Religion And Crime
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE other day, passing up Ludgate Hill the present writer saw a thief taken in the act. There was a sudden rush ; half a dozen hands held the struggling wretch until a policeman, appearing at the nick of time, took over the capture. " Got it in his hand, has he ? " said the grinning officer, as, seizing the culprit by the collar, he marched away with him, followed by the crowd. " He's got pinched," said an urchin to a group of companions, who entered heartily into the jest. Everybody seemed interested. The incident was a relief to the monotony of the day. Meanwhile the individual who formed the centre of it all was clearly not enjoying himself. He was a type of the London vaurien—of its lowest class, undersized, with bent shoulders, squalid ; hunger and despair looking out of his eyes. The most astonishing part of the affair, to one onlooker at least, was the perfect ease with which it seemed to fall into a pre-arranged system of things. Everything and everybody appeared to be ready for that thief. The British Constitution, the law court, the magistrate, the policeman, the prison, were all waiting for him. They were there in anticipation of his procedures ; he performed his share in a business, every detail of which had been previously thought out. The catching and immurement of thieves, is not that a feature of civilisation ? Society knows exactly the part it has to play. " Three months' hard," endured by the prisoner and paid for by the nation, will perfectly settle the account.
But is the account settled ? Have we done with our criminal when we have caught and gaoled him ? It may after all appear that this is the beginning rather than the end of the matter. We have, let us remember, a criminal class in London alone equal to the population of a large town. Has society done its part towards these teeming thousands when it has erected its palace of justice, increased the cell accommodation of Portland, and made new appointments to the magistracy ? Or is it not time to reconsider this whole business of crime and the criminal, and to realise that, wrapped up in this one question, is the whole problem of life, of religion, and of the social pact ?
Thought on these matters is moving swiftly in our day. We have got a long way, for instance, from the Carlyle attitude. His recipe, in the " Latter Day Pamphlets," of " a hearty hatred for scoundrels " ; his sneer at the notion of " drilling twelve hundred scoundrels by methods of kindness " ; his gibe at the philanthropic treatment as that of a crew which, having lost its way round Cape Horn, instead of taking to their sextants and asking about the laws of wind and water, and of earth and heaven, are serving out to the worthy and unworthy alike a double allowance of grog " ; all this has become clean out of date. It is precisely because society has been asking about " the laws of heaven and earth " that " the hating of scoundrels," and the mere hanging of them, as the final word, have become impossible. The Carlylean method pays no attention to facts of human nature and of society which we have now become fully aware of. It takes the criminal there as he is, but asks no question as to how he came to be what he is, or as to what other thing than this he may become. It regards society always as the judge, and never inquires as to whether, in the balance between these two, society itself may not sometimes be the greater criminal.
It is dawning upon us that in this department of life a huge mistake has been made, a mistake centuries old, closely allied with other great mistakes that it is now more than time we set to work to rectify. In exploring this region we find ourselves brought inevitably into contact with religion. Religion has all along been a governing factor in the treatment of criminals, and will continue to be. But its record is a strangely mixed one. It is to religion we must look for the purifying forces which will cleanse this dark corner of life. At the same time it has to be said that to false views of religion an enormous amount of the mischief done in it is plainly due. The most fatal thing in theology has been its notion, diligently taught for centuries, that punishment was an end in itself ; that God's way with wrongdoers was to torture them for ever. Medimval doctrine and its survivals have here certainly not been complimentary to Deity. The Churches who held it worshipped God, but assuredly they did not trust Him. Instead, they warned men against Him ; they warned them of what He might do to them, of what horrors He was capable of inflicting on them. And it was of an equal barbarity they convicted Him in their suggested methods of placation. They could get round Him, it was suggested, by substitutions and sacrifices. Even the ancients knew better than this. Plato, in the " Laws," says there were three suppositions about the gods on which evil-doers rested their hopes—that they did not exist, or that they did not care for man, or that they might be easily appeased by sacrifices. And Ovid, in the " Fasti," has a cutting remark on ceremonial salvation :
Ah, nimium faciles, qui tristia crimina caedia
(" Too easy-going are you who imagine that flowing water can carry away the sad crimes of blood.") How much nobler and nearer the fact than all this priestly juggling, the view which Plutarch maintains, that punishment does not so much follow upon wrong-doing as that it is contemporaneous with and inherent in it !
The false view of God and His ways fostered by the Latin Church (for it was never held by the Greek fathers) reacted with fatal effect upon the authorities both of Church and State. If God punished for punishment's sake so might man. The hell which flamed in the next world must have its counterpart in this. The priest was here more cruel than the layman, and the survival of this feeling is to be noted in later history. One of the darkest blots on the Church, down almost to our own day, has been its full acquiescence in the worst features of our criminal law, and its resistance to any amelioration. The strongest defenders of the savagery of the English code, of its death sentences for sheep stealing and similar offences, were the Anglican bishops. And the outside churches were not much better. In the " Heart of Midlothian " Scott tells us how, in Edinburgh, " criminals under sentence of death were brought to the Tolbooth Church to hear and join in public worship on the Sabbath before execution." The clergyman, on the occasion he describes (and he is here reciting history), " preached an affecting discourse." Doubtless. They were good at that. And so far as one can see they would have gone on preaching " affecting discourses " to condemned sheep-stealers and smugglers for ever, without ever asking about the ethics of the condemnation.
But a mighty change has come over the public mind. We think differently to-day about both man and God, and the new thought is filtering rapidly down into our whole theory and practice of law and of punishment. On this theme science has, by the sheer accumulation of facts, cleared away a whole cloud of ecclesiastical misconceptions. It has shown us that human nature, in its worst criminal forms, is simply good stuff badly handled. Man is the greatest force we know, and he requires careful management. People who deal with dynamite the wrong way will get a bad opinion of it—those who are left of them. And your human is mightier than dynamite. Now the human force means well where it gets a chance. When Lord Palmerston startled the orthodoxy of his day by declaring in the House of Commons that " all men are born good," he was only repeating what Plato and Clement of Alexandria had said centuries before him. Innumerable experiments have shown that, taken at its worst, where knowledge and sympathy have been brought to bear upon it, the material is good. Our human wreckage, like other waste products, can be made profitable when scientifically treated. In the " Creevey Papers " it is recorded how Lord and Lady Duncannon, in the early part of the nineteenth century, by three years' work on their estate and town of Peltown, in Ireland, brought the population to a condition unsurpassed in order, comfort and civilisation. " And yet it was only four miles from Carrick, one of the most lawless towns in Tipperary." That is only one of a thousand similar testimonies that might be cited. Dr. Barnardo showed how the riff-Taff of the London gutters, taken out of its evil surroundings and translated to a proper environment, could be turned into good citizens. No fact, in short, is better established than that of the human recover-ability. Jesus taught this, though His Church forgot it. It was this knowledge which sent Him ever to the outcast and the lost.
But this opens to us another consideration. Society hitherto has been busy indicting the criminal.
It has called him all the bad names of its vocabulary. It has caught him, judged him, prisoned him ; and our Chelsea philosopher winds up by recommending a wholesale shooting and hanging of him. We are now, however, beginning dimly to perceive another side to all this, and are asking uneasily whether Society, of which we are a part, is not on the whole the greater criminal ; and whether, if any shooting or hanging is to be done, it were not better to begin nearer home ? Society, we perceive, has blundered villainously in two ways ; first in making the criminal, and second in doing the worst with him when made. There needs to be a redistribution of blame, and also of correction.
Where, to begin with, has the criminal come from ? How did he come to be what he is ? Would our Ludgate Hill wretch, lugged by the grinning policeman to the lock-up, choose this lot, as compared for instance with that of the sleek, well-fed, well-pursed bystanders who looked on ? Who chose it for him ? What of the system -which has allowed a fellow mortal to sink to this depth ? But we are the makers and supporters of the system. Do not the words of Maeterlinck here burn the skin of every one of us ? " For it is enough that we should feel the cold a little less than the labourer who passes by, that we should be better fed or clad than he, that we should buy any object that is not strictly indispensable, and we have unconsciously returned, through a thou-sand byways, to the ruthless act of primitive man despoiling his weaker brother." Here speaks that social conscience outside the Church which, in these matters, is nearer the Christianity of Christ than the modern Church itself. The earlier Church was bolder. In teaching that the goods of the world are not properly partitioned, that poverty and crime are an indictment not so much of the poor and the criminal as of the rich, the Socialist of today is only saying what Chrysostom and Basil and Jerome and Tertullian said ages ago.
Initial robberies on the vastest scale depriving the people of their land and liberties, and forcing them to herd in the amorphous masses of the cities, have been one cause of the creation of the criminal classes. Another cause has been our stupidity and neglect. We are a wonderful people, we English ! We are spending millions of money on the education of children between the ages of five and thirteen. To give them during those years the proper brand of theology we fight like tigers, turn out Governments, become Passive Resisters and what not. And when our child has reached thirteen ; when, that is to say, he has entered upon his most critical and dangerous age, we forget all about him ! He is free then to go to the devil by whatsoever quickest way he can find !
Thus we make our criminals. When made, we immure them in gaols, clothe them in a hideous garb, set them up, as poor Oscar Wilde said, as " the zanies of sorrow, clowns whose hearts are broken." We fix on them an indelible brand, and carefully shut out from them the means of return to an honest life. What barbarism it all is ' And this in a day when no serious sociologist any longer believes in fear or pain as agencies in the reformation of character. Nearly four centuries ago More in his " Utopia " taught that punishment should have as its only end the destruction of vices and the saving of men. It is time we had learned that lesson.
Let us sum up, in terms that may be easily remembered, the gist of what has been here advanced. Crime is a disease, and one that is every-where curable. The existence of a criminal class is an indictment, not of that class specially, but of Society at large, whose greed and neglect have produced it. Every time a man enters the dock Society enters with him as particeps criminis. And, finally, the only way of curing our criminal is not by the infliction of pain, but by Christ's way of Divine sympathy, by standing in with him as a brother, by using our skill to fight his inner ailment, by changing his environment, by bringing in our goodwill to assist his diseased will ; in a word, by giving his better self a chance.