Jesus of Nazareth: a Progressive and Rehabilitative Approach to Crime and Offenders
Updated: Aug 2, 2019
By Adnan Mouhiddin
Edited by Josie Child
Reading law in the UK was quite an interesting experience for me. Coming from Syria, where we have sets of codified laws and provisions to observe and apply, exploring and examining the common law system was a fascinating journey. What was even more fascinating to me is the concept of equity. In simple terms, equity ensures that justice is maintained in each caselaw. In doing so, it concerns itself with fairness rather than rigid principles of law. So in cases where a conflict exist between equity and the rules of law, the former prevails.
Having changed my career and academic aspiration towards criminology and youth offending, I found myself yet fascinated by the significant and remarkable work of many esteemed practitioners and academics in the field of crime and youth, and their rehabilitative and reformative approach to crime and offending. Following the advice of my PhD supervisors to ‘immerse’ myself in the literature review on youth offending, this academic exposure has not only challenged my cultural background and the way it portrays crime and offenders, but also was an opportunity for me to reflect on how my Christian faith attempts these concepts.
Although the Old Testament had taken a retributive approach (and rather a harsh one) to offending and crime, this approach does not seem to extend to the ‘new covenant’ made by Jesus the Nazarene. The historical and socio-economic background under which this retributive approach was taken is not the scope of this article. Nevertheless, an important question should be addressed here: by not observing these retributive measures, could we argue that Jesus abolished the law in the Old Testament?
Similar to the concept of equity, Jesus did not come to abolish the law, as he clearly declares (Matthew 5:17). Rather, he came to be the equity to the existing laws (John 1:17), which responds to his character and mission. In the process of becoming the ‘equity’ to the existing laws, he also challenged the traditional understanding and the literal reading of the scripture. He enquired of the pharisees and law teachers, who knew their scripture very well, about how they read it (Luke 10:26). This moment was probably best captured and conceptualised by Paul’s observation in that ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6), Therefore reading the scripture without the spirit and without the equitable work which Jesus performed could mislead us from the heart of God.
In this spirit, Jesus’ approach to crime and offending was quite distinct at the time of his ministry, in that it thwarts existing traditions, prejudice, labels and stigma. This very stand gained him the animosity of those who maintained a literal interpretation of the law and the reputation of being the friend of sinners and those whom they viewed and labelled as “bad” people (Matthew 9:10-13). One may argue here that his final hours being detained, labelled as lawless and crucified between two thieves, mirror the lifestyle he had chosen and his social stands. While encountering those breaking the law, in both a religious and a secular sense, Jesus paid closer attention to the needs of the ‘offender’ rather than their deeds. He addressed the roots and causes of the given behaviour.
In what may be categorised as a preventive measure, the starting point for him was the heart, the eye and the mind of the individual that initiates the desire to execute the deed (Mathew 5:29). Should we maintain a sufficient control over these, he argued, our actions and behaviour may result in different and positive outcomes.
He also concentrated on the wellbeing of his community members. He delivered their social, health and mental wellbeing simultaneously with their spiritual deliverance. He believed in one-to-one work and the results that may derive from it and the impact of this strategy on the life of the offending individual (Luke 19:8). He restored the socially disadvantaged and marginalised people and worked relentlessly on destigmatising people around him. In fact, they were his company (Mark 2:16-17) and some of them became his disciples and close followers and they became led by purpose. He could tell that it is very easy to stick a label, but very hard to remove it without leaving traces. Two thousand years later, we still quote him saying “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Reconciliation in the community was also present in Christ’s approach to crime and offending. He was not a fan of sweeping the dust under the carpet. He preferred dealing with things and progressing forward. He preferred restoring relationships and dialogue to antagonism (Matthew 5:23-25) and observed that an eye for an eye will create a circle of vengeance and result in a blind society (Matthew 5:38-40). By loving my neighbour as myself (Matthew 22:39), and by treating others the way we would love to be treated (Luke 6:31), he also invites us to reflect on how our behaviour may harm others by putting ourselves in their shoes.
Jesus did not take the case of crime and offending to Pilate’s government, demanding tougher laws and zero tolerance on crime, despite the government’s responsibility to maintain order and fight crime. Rather, his approach aimed at the wellbeing of the individual and their community. He did not concern himself with the business of the top. Crime from Christ’s perspective is part of a whole dynamic that needs and calls for change. It cannot be treated in isolation from the overall socio-economic status of the individual and their community.
Jesus’ approach to crime challenges something really endemic in about our society today. Success is measured by professional promotion and wealth. The strain this measure places on people and society is enormous and the outcome of this strain manifests itself in various social dysfunctions. Christ realised this and the impact it may result in. Hence he invites us to examine the premise of our priorities, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Adnan is an elder at Ruach City Church and a board member of the Syria Legal Network. He is also a PhD researcher at the University of Surrey, undertaking funded research on community solutions to youth offending in Syria. Adnan is a qualified restorative justice associate practitioner with the Restorative Justice Council and a member of the British Society of Criminology.