Although Christians are divided on the death penalty, they can take credit for making other criminal punishments more humane and prisons more livable.

Historically, Christianity has been a driving force for reform, says Thomas Beckner, a former prison chaplain and director of the Center for Justice and Urban Leadership at Taylor University in Fort Wayne, Ind.

"Prison sentences as a standard means of punishment appeared only after a point in history when the worth of the individual had become more highly regarded," Beckner said. "In fact, it was the introduction of Christianity with its call for drastic change in social conditions and attitudes which really ushered in the concept of prisons."

Here's a timeline based on Beckner's research:
  • Reign of Constantine, 306-337. Church courts established to administer justice to clergy, monks and clerics. But rather than the normal execution or physical maiming, it was decided that these intellectuals should be punished but not wasted. By the 12th century, those tried by church court received less severe penalties than those tried in other courts. Later, the same benefit was extended to all who could read.

  • Middle Ages. Imprisonment for criminal activity becomes the norm. Local jails emerge as "squalid places where men, women and children were confined together with no regard for the nature of their offenses."

  • 1557. In response to harsh conditions and the prevalence of corporal punishments and executions, churchmen advocated "humanitarian alternatives" such as the workhouse, temporary housing for vagrants, debtors and other petty offenders. The first such workhouse opened in Scotland in 1557. Then the idea was copied throughout Europe.

  • 1600s. A strict criminal code was enforced in Colonial America, drawing upon physical punishment as practiced in Europe. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a 1641 code mandated the death penalty for 12 offenses. Stocks and pillories were used to inflict pain and humiliation.

  • 1682. Pennsylvania Gov. William Penn, a Quaker, proposed the "Great Code," a set of laws that introduced the concept of confinement as punishment within itself. In time, this concept was adopted elsewhere, even reaching back to England. In Pennsylvania, the concept of reforming wayward citizens also got its start.

  • 1786. Pennsylvania rewrites its state code to reflect Penn's "Great Code." Emphasis is placed on punishment by labor in the penitentiary, with the world's first penitentiary created in Philadelphia in 1790.

  • 1870. Inspired by the faith-based crusading of Pennsylvania warde Zebulon Brockaway, the National Prison Congress adopted 41 principles around which to organize prison reform. Among the ideas adopted: Society is responsible for reforming prisoners and religion should play a role in reformation.

  • 1877. In response to prison overcrowding and deteriorating conditions in prisons, the first reform school was opened in Elmira, N.Y., to house and redirect the lives of young offenders.

  • 1970s. Skepticism about the effectiveness of rehabilitation efforts takes center stage, leading to major revisions of prison policies and sentencing guidelines. The idea that prison should have a therapeutic effect both for the prisoner and the community is abandoned, based on fears that rehabilitation isn't possible, religious programming isn't cost-effective and religion must be separated from the public sphere.

    The aisle seat on Death Row
    "What happens on the Green Mile stays on the Green Mile."

    That's what Tom Hanks' character promises in the 1999 film about Death Row. But Hollywood tends to take what happens on the Green Mile and splatter it on the silver screen.

    Those cinematic attempts are generally more successful when based on real-life cases. In fact, The Green Mile stands as one of the few successful capital punishment dramatizations derived solely from a novel. The Chamber was a bestseller about execution whose own execution flopped on the big screen.

  • Moviemakers have used the death penalty as a backdrop since at least 1931, when the comedy The Front Page (which has been remade at least twice) featured a press room full of reporters waiting to cover a hanging. That's because no dramatic story can grip us more quickly than one involving death. It's the one event we have yet to experience firsthand. But the consciousness of our own mortality draws us innately to the subject. "We each owe a death. There are no exceptions," the jailer says eloquently near the end of The Green Mile.

    In the `50s, Susan Hayward won an Oscar for I Want to Live!, portraying a woman sentenced to die in the gas chamber. In Compulsion, Orson Welles argued against capital punishment in a slightly disguised version of the Leopold and Loeb case. Cinematic reenactments continued in the `60s as Robert Blake turned in an impressive performance as a man who commits murder In Cold Blood.

    But execution dramas are more successful when the audience senses there is some truth underlying the tale. Dead Man Walking is perhaps the most recent and vital example of the ways in which the movies can take real-life cases and transform them into dramas, which force us to face our underlying fears.

    As crude as it is to admit, the movies can also remove us from the reality even as they invite us to experience it. We feel safe at the theater, secretly rejoicing that we are able to walk away from the execution unharmed.

    In 1957, Stanley Kubrick made the great war drama Paths of Glory in which several WWI soldiers refuse to make an impossible attack, and their superiors order their executions. One of the condemned prisoners, commenting on a cockroach crawling upon the floor, laments that the cockroach will be alive tomorrow but not him. The other inmate steps on the roach and says, "Now you got the edge on him."

    The movies give us that edge as well. But as Christians, we have to resist the temptation to crush someone else just to make ourselves feel better. We are called upon to visit those in prison; and even if we do it only at the movies, we need to be careful not to let cinematic treatments make us callous toward one of "the least of these."

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