At primary school we had to do classes called ‘Citizenship’. We learned about the relationship between citizens and their government. For example, we learned about ‘not talking the law into our own hands.’ This meant that as citizens, we don’t have the right to punish lawbreakers. This job has been handed over to the police and the courts, who act on our behalf. This is different from the mediaeval institution of the ‘Hue and Cry’ or the private armies that existed before the modern day police force.
We also learned that prisons functioned in the same way. Punishment of criminals (people who officially ‘offend’ us because they have broken the law and been caught) is a matter for the whole of society, through our government.
But now, we have private jails. The relationship between us and those who offend us has been changed by the insertion of the profit motive into the equation. As a result the prison population in all places where this has happened has grown rapidly, and rates of recidivism have also grown. It has been argued that despite crime rates being lower, sentences are harsher, and there is less emphasis on rehabilitation in prison (too costly) or after release (too costly and out of the remit of private prisons).
But here is the worst part of the news. It has been reported that, in the US, private prison operators are lobbying government against harm minimisation schemes for drug offenders because it reduces prisoner numbers and so reduces their profit. (They are paid on a ‘bed occupancy rate’.)
This is very serious. As Christians, we believe in ‘Restorative Justice’: that is, punishment that is designed to hold an offender within the love of society, in order to restore them to us as chastened, but reformed people. Just this week we read in the letter to the Hebrews (12:4 ff) how the punishment the God gives to us is not meant to wear us down but is meant to restore us to God and the community.
It is dangerous for us not to know these things, and say nothing about the kid of justice that is being meted out to people who have offended.
There are other instances of this kid of behaviour on the part of government that worry my. I also heard about the punishment policies of state welfare services. These ‘public servants’ at the behest of government have become more punitive toward welfare recipients. The punishment is often called ‘breaching’: a stopping of their income for a number of weeks (four in the UK). The papers have recorded a number of very sad cases where people have been sanctioned for missing appointments, often for very good reason. The ‘Guardian’ of last Saturday reports the story of a man who was very depressed after losing a child to ‘cot death’. He could not afford the bus fare to get him to ‘work capability assessment’ and so had is payments stopped. On it goes.
The Christian Church is very much affected by this punitive attitude to welfare recipients. It has been reported that over 50% of referrals to food banks, often run by Churches, are because of delays, sanctioning, or changes to benefits. This means that the Churches are picking up the cost of supporting poor people, which we have already agreed should be done on behalf of us all by the government, through our re-distributive tax system. Tax should not be minimised, but paid in order to help those less fortunate than us. They should not be punished. On judgement day, Jesus will say to the Governments who have punished the poor ‘As much as you did not do it to one of the least of these little ones, you did not do it to me.’ The quality of a society I is based on how we treat the most powerless and poor members.
More than this, we have to ask with the (now) Blessed Oscar Romero why is it ‘That when I feed the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are poor, they call me a communist?” It is important for Churches to start joining the dots between government action and the shift of support of the poor to voluntary agencies.
Last of all, and most frightening are the trade deals that are being done by governments under the rubric of ‘Free Trade’ agreements. In principle ‘Free Trade’ agreements are not bad. They lower tariffs, and give poorer countries access to our markets. But within these agreements are clauses that protect the profits of the companies of one country trading in another. There are tribunals set up where a company can take a country to court is that countries policies damage the profits of the company. Philip Morris, now based in Switzerland ‘is taking its legal action under the terms of a bilateral trade agreement between Switzerland and Uruguay. The trade deal has at its heart a provision allowing Swiss multinationals the right to sue the Uruguayan people if they bring in legislation that will damage their profits.’ (The Independent 5-2-15). This means that the elected government of Uruguay cannot act to improve the health of its citizens without fear of being sued because of a deal made between that government and the Swiss government. The Swiss government has never put this fact to a vote by making it a public policy at an election. The Australian government is also being sued, and the New Zealand Government has withdrawn proposed changes to cigarette packaging because of a suit by Philip Morris.
Christians are for ‘light’: the bringing to light the hidden things of darkness, because the way that these things operate is to allow for actions that disadvantage the poor, undermine justice, and subvert a democratic society. When a tobacco company can stop measures to make a nation healthier, we are all less free.
These are three things that have come to my attention in the last little while where Christian ideas about how the world is collide with those that are operative in the world, and in the name of a truer, transformed and redeemed humanity we ought to shine a light on them, and speak up against the ‘beastly’ way that people are behaving in our name.