The Jubilee Centre Blog

English Law to catch up with Biblical Law?

Alan White   Posted: 26 January 2011

Keywords: Crime & Justice,

God, Justice, and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the BibleAfter quite a long wait (pallets first stuck at docks, next mistakenly sent to Coventry, then delivery down the narrow streets of Cambridge attempted by a 44-tonne truck!), you will probably have seen that we have taken delivery of Jonathan Burnside’s latest and excellent book: God, Justice and Society. Although it’s a really good book, crammed with helpful content and is eminently readable, some people seem put off that it’s over 500 pages long and published by OUP. This is a real shame!

Consider the following: back in December the government published a Green Paper called 'Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders'. One of its proposals for discussion is about offenders making reparation:

'71. We are determined that more offenders should make financial reparation to compensate for the harm or damage they have caused, both to victims directly, and more broadly in supporting services for victims.

72. To ensure that our sentencing reforms provide a greater focus on reparation to victims we want to encourage greater use of compensation orders. These enable the court to order offenders to make direct payments to the victims of their crimes. To achieve this we propose to:

¬∑††††††††create a positive duty for courts to consider imposing a compensation order in all cases where there is an identified victim; and

¬∑††††††††encourage courts to use compensation orders as a standalone punishment.' (p20)

Similarly, there is a press release on the website of the Essex Police extolling the virtues of what are called ‘neighbourhood resolutions’ where offenders apologise and make financial restitution to the victims. The police said 'Victims in the past have told us that all they want is an apology or amends to be made, and previously police have not been able to offer that.'

These proposed and actual implementations of ‘restorative justice’ are aimed at helping victims recover from the trauma of the criminal act of theft and reducing reoffending.

The fact that it seems to work shouldn’t be a surprise to those familiar with biblical law and that’s where this book comes in.

God, Justice and Society has a chapter that considers ‘Theft and Burglary’. It includes ‘stealing a person’ (i.e. kidnapping or trafficking) and the book always illustrates its points by examples, pointing us in this case to Laban’s accusation of Jacob for stealing his daughters (even though they were Jacob’s wives!) (Genesis 31:20-26) and to the selling of Joseph into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37:25 and Genesis 40:15).

The more obvious (to modern minds) examples of theft, that of stealing an animal such as an ox or a sheep, require compensation. Biblical law is quite clear: 'If a man steals an ox or a sheep and kills it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep' and 'If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a sheep, he shall pay double.' (God speaking)

Jonathan Burnside’s book expands on the implications of this and for the restitution and punishment for theft of objects, including comparison with retailers of today successfully using ‘retail civil recovery’ rather than prosecution for shoplifting.

Interestingly, God, Justice and Society also points out that the parable rebuke of King David by Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12) is couched in terms of theft of the lamb and David’s response is in terms of punishment and restitution (see verses 2 Sam 12:5-6). This is the sort of connection that Jonathan’s book makes all the time and it not only brings better understanding of God’s word but reveals the life and feeling that it contains and that we in the 21st century are prone to miss.

If we read Jonathan’s book we’ll have a better idea how we can encourage changes in our laws that will more closely reflect God’s justice and focus on restoring relationships within the community. (We also hope that people will be encouraged to buy it by the fact that we priced our exclusive paperback version at one third of the price of the hardback…..)

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