Punishment v Compensation

The consequences of breaking the law today, in a western civilization, is typically in the form of punishment.  Depending on the act, an individual may have to deal with fines, forced community service, jail time, and even death.  These are based on the concept that punishment acts as a disincentive to wrong doing.  Punishment, or at least the threat of it, discourages acts that are unlawful.

An issue with punishment however, is that in today’s world it seems that the consequences of unlawful acts have lost the idea of victim compensation.  More punishment, less compensation.

Consider the case of a murderer who goes is caught, and goes to trial.  The victim’s family wins the court case.  Some compensation may still occur, but unless the victim has life insurance I don’t think much compensation is forthcoming.  Even if the victim does have insurance, is the insurance company allowed to sue, or take to court the murderer to pay the debt they should have incurred?  If I’m wrong, please inform me, but as far as I’m aware that isn’t common.  What happens instead is that the murderer goes to jail, potentially for life, and the victim’s family goes home and learns to deal with the loss of their loved one, and the insurance company raises its rates.

Jail is nice in that it removes the aggressor from society so he can’t murder again.  This of course occurs at the expense of the taxpayer and thus the victim’s remaining family.

So what is wrong with all of this?  Justice isn’t supposed to be about the aggressor, but the victim.  Justice is supposed to be about attempting to make right the wrong that was done.  How is forcing the victim to pay for the life-sentence of the murderer justice?  Even if jail is still required, why isn’t jail a work-camp with the proceeds going towards the debt owed?  That isn’t my full recommendation, but it’s a start.

In Luke 6 Christ gives the “beatitudes” speech.  In verse 29 He states “Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.”  This is challenging, Christ is essentially encouraging the removal of punishment and compensation.

If someone hits you on the cheek, there is no real compensation that can be given for an act such as that.  However, the typical response is to hit their cheek in retaliation – to punish them for their violence.   If someone takes your coat, compensation can be had by either taking the coat or getting the money’s worth back.  Christ is discouraging even that by stating to give them your shirt as well.

I am not going to address Christ’s comments on compensation too much, except with this.  In the case of someone stealing our coat, we should have the right to receive our coat back.  Christ is not eliminating our natural rights.  Instead, he is encouraging us to consider the needs of the aggressor and to love him.  So socially, compensation should still be instrumental but it is up to the followers of Christ to go even further still.

Supposedly, the same could be said about ‘turning the other cheek’ however there are some differences.  Morally speaking, victims have a right to seek voluntary compensation but they don’t have a right to retaliate or instill punishment on the aggressor.  If Adam steals Bob’s car, Bob has the right to take his car back; but it doesn’t follow that he has the moral right to steal Adam’s car or to trash Adam’s house.  Punishment is not a moral right.

Christ is imploring us to give up punishment, to stop seeking it.  Moses sang to the people God’s words, “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution” or in Paul’s paraphrase “Vengeance is Mine and I will repay“.  [Deuteronomy 32:35 & Hebrews 10:30]  Let God deal out the punishment.  God is seeking to remove our desire to punish wrongdoers and to stop repaying violence with violence.

What about you?  Do you think society needs punishment to stave off chaos and violence?  Is compensation enough?


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