on the offenders or a capital death sentence can satisfy the hatred that stirs up the heart, but they do not generate love, reconciliation and life.  A real Justice – that only can be achieved by love – asks rather to rescue “the prodigal son”, who lost his dignity and the community, and forces  us to act to cure the “sick”, since he’s always part of our social body, in order to bring him again to a moral and reconciled life.

On the other hand, every forgiveness, that of God too, demands the changing of the sinner, the turning of his stone- heart into a human heart. It all boils down restoring the heart, that is the inner part of the person, until the sinner reaches the self-determination to come back and be a right man or woman, brother or sister and son or daughter, at the cost of any sacrifice. In order to achieve this goal, the offender needs time and help: such means as solitary confinement or the use of torturer must be eliminated; the offender needs a friendly and humane presence, a strong and enlightened guide, a spiritual healer, but he or she needs a community that acts to rescue them and is ready to welcome them back.


To Revolutionize  the idea of Justice

In relation to the new idea of Justice Mr. Eusebi writes:

“...Now the idea of Justice must no longer be the “scales idea” because, as I already said above,  you can’t get any good out from evil..”. “An eye for an eye, and all the world becomes blind” (Mahatma Gandhi); “…rather we must regain a new way to overcome crime. We must seek for ways to heal the fractured relationships between the victims and perpetrators of crime; between the community and offenders.

Therefore to the Retributive Justice model ( an eye for an eye…) we want to propose another Justice model (Restorative Justice) which intends punishment as a rehabilitation journey bringing about the healing of the broken relationships created by crime. In order to achieve true reconciliation with society and to avoid further separation from it, a new idea of Restorative Justice that wants to overcome the evil of crime with a good rehabilitation programme”

Fr.  Bruno Oliviero