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The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury. – Marcus Aurelius
Our laws and our societies imprison criminals for four basic reasons: as punishment for crimes, as a means of rehabilitation, to deter others, and to protect the wider society from more crimes.
Some say, though, that we imprison criminals to exact our collective revenge on behalf of the victims.
The Baha’i teachings reject that reasoning:
There are two kinds of retributive actions: One is revenge and retaliation, and the other — punishment and requital. An individual has no right to seek revenge, but the body politic has the right to punish the criminal. Such punishment is intended to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. It is for the protection of the rights of man and does not constitute revenge, for revenge is that inner gratification that results from returning like for like. This is not permissible, for no one has been given the right to seek revenge. And yet, if criminals were entirely left to their own devices, the order of the world would be disrupted. So while punishment is one of the essential requirements of the body politic, the wronged and aggrieved party has no right to seek revenge. On the contrary, he should show forgiveness and magnanimity, for this is that which befits the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 309.
Baha’is, however, do believe firmly that society must have practical, feasible ways of punishing crime:
The body politic, however, must punish the oppressor, the murderer, and the assailant, to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. …
But the body politic has the right to preserve and to protect. It holds no grudge and harbours no enmity towards the murderer, but chooses to imprison or punish him solely to ensure the protection of others. The purpose is not revenge but a punishment through which the body politic is protected. Otherwise, were both the victim’s heirs and the community to forgive and return good for evil, the wrongdoers would never cease their onslaught and a murder would be committed at every moment — nay, bloodthirsty individuals would, like wolves, entirely destroy the flock of God. The body politic is not prompted by ill will in meting out its punishment; it acts without prejudice and does not seek to gratify a sense of vengeance. Its purpose in inflicting the punishment is to safeguard others and to prevent the future commission of such vile actions. – Ibid., pp. 309-310.
But what about turning the other cheek, as Christ advised? Abdu’l-Baha answers that question, too:
Thus when Christ said, “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the left one also,” (Mathew 5:39) the purpose was to educate the people, not to imply that one should assist a wolf that has fallen upon a flock of sheep and is intent upon devouring them all. No, if Christ had known that a wolf had entered the fold and was about to destroy the sheep, He most certainly would have prevented it.
Just as forgiveness is one of the attributes of God’s mercy, so is justice one of the attributes of His lordship. The canopy of existence rests upon the pole of justice and not of forgiveness, and the life of mankind depends on justice and not on forgiveness. Thus, if a decree of amnesty were to be enacted henceforth in all countries, the whole world would soon be thrown into disarray and the foundations of human life would be shattered. Likewise, if the powers of Europe had not resisted the notorious Attila, he would not have left a single soul alive.
Some men are like bloodthirsty wolves: If they were to see no punishment ahead, they would kill others solely for the sake of their own pleasure and diversion…
In sum, the proper functioning of the body politic depends on justice and not forgiveness. So what Christ meant by forgiveness and magnanimity is not that if another nation were to assail you; burn your homes; plunder your possessions; assault your wives, children, and kin; and violate your honour, you must submit to the tyrannical host and permit them to carry out every manner of iniquity and oppression. Rather, the words of Christ refer to private transactions between two individuals, stating that if one person assaults another, the injured party should forgive. – Ibid., pp. 311-312.
The Baha’i teachings have a practical perspective on the continuing existence of imprisonment. It will, Abdu’l-Baha seems to imply, always be necessary given the current state of our world. But we can, through the implementation of Baha’i spiritual laws and principles, vastly reduce crime, and therefore reduce our need for prisons. In the next essays in this series on crime and punishment, we’ll examine the ways and means Baha’is propose for accomplishing that lofty goal.
Next: Six Questions toward Restorative Justice