Blame and Punishment



Ken Clarke announced this week that the Government would take a long hard look at the country’s prison system, and become less reliant on short sentences to deal with minor crimes.  The right of his party thought that this announcement must be coming from one of their new Lib Dem allies, but no - it was indeed from the man who had thrice challenged for the leadership of the party.  He declared that ‘banging up more and more people without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England’.  And he blamed the Government for doubling the prison population without any thought as to whether this reduced reoffending, or made the public seem more secure.


Crime comes with consequences, and there is something that makes us want to hit back when we feel aggrieved.  We want to blame someone, just as Ken Clarke blamed the Labour Government and just like Monty Python blamed society (as Clarke’s predecessor quoted in reaction to this announcement). 


When something goes wrong, we want someone to carry the can. We want to see them suffer for their sins.  We want to know that they will not do it again.  We want them to be better people because of the consequences of what they have done.  But in order to punish, deter and cure, we need someone to blame. 

Our casting of blame often goes to the easiest candidate, the person put in front of us, whether in the dock standing trial for crime, or the face in a Crimewatch reconstruction.  This is nothing new: Habakkuk complained to God that ‘the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth’ (see Habakkuk 1. 2-4).

Just look at the response to England crashing out of the World Cup.The players were blamedFabio Capello was blamed, the referee was blamed – 4-4-2, the shirts and even multiculturalism all took their place in the dock and were called to account for the early flight home.  We want a scapegoat. We want to feel that if things had taken their natural course everything would be okay, that if the players had lived up to their billing and played the way they do in the premiership, we would be ready to lose to Argentina in the quarter-finals. 

Often blame is born out of anger, and anger out of rage, and rage out of suffering, out of knowing something is wrong, from feeling the pain and wanting revenge.  That cannot be the way we dispense justice. It cannot be the way to right wrongs. After Moses had killed the Egyptian who had been beating one of the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 2) he lost all authority to rebuke others for their use of violence. Time and again, we see that anger-fuelled revenge leads to a perpetual spiral of violence that leaves everyone blind. 

I’m reminded of that moment in the West Wing when Santos is running for President, addressing a church after a young boy had been shot. 'I blame everyone I can think of and I am filled with rage',he confessed, but then accepted that 'blame will breed more violence and we have had enough of that'. 

But there should be a response to injustice, when things are not the way they ought to be.  When we are filled with blame but want to avoid revenge, we can still pursue justice.  We can look for a response that punishes and protects, but also rehabilitates and looks to a future where the world may be better.  The blame from the football fans is not a quest for revenge but for a team which will perform better next time round. 

When Peter stepped up to protect Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane , he was told to put away his sword (John 18.1-11). This was not a moment for revenge; instead, the decision to allow the mob to deliver Jesus to death set in motion the ultimate act of justice for our sins – even though Jesus was not to blame.  

When we want to blame, when we want to hold someone responsible for something that has gone wrong, we should be motivated by justice and not a desire for revenge. 


Danny Webster, Parliamentary Officer 

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