Christian love and criminal punishment

Jeffrie Murphy

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

    1 Scopus citations


    What would law be like if we organized it around the value of Christian love, and if we thought about and criticized law in terms of that value? Christian love, as a divine command, is of course not identical with either philia (friendship love) or eros (erotic love), although it may incorporate elements of both. Christian love is rather that kind of universal (that is, non-particular) love called agape or love of neighbor. American philosopher John Rawls claimed that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions.” But what if we considered agape to be the first virtue? What would social institutions - law in particular - be like? My primary focus in this chapter will be to explore criminal law and the practice of criminal punishment from a perspective of Christian love. Why should anyone really care about such an exploration? Almost everyone would acknowledge that Christianity’s emphasis on the moral and spiritual significance of the inner life exercised great influence on the development of a comparable emphasis on this in Western criminal law - for example, the idea that mens rea (intent) is generally required for conviction of any serious crime. But this general rejection of strict liability, one might think, has more to do with justice than with love, and this may still leave one with the question of why one should care about the value of love in thinking about criminal law. One might begin to answer this question by noting that one does not have to choose between love and justice and that, indeed, justice (properly understood) may be entailed by love (properly understood). Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple put it this way: “It is axiomatic that love should be the predominant Christian impulse and that justice is the primary form of love in social organization.” To say that one is acting in a loving way while subjecting a person to unjust oppression can only be seen as a sick joke. In addition to welcoming Archbishop Temple’s invitation to think of justice as a part of love, I also have some personal reasons for caring about the issue of love and punishment.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationAgape, Justice, and Law
    Subtitle of host publicationHow Might Christian Love Shape Law?
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Number of pages15
    ISBN (Electronic)9781316796931
    ISBN (Print)9781107175280
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Sciences(all)


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