The Right Reverend Michael Doe Preacher of Gray’s Inn
Monday, 2nd October 2017 at 11:30 AM
As we gather once again at the beginning of a Legal Year, I want to share with you some thoughts on three things - Sin, Crime, and Grace – and to link that with three things which are happening this month.
The words are Sin, Crime, and Grace. A couple came home from church and their son asked “What did he preach about?” “Sin” they replied. And the boy asked “Was he for or against?”
This service must be one of the few public acts of worship which does not include a Confession. But however grand the occasion it does no harm to be reminded that we are all sinners. What comes between the S and the N is I – me. We dress up in our wigs and mitres, our skull caps and hijabs, but underneath there is just you and me doing our best, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, often not as good as we might be or pretend to be. Some people find the religious concept of sin demeaning and disabling. But admitting we are sinners can do the opposite, helping us to be honest about ourselves, and reminding us that, remarkably, God loves us as we really are.
Sin becomes crime when society passes Law. Some sins are illegal, others not. The Law decides when sin becomes crime, and when, for example, avarice and greed become fraud and corruption. Before a court passes judgement on an individual, it is society which has passed judgement, through the Law, on particular behaviour. So not all sin is criminal. That’s a relief!
And maybe not all crime is a sin? What the Tolpuddle Martyrs did was criminal but not, I suggest, sinful. Is the mother with two small kids who fiddles her Welfare claim because she’s been sanctioned and denied Benefits, a sinner? Well, maybe, but perhaps not so great a sinner as those who, quite within the Law, avoid tax, gamble on the money-markets or take massive executive pay.
Sin, Crime… and Grace. As much as the Christian faith speaks about sin, as much as it upholds those who pass laws to control some sinful behaviour, as much as it honours those who administer these laws in our courts, it also speaks of Grace. It proclaims that despite our propensity, as individuals and society, to go wrong, there is hope for both to find a better way forward. Law may be essential, but it can only take us so far. It is through Grace that we go beyond Law to build better lives and a better world. More about Grace at the end.
I said that I wanted to touch on three things happening this month. The first is Prisons Week, beginning this weekend, the Churches’ annual focus on the people in prison and those who run the prison system. The Prison Reform Trust says that England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. And David Lammy’s report last month on the treatment of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system raises serious questions about who we send to prison.
Last night there were over 86 thousand men and women being detained, a thousand more than at this time last year. But there are fewer staff looking after more prisoners. Lock-up time is getting longer, drug-fuelled violence is growing, and education and rehabilitation are in decline. It’s hardly surprising that assaults on staff are increasing, as is self-harming and the number of prisoner deaths. Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has said that not a single young offender institution in this country is safe. What impresses me on my visits to prisons is the remarkable commitment of prison officers and prison chaplains. But a quarter of new staff don’t last beyond two years.
It was Fyodor Dostoevsky who said "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”. The proper implementation of the criminal law requires prisons. We need places where those who threaten the common good of society must face the consequences. But where, also, is the Grace? Grace is to be found in dealing with deep-set problems, in rehabilitation, and in restorative justice.
But without the resources to help prisoners turn their life around, change and hope fade away, and both the prisoner and society as a whole suffer. Maybe what this also needs is the realisation that there is no thick line between us and those in prison. I come back to the fact that we are all sinners. It’s not a bad mantra when you leave a prison and hear the sliding gate clanging back, to say: “There but for the grace of God go I”.
Prisons Week was the first of my three things happening this month. The second is that it was during this month a hundred years ago that the British Cabinet were putting the final touches to a statement which would redesign the whole Middle East. We are approaching the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. How does that connect with what we’re doing this morning? The link is with International Law.
The Balfour Declaration made way for the creation of Israel. It also said that nothing should be done “which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
We British who made the Declaration have an unfinished responsibility to ensure its implementation. We rightly defend the sovereignty and security of Israel. But we reneged on the promises made to the Palestinians. So today, despite the Fourth Geneva Convention, the resolutions of the United Nations resolutions, and the opinions of the International Court of Justice, the administration of the law in the military occupied territories is selective and discriminatory, and the growth of illegal settlements continues without challenge.
There are moral and legal obligations which the British Government, this month of all months, should not shun. There are many in Israel and in Palestine who long for a Grace-full solution, for equal rights for all, and we need to stand with them.
There is just one other event with which I want to connect. On the last day of this month, in the year 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 theses, and maybe nailed them onto the door of his church in Wittenberg.
October 31st this year will be celebrated as the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Thank God we come to this anniversary having resolved so many of the theological issues which have divided Catholics and Protestants, not least now accepting together Luther’s central point, sometimes called Justification by Faith.
That sounds terribly doctrinal, but it takes us back to where we began, with sin, crime and grace. Luther was no liberal where sin and crime were concerned. He recognized only too clearly the brokenness we find in the world and in ourselves. And he wasn’t terribly hopeful that we could overcome it by ourselves and in our own strength. And so he spoke of “sola gratia” – by grace alone. And what that may say to us here today is that there is hope: for ourselves, for those who come before you in court, for those who struggle to establish justice and peace in our world.
The Christian faith speaks of not allowing the past to foreclose the future, not letting what is sinful and wrong to have the last word, but rather of forgiveness, of being able to make a fresh start, of knowing that we are loved and reflecting that in the way we live and the way we see others. The Golden Rule in Christianity is not, as some people think, “Do unto others as you would them do unto you”, but rather “Treat others as God has treated you”.
So, my friends, let us begin this new year committed, as the prophet Micah called us, to do justice, but also to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. Let us never forget, as the New Testament parable reminded us, that God is our judge, but one who judges us by the way we treat one another. And in all your, often difficult work, may the grace of God go with you. Amen