Can faiths agree on punishment?
Radio 4, Monday, July 7
BBC1, Sunday, July 6
In a sense, Beyond Belief is what we pay our licence fee for. Who but a publicly funded broadcaster would invite thinkers from Islam, Christianity and Judaism to sit in a radio studio and chat for half an hour about what their faith says about punishment?
To be fair, no one is going to rush home so as not to miss it unless they are related to the presenter, but this type of leisurely examination of important topics is exactly what Radio 4 is all about and why so many of us like to have it on in the background while doing the dusting.
In fact, Ernie Rea’s soothing Ulster accent provides the perfect voice to dust to and his guests, Alex Goldberg, a barrister who is chief executive of the London Jewish forum; Sharon Grenham-Toze, a prison chaplain; and Ibrahim Mogra, chair of the Interfaith Relations Committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, spoke thoughtfully about their religions’ attitude towards punishment.
Actually, what became quickly apparent was that the stereotypes were not correct. For example, there is a common misconception that the Old Testament God is a vengeful one, largely based on “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. But as Goldberg explained, this passage was actually telling us that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime — that beheading is not appropriate for a minor misdemeanour.
Similarly, Islam has a reputation for meting out harsh punishments, but Mogra explained that in Islamic law, nothing brings one closer to God than forgiveness. Christianity is supposedly to be the religion of forgiveness but, said Grenham-Toze, when justice was in the hands of the Church in the England of the Middle Ages, they made the Saudi authorities look like do-gooder liberals. Those suspected of adultery, for example, would be given red-hot irons to hold. The wounds would be examined two to three days later. If they were healing, then God was said to have intervened. If they were festering, it was assumed that the suspect was guilty and the arm would duly be lopped off.
Many in the media would recommend this approach be taken with young offenders today, but all three experts came out strongly in favour of preventative action.
On sentencing policy, Mogra explained that, in Islam, the wrongdoings of the offenders should be handled discreetly so as to avoid shame, whereas Goldberg said that public shame and excommunication had been powerful tools in Jewish justice through the ages — and in fact penitence, tshuvah, in Hebrew means return, implying acceptance back into the community. The only crime Judaism found it hard to forgive was murder, said Goldberg. “Society should not be too quick to re-integrate murderers into society,” he said, although adding that he didn’t believe in capital punishment because of the Talmudic injunction that it is better to pardon a thousand murderers than to kill one innocent man.
All in all, the difference between the three faiths seemed to be in the nuances — it would be tough to get a birch twig between them on the major issues. And the mantelpiece is now spotless.
While we are on religious programming, I have to report the stealthy disappearance of BBC1’s Sunday morning religion slot. First, there was The Heaven and Earth show, discussing religious issues in a light magazine format. Then when it was established that no one ever watched this, the Beeb changed tack. Its new programme, The Big Questions, featured Nicky Campbell in the Oprah/Jerry Springer role in a talk show which touched on ethics but largely kept away from God.
Now there is Sunday Life. You can tell it is veering away from religion because the athlete chosen to present it was Colin Jackson rather than Jonathan Edwards, and the nearest it came to religion last Sunday was a feature on bell-ringing. So does the bell toll for the God slot?