19 August 2011
In a memorable scene in To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper, Lee four car-loads of white men come at night to lynch the black Tom Robinson, who's been accused of raping one of their daughters - only to be confronted by Atticus Finch, sitting in front of the jailhouse door. The lawyer, reading the newspaper beneath a dim light bulb, is the only thing that stands between Tom and the mob intent on its summary version, or rather, grisly perversion, of justice. The irony is, of course, that in court, despite his clear innocence Tom is found guilty by the all-white jury and is shot attempting to escape when he loses hope. For Atticus' young children, it is inexplicable. As Jem protests, 'You can't do that - you can't.'
There's been a lot of lynch-mob mentality spreading like wildfire after the week of riots in our cities. Enough people to trigger a Commons debate signed an e-petition demanding the removal of benefits from anyone involved. Government ministers leant their support to the eviction of families of those charged. A broadsheet newspaper blazed the headline, 'Ignore the rule book and lock up looters, JPs told', above a story of a memo circulated to senior court clerks and the custody rate increasing from the usual 10% to 65%. As a result, we've been hearing news of youngsters no older than 11 and 14 being branded with criminal records. It's not to excuse their behaviour. It's criminal and wrong - if one can use that word in a society which has abandoned an idea of a common morality. (The 'rioters' aren't blind. They can recognise relativism at all levels when they see it.) That's not to say they shouldn't be punished. However it is to admit that their behaviour is not so very different from the media and political reaction to it - a mob on the rampage.
The lynch-mob never gets it right - whether it's at the guillotine, or stoning an adulteress, or baying for the crucifixion of the only completely innocent Man. The mob's one concern is for retribution. It may add respectability in the clothes of deterrence, but what makes it tick is the thirst for vengeance. 'They must pay!' And yet retribution and deterrence are not all there is to justice. Other elements are reformation and restoration. Interestingly these latter two are more the Old Testament's concern in cases of property crimes, where the punishment was restitution plus compensation to the injured party, but not degradation to the offender. Imprisonment, 'which is expensive to the community, generally corrupting to the prisoner and often bringing unmerited hardship to his dependants, is the invention of a later age', as Diver and Miles assert in The Babylonian Laws.
Vengeance is not ours (Romans 12:19). Humanly administered, it threatens to bring disproportionate consequences, such as poverty, homelessness and a criminal record which blights someone's employment prospects for life. That is not Jesus' way. His way is to release us from the mob (Legion) in us all and to restore us to sit at his feet as disciples, clothed and in our right mind (Luke 8:35). I asked a friend in Ealing what one sentence she'd say to the teenager accused of murdering Richard Bowes. 'I think I'd talk about hope - and resurrection, and one day when Jesus will put everything right, and that if we put our hand in his he promises to walk with us and guide us through life, because he still has a plan for your life... something like that' - was her restorative answer.
Michael Wenham, author of My Donkeybody and I Choose Everything. He is a retired minister and teacher, and has MND.