Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Valmae Beck: on the care of criminals

A nauseating news story today in my home state of Queensland. Convicted child-murderer Valmae Beck is currently in a coma in hospital, following heart surgery this week. Some members of the public – gleefully spurred on by a certain newspaper – are “calling for authorities to let her die,” since they are “outraged” that taxpayers’ money should be paying for the medical treatment of such a wicked person. (Nearly giddy with moralism, this newspaper adds: “When she dies, taxpayers could also be expected to pay for a cremation under Queensland law” – and the same tabloid ran as its front-page headline: “Let her die with shame.”)

Such vicious moralism is driven by a direct identification of the person with her works. In contrast, the necessary gap between person and works has been highlighted by Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel, in his brilliant book on Justification (pp. 269-72). Jüngel speaks of “the absolute primacy of persons over their works.” The doctrine of justification describes God’s recognition of persons irrespective both of their achievements and of their deficiencies. For that reason, Jüngel writes, a society must be assessed not primarily according to its successes and achievements, but according to its treatment of those persons who contribute nothing to the society’s political and economic life, such as children, the elderly, the infirm – and criminals.

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