Robert Xie will spend the rest of his life behind bars. The 53-year-old was recently found guilty of the brutal bashing murders of five members of his own family, during one of Sydney's highest profile court cases.
I spent a number of long days inside the chambers of the King St Court Precinct viewing the proceedings, hearing evidence and reporting back to a newsroom in my role as a journalist. The sense of relief in the court room, and indeed across the entire community, following the sentencing hearing was palpable. Justice had been served! The man will never again see the outside of a prison. Surely, a worthy sentence for such a heinous crime.
Crime and punishment
We are all hardwired to cry out for justice. There is a communal baying for blood whenever we hear of people hurting others and breaking the law. We seemed convinced all crime needs retribution; people must suffer, as others have suffered at their hands. There is an accepted consensus no sentence is ever too heavy for those who inflict pain and death.
I've conducted countless interviews on the front steps of courtrooms across Sydney. They've all taken a similar shape. The families of victims, full of anger and pain, expressing relief the criminal on trial will spend the majority of the rest of their life within the confines of a prison cell. Knowing the criminal is also suffering, somehow, makes the situation more bearable.
What if God were to have the same attitude? We've done terrible crimes against Him. We've all rejected Him as our Lord, choosing our own path.
"We all like sheep have gone astray." Isaiah chapter 53 verse 6.
God, the rightful creator and ruler of this world, deserves to be obeyed. We have all failed to do that. His words formed us, and all things in this world. He is the ruler of all things and has the right to hand us all a life sentence for choosing to turn against him; to send us down a path of eternal punishment. However, that is not our fate.
Restoration of mankind
God is a just being; he couldn't leave our crimes unpunished. He predetermined a way to deal with our rebellion, and restore mankind to himself. He gave our crime the due punishment. Mercifully, we were not the ones to bear the overwhelming weight of that punishment. In an incomparable act of love, God's own son Jesus took on the repercussions of our rebellion. The just punishment for our rebellion was the full weight of death. God the judge handed down the appropriate verdict, and Jesus received the sentence. In doing so, our glaring fault has been dealt with.
"Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" 1 Peter chapter 3 verse 18.
The question of justice
So how should we then approach the administration of justice? God believed in the need for a punishment to match the crime. Should that too be our response? Some humanitarians argue the sole purpose of punishment should be rehabilitation. They may argue to keep a criminal excluded from society only as long as it takes for the individual to be cured. The punishment is not designed to fit the crime. The criminal is not held responsible for the actions committed. The crime is a result of a 'sickness' that needs healing.
To follow this ideology is to remove the criminal from the equation. What a person 'deserves' is no longer relevant. We take justice out of the system and replace it with a 'cure'. In doing this, we de-humanize the crime. C.S. Lewis makes this very point in his critique "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment."
"Mercy, detached from justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of justice."
Lewis argues the need for justice. Failing to appropriate punishment takes away a person's humanness. If we don't pair our mercy with justice, we don't acknowledge the criminal as a flawed human.
Is there a cure?
God mixes rightful and deserved justice, with loving and gracious mercy. The cross of Jesus was the perfect display of mercy and justice, simultaneously poured out. Our crimes against God justly deserved death. In His mercy he chose to punish those crimes, not on those who committed them, but in the person of his son Jesus. God didn't try and rehabilitate humanity, to 'cure' our rebellion.
In His justice, he determined an appropriate punishment. In His mercy, he let that punishment fall on his own son.
In our fallen world, there will be many more court cases involving crimes similar to those committed by Robert Xie. There is no 'cure' for the brokenness of the world - until Jesus himself returns and redeems all creation to Himself. Those found to be sheltering under the protection of Jesus will then be freed from the curse of their rebellion, given new bodies to live in a new world. A world where there is no more crime, no more death and no more pain. What a glorious future!