Sunday, 29 September 2013

Delhi Rape Case - a reflection

This blog is based on a talk I did on 15th September, just a couple of days after Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Mukesh Singh were sentenced to death for their part in the now, infamous, Delhi gang rape case.

The facts are now familiar to most. In December 2012 the 23 year old victim and her friend had been to a multiplex cinema in the Munirka area of Delhi. They planned to get the night bus home. That could be a scene from any modern city. But there had been lured into a trap. The bus was, in fact, out of service. The Defendants attacked them. She was gang raped. She and her friend were beaten with iron bars. Finally they were stripped naked and thrown from the moving bus. The victim underwent surgery in Delhi and was then transferred to Singapore but tragically died within a few days.

By any standards this was an horrific crime. It led to an outpouring of anger across the world and especially among India’s young people. Six men were arrested. No action was pursued against one of them. One of them hung himself in prison and the other four were convicted and sentenced as above.

The judge explained why he passed the death penalty –

‘These are times when gruesome crimes against women have become rampant and courts cannot turn a blind eye to the need to send a strong deterrent message to the perpetrators of such crimes. The increasing trend of crimes against women can be arrested only once the society realises that there will be no tolerance.’

There has been much political support for the verdict and sentence, including some suggestion of political influence. The Indian Home Minister is reported to have said that the death sentence was ‘assured.’

So what, if any, should be a Christian response to all of this?

I think it is helpful to step back for a moment from the sentence and think about what this case tells us about the shocking treatment of women. This is highlighted by a brilliant article from Sociology Professor Sanjay Srivistava writing in DNAIndia –

‘..women suffer the greatest amount of sexual violence within the family and yet such violence is also far less reported than its incidence. Why? Because the Station House Officer (SHO) at your local police station is at one with the ‘family elders’ that to register a FIR in the name of an offending uncle or grandparent would bring shame to the family. And, so the victim’s individual pain is sacrificed in the name of collective honour.’

He goes on to say –

‘Rape is committed by men who are brought up to believe that if they do carry out the crime, it is the female victim who will suffer a loss of dignity and hence will be convinced by her kin to keep quiet about it.

There can be no other response than to be offended by attitudes which cheapen the victims, especially women. Jesus Christ revolutionised the status of women. Just read John Ch4 which is the longest recorded one to one conversation where he discusses deep theology and personal issues with a Samaritan women, much to the ‘astonishment’ of his friends. It is fair to say the church has not covered itself in glory in relation to the status of women, but that is a discussion for another day. But there can be no doubt that we should be tireless in supporting calls for social change which will value women, and all other oppressed groups for that matter.

There is a danger here of ‘interfering’ in the culture of another nation. That is a genuine concern. But it is clear from Professor Srivistava’s article that the call for change is coming from within. We need to come alongside them and do all we can to support these calls and encourage our own leaders to do the same.

But what about the death penalty? Is this the appropriate sentence? It has certainly been welcomed by much of the media, both in India and elsewhere. I have been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty but have to confess that my initial reaction was supportive. How many of us thought – 'they deserve all they get'. 

This was one of the worst crimes imaginable; surely we can set aside our opinions just this once.

But on reflection we cannot allow our emotions to influence justice. We might feel a bit better, knowing that they will now face the same feelings of fear and helplessness as their victim. But does that make it right?

It is really a case of official revenge. Jesus' life and message was all about forgiveness and non-violence. He was the one who told us the turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to love our enemies. When he himself was the subject of an official ‘murder’ his response was forgiveness not revenge. That attitude has to underpin our own thinking and we cannot make exceptions for particularly nasty defendants.

The other concern is that it won’t actually change anything. Will the killing of these four men make the problem go away? The real risk is that they will hang, and the world will see that as line drawn under these terrible events. In the meantime women will continue to be treated as second class citizens who can be abused at will.

Finally, there is no such thing as a perfect system of justice. We get things wrong. If we still hanged those convicted of murder, the unfortunate boyfriend of Rachel manning would never had had the chance to clear his name and the real culprit might still be walking free –

Our main concern should not be to enjoy the satisfaction of revenge but to do all that we can to encourage change.