In Romans 12:19, Bible readers are warned, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Apparently that message is lost on most so-called Christians in the US. After all, we rank among the top five nations for executions. We also lead the world in total number of prisoners, as well as the percentage of our population that is incarcerated.
To show the disconnect between Christ’s teachings and his conservative followers, consider the Republican primary debates of 2012. Many conservatives who count themselves as “Christians” loudly cheered Texas governor Rick Perry when he responded to the question if he ever lost sleep over his state’s large number of executions by saying, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.”
In fact, we should all lose sleep over our policies of incarceration, solitary confinement and executions. Modern DNA testing has shown that 4 percent of the prisoners kept in isolation on death row are, in fact, innocent. That begs the question, “How many innocent people have been executed in the past?” How many more will be killed as the result of sanctioned, pre-meditated murder by the states?
These killings are not going to change the crimes committed by the prisoners. They do not save money. (Studies have shown that it costs 10 times as much to execute a prisoner as to imprison them for life.} They do not even deter other crimes. One study after another has shown that the death penalty does not prevent murders. So why do we continue to sentence people to death? Why are more than 3,000 Americans sitting on death row?
In a word, revenge.
Revenge is also the reason we continue to sentence children to prison for relatively minor crimes. Oh, that’s right…we’re forbidden to call it prison. It’s “juvenile detention.” And these children are not placed in cells. They are in “rooms” or “dormitories.” Likewise, these children are not subjected to punishment. They are subjected to “safety and security measures.” In reality, we’re simply introducing these children to the prison system at an early age. And we’re teaching them how to be real criminals. You can read more in Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down The House.
What then, you may ask, should we do with children who have committed serious crimes? There’s a new movement that has shown to have much better results than punishment. It’s the system of Restorative Justice. In this system, the children are required to meet and talk with the victims of their crimes. They are required to explain their actions. They are forced to hear and see the consequences of those actions. Then the children and their victims negotiate an equitable restitution. Only if they are defiant or refuse to participate are they sent through the traditional, punishment-oriented system.
Our system of revenge often has racial and profit motives. Private prisons are quite profitable – the more prisoners, the greater the profits. (An example of the effects of this is “Kids for Cash” scheme involving two Pennsylvania judges.) And revenge is easier to commit against someone who looks different than you. That’s why our prison populations are disproportionately minorities.
Of course, revenge is not limited to our justice system. It’s the cause of most wars. Israel is notorious for disproportionate revenge killings, such as the current bombing campaign against Gaza. Muslim extremists have committed thousands of atrocities based on offenses against Islam both real and imagined. And the US? Revenge and greed were the key components in our genocide of Native Americans. Revenge for what was falsely perceived as an attack on the USS Maine led to the Spanish-American War. Revenge and misunderstandings led to World War I. And revenge was the motive for our involvement in Afghanistan. Worse, our expectation of a threat is what led us to pre-emptively strike Iraq, and the Middle East is now suffering the consequences.
Certainly, a venegeful response is sometimes necessary as in the case of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But we all would be a lot better off if our justice system and our government leaders practiced the advice often given to toddlers. Take a few deep breaths and consider the consequences of your actions. Will revenge really accomplish justice? Or will it simply satisfy the more animalistic and weakest aspects of our beings?