Justice as Sanctuary

 Herman Bianchi (1924-2015)

Herman Bianchi (1924-2015)

In 1992, as a result of an introduction from Ivan Illich, I visited Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie in Oslo and recorded several days of interviews that would be broadcast the following year as “Crime Control as Industry.” This set off an unexpected chain of consequences which kept me for a nearly a decade preoccupied with the question of crime and punishment. A number of series already posted on this site reflect this interest. They include, as well as the aforementioned “Crime Control as Industry,” “Prison and Its Alternatives” (1996), “To Hurt and To Heal,” (2000") and “In Search of Security” (2004). One of the most interesting books I came across during these amateur forays into criminology was Justice as Sanctuary by Dutch criminologist Herman Bianchi. It was first published in English in 1994 and has, happily, been kept in print by Wipf and Stock who republished it in 2010. At the time the book appeared in the English-speaking world, Bianchi was one of many thinkers who were then questioning the cruelty and irrationality of modern criminal justice “systems.” What I found striking in his work was his recuperation of Biblical concepts of justice and mercy, and his pointing out that monolithic conceptions of law are of relatively recent date. William Blackstone, for example, writing in his 18th Century Commentaries on the Laws of England says that ten different bodies of law were then in force in England, each exerting distinct but overlapping jurisdictions. The types of law he mentions range from the “divine law” to the “law merchant.” The right of sanctuary from which Bianchi’s book takes its title is a case in point. Churches afforded sanctuary because within their walls the divine law applied, not the criminal law. From such a sanctuary someone who had committed a wrong could attempt to negotiate restitution and settlement. The contemporary offender stands in the dock without initiative or dignity. The fact that he or she has committed a personal wrong that might in some way be remedied hardly matters - it is “society” and its monolithic law that must be satisfied.

I was fascinated by Bianchi’s book, and, in the spring of 1997, I arranged to interview him. He received me, very hospitably, in his snug converted farmhouse in Friesland, a northern province of The Netherlands. There over two days as his guest I recorded the interviews that make up this series. It was broadcast in the fall of that year. Herman Bianchi died in 2015. I never met him again and never really found out what he thought of the programs I made. It seems to me that they remain as interesting and challenging today as they were twenty years ago.