How far could compassion take you? Is there a case for compassion within the Criminal Justice system?

An Interview with

writer of 

Justice and compassion are seldom mentioned in the same breath lest we forget the victims of injustice. It is as if compassion is a right that is automatically sacrificed the moment an individual commits a crime or acts in a manner that is counter to the norms of  acceptable polite society behaviour. In his latest book 'The Compassion Quest', academic and theologian Dr Trystan Owain Hughes makes a compelling case for extending compassion to all living beings, including social pariahs. 

The writer's grasp of popular culture, frequent mention of films, music and books that most of us have read or at least have heard of makes 'The Compassion Quest' not just a compelling read but a most enjoyable one too. There is almost no sense of preaching here, not even a slight hint of the stuffy that so many treatise on Theology tends to be guilty of. Naturally, I was most grateful when on a bitterly cold afternoon earlier in March TheLawMap finally caught up with Dr Hughes and asked him the following  -
TheLawMap: Are you arguing for a moral system grounded in the belief that the present set of laws that govern our everyday lives ought to take its authority from what compassionate people would recognise as moral virtue or morally compassionate?

My book The Compassion Quest suggests a radical way of viewing the world around us, which will affect every part of the social matrix, from the law courts to our health service. The principal thrust of the book is that, in every part of our lives, we should recognise our common humanity. It is, therefore, not those things that divide us that we recognise to be significant, but those things that we hold in common. With this recognition, whether we are dealing with ethics, education, health issues, or the laws that govern our everyday lives, compassion has to come first.

Both the Hebrew and the Arabic word for compassion are linked to their words for “womb”. In other words, whoever people are and whatever they have done, we should be treating them as if they had shared the same womb as us, as if they were our brothers and sisters. The English word “compassion” furthers our understanding of this concept. It comes from the Latin cum (with) and pati (suffering). In other words, just as we stand alongside those in times of success and celebration, we must also strive to truly understand their predicaments and to “suffer with” them. As an old German proverb puts it: ‘a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved; a joy shared is a joy doubled’.

Showing compassion must not, of course, undermine the fact-finding process of the legal system and should never lead us be blind to the “facts” of any trial, case, or situation. Our call, though, is still to show compassion to all those who are part of the trial process, not only those who we deem to be in the "right". After such a process too, we must continue to show compassion. All are entitled to our compassion, regardless of the outcome of a trial. So, we show compassion to both genuine victims and those shown to be telling lies, to both criminal offenders and to those who are wrongly accused. After all, as Professor Arthur Dobrin wrote recently in Psychology Today, without compassion “the law is merely a tool for the strong to rationalize their position, not an instrument for social justice in the service of all”.

TheLawMap: Should the need for compassionate living require a more compassionate justice system? How could this be achieved?

At the core of a compassionate justice system is the way that we as individuals view those with whom we come into contact, whether they are victims or perpetrators. As such, the process of compassion must be one of recognising our common humanity with each other, and taking seriously the backgrounds that others hail from.

Compassion is certainly not a case of allowing people to avoid “justice” or letting people “get away with it”. Still, we should never forget that people are not open books. Situations, traumatic upbringings, and backgrounds are not always apparent to us, and so we should take care not to judge others directly on what we do see them do, how we see them act, or on what others tell us about them.

In the recent Hollywood film Dredd [2011], Judge Dredd is stopped from implementing the death penalty on an individual when his psychic sidekick is able to reveal the abuse and humiliation to which the character had been subjected. Life is not like a superhero blockbuster, but our role is still to take seriously the paths, often relating to broken childhoods, that people have trod.

Too often our politics, legal system, and especially the press want to separate people into saints and sinners. Compassion, though, demands from us a recognition that our inclination towards good and bad is, very often, related to suffering in our past. As such, we have to face the reality that if we had the same genes and the same upbringing as others, there is a good chance that we would be acting the same way. That is a huge challenge to the way that we as individuals, as well as every part of our society, including the legal system, treat other people.

TheLawMap: From your experience of visiting prisons and engaging prisoners, do you believe that the penal system is rather more aimed at retribution rather than rehabilitation?

In the past I have taken groups of young students to a prison for young offenders, as part of a University course on social action. After the visits, the students would reflect on their experience. Almost all of them would explain that, as they chatted to the inmates there was a dawning realisation that these young men were not ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In fact, they were, by and large, young, energetic people like themselves, with similar interests, dreams, and aspirations. The only real difference was that most of the prisoners had either fallen in with the wrong crowd, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had experienced unfortunate childhoods which had influenced their later actions.

Of course, every crime and each convicted criminal is different, but rehabilitation always needs to be at the forefront of a compassionate penal system. The five guiding principles of sentencing (punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, restitution and public protection) are certainly a good place to start, but each of those principles need to be immersed in compassion. Retribution, on the other hand, should play no part in sentencing in the criminal justice system, even if some seem to blur the line between punishment and retribution, not least the press and media.

From what I hear from my friends who are lawyers, though, it seems that criminal justice professionals themselves do recognise that rehabilitation is the most effective deterrent to reoffending. This rehabilitation, however, needs to start by educating individuals in the paramount importance of compassion. Psychological and sociological research shows that being compassionate towards others ultimately leads to more fulfilled lives. The more we give to others, the more we get back. Conversely, the more selfish and egocentric we are, the more unrewarding lives we lead. “Care about ‘the other’ is not really altruistic, but it is the best form of self-interest”, writes Desmond Tutu.

In fact, such an education must start early in all our lives – we should all be championing compassion to our children and teaching it in our schools, above the desire for success and achievement. After all, individuals, communities, and societies are enlivened and brought hope through compassion. Like ripples on a pond, our actions, whether good or bad, have far-reaching effects on many more people than we realise.

TheLawMap: Are there individuals locked in correctional facilities who could be beyond compassion & should compassion be the basis of a penal system that reflects the pain and suffering of the victims?

Certainly, the pain and suffering of victims should never be devalued, as our love and care towards them is paramount. But compassion towards the victim and the perpetrator are not mutually exclusive. As such, no one is beyond our compassion. After all, compassion challenges us to recognise our common humanity with all, even convicted criminals.

A few years back I took a group of students to a former Nazi concentration camp. At one point, as we all stood silent in the midst of our thoughts of the horrors the prisoners had faced, one student said: ‘imagine if we had been one of the guards here’. At that moment, it dawned on me that, yes we could have been one of the prisoners, but we equally could have been one of the oppressors. We are so used empathetically to putting ourselves in the shoes of the oppressed, that we forget that the oppressors are also human, just like you and me.

However heinous we regard the actions of others, our call should always be towards compassion. The sickening actions of Myra Hindley were clearly abhorrent. However, the reaction of our society after Hindley’s death reveals how little self-awareness we have of the capacity for the most horrendous evil, as well as the greatest good, that is present in us all. The Sun exclaimed that ‘Myra the Devil’ would never be forgiven, The Daily Mail bemoaned the fact that she had a peaceful death, while The Daily Express’s front page headline simply read ‘Go to Hell, Myra’.

The temptation is certainly to demonise offenders and regard them as ‘different’ from us and our loved ones. By doing so, we are led to believe that reform, redemption, and restoration are naïve and implausible. We, therefore, separate and stigmatize those who act in ways that go against our moral codes.

In my own Christian tradition, Jesus Christ certainly held a rich concept of justice, but he also clearly held that nothing or no one was beyond redemption. His love, acceptance, and compassion had no boundaries, a fact that even many parts of the Church today fails to live out. The recent film Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011] beautifully summarised the concept that our common humanity challenges us to show care for even the most broken and lost souls: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, then the entire universe will get busted”.

TheLawMap: In my experience, students of law or trainee lawyers often tends to have strong conviction on legal and moral issues. How could these convictions, which I sometimes see as a desire to 'undoing the wrongs', be maintained within the framework of a more compassionate outlook on life?

It is wonderful if students of law and trainee lawyers are motivated by values and convictions, rather than by status and finance. This is certainly something which should be commended and encouraged within the legal community. It needs also to be held alongside a healthy dose of realism about our shared humanity with both the victims and perpetrators of crimes and a deep compassion for all those involved in specific cases. While justice is a necessary function of our legal system, we must not ignore the ultimate need for forgiveness and mercy.

Mercy is rare in today’s world, with the desire for revenge and retribution seems far more common. Yet, mercy is certainly one thing that my own Christian tradition can teach the secular world, as it is one of the cornerstones of our belief. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was remarkable precisely because it is so unusual for such a political movement to be driven by forgiveness, rather than punitive justice. It is of little surprise that faith played a definitive part in the process, with each day beginning with prayers led by the chairman of the meeting, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wore his clerical collar and episcopal shirt throughout the process. At the Commission, those who were the oppressors during the apartheid regime came face-to-face with those whom they oppressed and persecuted.

In interviews with Tutu, both during and after the process, he emphasised that both torturer and tortured were ‘fellow children of God’ and were, therefore, deserving of our love and compassion. Forgiveness was certainly not easy or cheap for those who had been wronged. After all, Tutu pointed to how difficult it is for us to either forgive our own husbands and wives in the privacy of your own kitchens after an argument, let alone to forgive those who have tortured and killed our friends and family! ‘I'm afraid we are following a Lord and Master who, at the point where crucifying him in the most painful way, can say ‘pray for their forgiveness’;’ Tutu told an American television channel, ‘we follow the one who says: ‘forgive one another as God in Christ forgives you’. That is, for us, the paradigm – we may not always reach that ideal, but that is the standard’.

It is that dichotomy that has driven truly compassionate people down the ages, from the Catholic Mother Teresa to the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh; the paradox that we should be both realistic and idealistic in our outlook. When law students come to see me at my University, I give them that very advice – realism is necessary, but idealism is absolutely essential.

TheLawMap: Does the technologically interconnected nature of modern living allow us to be more compassionate and concerned about human rights issues across the globe?

At the heart of life is relationship. We are as a species utterly dependent on each other. The French Cistercian monk Charles de Foucald suggested a concept of the ‘universal brotherhood’. In other words, all of us are intimately connected as one large family and should treat each other with this in mind. As Desmond Tutu put it: ‘I hope we can accept a wonderful truth – we are family! We are family!”

Yet, in our everyday lives, we often revel in our separation from each other. Television shows such as The Jeremy Kyle Show and The X Factor, for example, fail to recognise our unity and common humanity, but instead rejoice in our dissimilarity with those whom we are watching. We almost delight in the rejects of these shows, and enjoy the feeling that we are so very different to them. Our enjoyment at the appalling vocal performances of early contestants in the auditions for The X Factor, or the poorly spoken guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show, help to make us feel better personally, but always at the expense of the weak, powerless, or ignorant.

One might think that the technologically interconnected nature of modern living would help us feel more connected with the world around us, but, in fact, in many ways it serves to distance us from others. In our workplaces, we don’t have to see people face-to-face these days, or even chat to them on the phone, but we simply fire a quick email away to them. With regards to the law, this detachment from others has led to a new kind of criminal activity. Internet crime is the ultimate faceless disconnection, where the perpetrators do not have to look us victims straight in the eye when they carry out their crimes.

On the other hand, technology has been at the forefront of liberating social change, as shown in the prevalence of social media during the Arab Spring uprisings, and it is also helping to highlight the centrality of compassion and compassionate actions in our daily lives. Movements like the Charter for Compassion, Compassion It, Compassion International, Compassion in World Farming, and Compassionate Action Network themselves utilise technology either to advocate concern and care for the environment, human rights, and issues of poverty, or to simply to urge people worldwide to practice compassion in their everyday lives. ‘I know we are all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference’, muses Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt [2002]. He then asks two questions that all of us, whether we are working in the legal profession or not, should ask ourselves as we reflect on our lives and careers thus far: ‘What kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?’

With special thanks to Rev. Dr Trystan Owain Hughes for his valuable time.

Trystan Owain Hughes is Chaplain at Cardiff University. He attained an MTh from Oxford University, with a thesis on suffering and contemplative prayer, and a PhD in church history from the University of Wales, Bangor. He is the author of Winds of Change: The Roman Catholic Church and Society in Wales 1916-1962 (UWP, 1999), Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (SPCK, 2010), and The Compassion Quest (SPCK, 2013). Trystan is a regular voice to be heard on BBC Radio 4's 'Prayer for the Day' and BBC Radio 2's 'Pause for Thought', as well as on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Cymru. He runs well-attended meditative retreats and quiet days at parish, diocesan and university level, he is on the theological commission that assists the bench of Welsh Bishops, and he lectures at Cardiff University and St Michael's Theological College, Llandaff.