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You’ve read that news story. You know, the one about the pedophile being released back into your community, or the one about the horrifying serial killer being sentenced to life in prison. You know the one I’m talking about.
And you’ve thought about it. Did you want the pedophile to stay behind bars? Did you think that the killer should have been sentenced to death instead?
Maybe these examples are too extreme. What if a thief stole your camera along with all those precious family photos? How would you react? How would you view that person?
Crime impacts all of us in very personal and, sometimes, terrible ways. It intrudes on our individual and collective momentum like a collision on the way to work. It’s unexpected, inconvenient, expensive, traumatic, and—depending on its severity—can have significant and lasting consequences.
Perhaps you’ve adopted beliefs about this topic from your parents, or from popular ideas floating around in your community. Maybe you’ve formed some sophisticated thoughts on the matter by carefully examining various philosophical and Revelatory standards, or you scanned the scientific literature and drew conclusions based on the evidence.
Whatever the case, I think it would be helpful if we all gave it a bit more thought.
There are definitely gaps in our reasoning, errors in our assumptions, and limits to our generalizations. Criminality is impossibly complex and constantly adapting to new realities. Criminal justice, more often than not, is a reactive and piecemeal approach to dealing with deviance in our delicate social order. A process where popular demand becomes crude public policy delivered with a blunt instrument. However, every case is unique, and a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice is irrational, unenlightened, and frankly dangerous. Even something as unambiguous as murder becomes muddled if we consider context.
Baha’is must sooner or later enter the discourse on criminal justice if we’re to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization because (it’s time for that famous yet poorly sourced Dostoyevsky quote), “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” 1 and observing how it treats its lawbreakers.
So how should we treat criminals?
Instead of telling you how to think I’ve decided to present some general ideas, which I’m hoping will spark more questions and further discourse.
Let’s start with the question, are criminals born or raised? The Baha’i Revelation offers truths about human reality that imply a central role for education in our advancement. An essential concept here is that of nobility.
O Son of Spirit!
Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created. 2
I’ve heard this passage interpreted in different ways. I believe it reveals that humans have inherited a spiritual capacity to become virtuous. Further, this capacity can differ in degree from person to person 3. Abdu’l-Baha explains that education plays a central role in transforming our potential into manifest virtue.
For the inner reality of man is a demarcation line between the shadow and the light, a place where the two seas meet…With education it can achieve all excellence; devoid of education it will stay on, at the lowest point of imperfection. Every child is potentially the light of the world—and at the same time its darkness; wherefore must the question of education be accounted as of primary importance. 4
How does this insight impact the way we think about criminal justice and the treatment of criminals? Well Abdu’l-Baha offers a very specific answer to this question:
The body politic is engaged day and night in devising penal laws and in providing for ways and means of punishment. It builds prisons, acquires chains and fetters, and ordains places of exile and banishment, of torment and hardship, seeking thereby to reform the criminal, whereas in reality this only brings about the degradation of morals and the subversion of character. The body politic should instead strive night and day, bending every effort to ensure that souls are properly educated, that they progress day by day, that they advance in science and learning, that they acquire praiseworthy virtues and laudable manners, and that they forsake violent behaviour, so that crimes might never occur. 5
My next question is how should I respond to criminality and offending behaviour?
I think this question needs to be broken down a little: who does the “I” refer to? Abdu’l-Baha suggests that the individual and body politic should respond differently:
An individual has no right to seek revenge, but the body politic has the right to punish the criminal. Such punishment is intended to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. It is for the protection of the rights of man and does not constitute revenge, for revenge is that inner gratification that results from returning like for like. This is not permissible, for no one has been given the right to seek revenge. And yet, if criminals were entirely left to their own devices, the order of the world would be disrupted. So while punishment is one of the essential requirements of the body politic, the wronged and aggrieved party has no right to seek revenge. On the contrary, he should show forgiveness and magnanimity, for this is that which befits the human world. The body politic, however, must punish the oppressor, the murderer, and the assailant, to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. 6
This is only a starting point in our exploration, but I think it highlights some concepts that need to be addressed if we are to understand crime and criminal justice within the Baha’i framework. Still, questions remain: What is the role of revealed versus civil law in dealing with criminal matters? What roles do the three protagonists (i.e., the individual, the community, and the institutions) play in criminal justice? How do modern criminological theories relate to the Baha’i Revelation? How should Baha’is respond to criminal cases in the popular media? How should Local Spiritual Assemblies deal with criminal matters?
I know. We’ve got a lot to talk about.
- Honestly, this quote has no source. The Internet says that it’s from House of the Dead, but I can’t find it there. I think it’s made up.
- Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words
- See chapter 57 on The differences in human character of Some Answered Questions
- Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha
- Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions
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