Crime and Religious Belief

Crime: an offence that is punishable by law, e.g. theft

What has crime and punishment got to do with religious studies?

There are three broad answers to this:

  1. Some crimes are religious crimes. We will look at these later on.
  2. Crime is linked to human nature, which is the concern of religious people.
  3. There are specific teachings in religious traditions about whether (or not) the law should be obeyed and in what ways people should be punished for breaking the law. Remember that Judaism is a legalistic religion. Its main sacred text is the Torah (Law) which contains 613 laws as well as the prescribed punishments for breaking these laws. Islam is very closely tied to Shari’ah law and many other religions are the foundations of their country’s laws.

Religious Attitudes to Crime / Religious Teachings

Christianity and Crime

Christianity CrimeThe Christian attitude to the law is best summed up by Jesus’ teaching:

“…give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” – Matthew 22:21

Caesar was the Roman Emperor and thus the ultimate force for all law in the Roman Empire (in which Jesus lived). In telling his followers to ‘give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ he was telling them to do as they are commanded by Caesar’s law (in this case to pay tax to Rome).

There are many other teachings in the New Testament which suggest Christians should obey the law, such as:

A man reaps what he sows.” – Galatians 6:7

Which tells us that if we do not obey the law then we cannot expect to be treated well by others.

liberationtheologyHowever, many Christians believe there is a higher law than the law of the land and that is the law of God. The give ‘to God what is God’s’ on the end of Jesus’ message is important. Many Christians think they have a duty to challenge unfair laws; laws that oppress and imprison rather than set people free. Jesus said:

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” – Luke 4:18

Such passages have become the basis of LIBERATION THEOLOGY, a movement which describes the actions of such great Christian leaders as:

  • Martin Luther King Jr. – who challenged unfair racist laws in the U.S.A.ASCRomero
  • Oscar Romero – an archbishop in San Salvador who stood up the government’s repression of human rights.
  • Dietrich Bonheoffer – who returned to Nazi Germany to oppose the law and rule of Hitler.
  • Desmond Tutu – an Archbishop from South Africa who opposed apartheid laws in the country.

Other examples of Christian opposition to what they saw as unjust laws would be the Quaker (Society of Friends) example of conscientious objection (refusal to fight under the conscription laws) during the First World War.

Christianity and Punishment

Reform: an aim of punishment – to change someone’s behaviour for the better

Forgiveness: showing grace and mercy and pardoning someone for what they have done wrong

Repentance: being truly sorry and trying tom change one’s behaviour so as not to do the same again


For Christianity the main aim of punishment must be reform. Christians are taught that forgiveness is an important virtue:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up Forgiveto seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” – Matthew 18:21-2

But forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It is right that people should be punished for the wrongs that they do but the aim of this punishment cannot be retribution or vindication, but must be an attempt to help that person to become better. Consider:

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”jesus_crucifixion_thief_cross2

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:39-43

Here Jesus promises reward in heaven for a criminal, but the fact that the criminal is repentant (sorry for what he has done) is what matters. For this reason Christians must forgive criminals and give them a second chance. As Jesus said:

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. – Matthew 5:39

Buddhism and Hinduism on Crime and Punishment

Buddhists and Hindus believe in karma. All actions have consequences and good actions will have good consequences, bad actions will have bad consequences. Whatever you do you cannot escape your karma. If you commit criminal actions then you will suffer, either in this life or in the next.

Islam on Crime and Punishment

Sharia Law ZoneFor Muslims, the issue of crime and punishment is dealt with by SHARI’AH LAW. This is a code of law derived from four different sources:

  • The Holy Qur’an;
  • The Sunnah (practices and example of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh));
  • The agreement of Imams (Islamic scholars);
  • Precedent (past cases of law as it develops).

In most countries Shari’ah law runs alongside the laws of the land, for example in Britain Shari’ah courts might deal with cases of marriage and divorce, issues of debts between private individuals and so on but would not deal with crimes against English / Scottish law. A murderer would still be tried in Crown Court. This means that while Shari’ah law prescribes death for some crimes (such as murder and adultery) no criminal can be put to death by a Shari’ah court in Britain as there is no death penalty in British law. However, in some counties, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Shari’ah courts have more status and power and death penalties for such things as adultery are carried out.

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