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Pope warns punishment is not a way to peace

Andrew Hamilton |  26 October 2014

St Augustine

Two Roman observers of public life – the tabloid Tacitus and the broad-sheet Augustine (pictured) – remarked on the contrast between the high intentions that lead people to act punitively and the destructive consequences of their actions.

Augustine remarked that all wars are waged out of a desire for peace. Tacitus said sardonically that where they make a desert they call it peace. 

The truth of these perceptions can be tested against today’s war making. But it is also evident in other areas of life, particularly in the penal system. In an address to the International Association of Criminal Law last Thursday Pope Francis focused on the dynamic of punishment in contemporary society:

Over the last decades the conviction has spread that the most disparate social problems can be resolved by public punishment, as if the same medicine can be prescribed for the most diverse illnesses. This is not about trusting that public punishment will play the part traditionally attributed to it, but rather the belief that benefits, which really demand the implementation of another type of social or economic policy and of social inclusion, can be obtained through such punishment.

In Australia this conviction is enshrined in the idea of a war on crime fought with the weapons of criminalisation and imprisonment. We can see it in the imposition of heavier sentences, the removal of judicial discretion and flexibility in deciding appropriate sentences’, the bias against awarding bail and parole. They are also seen in the criminalisation of a broad range of behaviour in terrorist legislation. The assumption is that the possibility of arrest and the imposition of heavy sentences will deter people from offending and will make the community safer. They will encourage people to take responsibility for their actions, and civil peace will prevail.

Common sense suggests that these means of producing peace and security will be more likely to make a desert than peace. When people, sentenced to ten years in jail for a crime with many extenuating circumstances, see that they have received the same sentence as others who acted with full consideration, they are likely to leave prison embittered against society.  And they will have lost the relationships and connections that would prevent them from re-offending. With the huge expansion of jails necessary to hold those sentenced there, too, less funds will be available for programs that address the reasons why people come into the justice system.

The same dynamic can be seen in the war against terrorism and the war against asylum seekers. The means taken to prosecute the war threaten to poison the peace that they are meant to achieve.   

Pope Francis warns perceptively that the urge to create peace by punishment leads to the search for more targets.

Not only are scapegoatssought to pay with their freedom and their life for all the social evils, as was typical in primitive societies, but beyond this sometimes there is the tendency to construct enemies deliberately: stereotype figures, who concentrate in themselves all the characteristics that the society perceives or interprets as menacing. The mechanisms of formation of these images are the same ones that once made possible the spread of racist ideas.

Those who play at war play for high stakes. But the best way to peace and security is not to wage war on people but to be curious about them – on what makes them safe, on what leads them to criminal acts, on how we can intervene to help them make good connections with society, and on how we can best prevent them from returning them to jail. Reflection and care are always better than war.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

It is, in a number of ways, a more arduous thing to follow the path of peace. It means caring about and loving people even when they are unloveable and at their worst. There's so much extremism in the world today and less respect for difference. Being curious about people in a respectful and subtle way takes a lot of effort and care but it is a better way than punishment and war. By the way, I like that picture of Augustine - he certainly does seem like a broad-sheet kind of chap!

Pam 24 October 2014

How come we as a human race are such slow learners? We have more weapons on the planet than ever to keep us 'safe'.

Jenny Esots 27 October 2014

As always, Andrew, your presentations are quality grist for the mental and reflective mill, however, I must ask 'what do we do about those who get us while we are being quietly curious about them?

Paul Goodland 27 October 2014

Academics whether ancient like Tacitus and Augustine or modern, often put forward unrealistic solutions to human problems. To be "curious" about anybody requires entering a dialogue and how do you do that with a person who proclaims that he will chop your head off? To approach such people without a gun in ones hands is imprudent and bordering on stupidity. To give judges unrestricted freedom in sentencing leads to such incidents a bashing to death with a cricket bat of an eleven year old boy by his father who should have been locked up based on his previous acts.

Christopher Lancucki 27 October 2014

"War" against asylum seekers? We save their lives (250 per year drowned under Rudd/Gillard/Greens policies - backed by the left/Eureka Street clique) house them, feed them, give them free medical treatment, internet access, counselling etc, while determining if they're bona fide asylum seekers or economic refugees. We offer them free trips back home if they're the latter, and settlement in another country if they're the former. Excuse me, but how is this "war" or "punishment"?

HH 29 October 2014

Australia, like other 'advanced' countries, spent an enormous amount on waging wars, and very little on actively promoting peace. Wars are fought to maximise western control of oil and because wars are very profitable to the military/industrial/university empires. We had no more right to invade Turkey in 1914 than Afghanistan or Iraq. Why do the Christian churches support such wars?

Ben Leeman 03 November 2014

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