Underlying the sense that prison is not working is the question whether Caesar’s job is to punish criminals or rehabilitate them. He could find the Church of England’s historic liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), enlightening if challenging to his liberal presuppositions.

The BCP is crystal clear as to the State’s job in relation to criminals. Reflecting the teaching of the New Testament that the State is ‘the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil’ (Romans 13v4 – AV), it includes the following intercession at Holy Communion: ‘And grant unto her (the Queen’s) whole council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently (impartially) minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness of vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue’.

The theology of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which underpins the BCP, is clear that the ‘true religion’ being referred to there is the evangelical Christian one.

Caesar cannot rehabilitate people. He should leave redemption to Christ. His job is properly to punish those who offend against the life and property of members of the public. Only the grace of God can change individuals’ moral inclinations, whether the special grace of God in spiritual regeneration through faith in Jesus Christ or the common grace of God, active when criminals come to realise that they are better off being law-abiding.

The State, when it fulfils its God-given function, can assist the operation of the special and the common grace of God by magnifying the spectre of the consequences if any of us is tempted to commit crime.

In a nutsell, Caesar needs to regain the moral confidence to put the fear of God into potential criminals and to execute His justice upon those who do commit crime. Essential to that is the restoration of capital punishment for murderers.

But for other offenders prison could work if the experience was unpleasant – not brutal but grim. The Victorians criticised by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke may have erred towards brutality, though that was the century in which Christian-inspired penal reform made considerable progress.

The Victorians, instructed by the BCP when on their knees, got the grim bit right and that is one of the reasons why in the first six decades of the 20th century Britain was a low-crime society.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.