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The Biblical Doctrine of Restitution
May 12, 2010
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Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil only cheated “rascals.” Like George C. Scott’s character Mordecai in the “The Flim-Flam Man,” Weil maintained that “You can’t cheat an honest man.” One of his devilishly simple and effective cons was to bring a dog of questionable ancestry into a bar. He would then show the bartender a forged set of pedigree papers and ask him to care for the seemingly prized pooch while he ran an important errand. During Weil’s absence an accomplice would enter the bar and offer to purchase the mutt for a substantial sum. When Weil returned, the bartender, hoping to make some fast money, offered to buy the dog for a few hundred dollars. Weil accepted, and the second man, of course, never returned.

Sixteen-year-old Stephen Dennison stole a five-dollar box of candy in 1925. As punishment, he was given a ten-year suspended sentence and required to report to a local minister once a month. When he failed to make his obligatory visits, young Stephen was sent to Elmira Reformatory in 1926 where he was confined for thirty-four years. It took his brother ten years to secure Stephen’s release. Stephen eventually sued the state and was awarded $115,000 for this miscarriage of justice. The presiding judge commented that “No sum of money would be adequate to compensate the claimant.”

No one could have guessed that mild-mannered Edward Mueller was a counterfeiter. But for ten years he eluded government authorities while he printed and spent fake $1 bills in his New York neighborhood. The funny thing is, Mueller was not very good at his craft. He used regular paper and spelled the name of the first president “Washsington.” Although a crook, Mueller was not greedy. He spent no more than two dollars in a day, never passed his bogus bucks to the same person twice, and used the fraudulent currency only for the bare necessities of life. The grandfatherly Mueller was eventually caught and sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He was also fined one non-counterfeit dollar.

In each of the above cases, people were defrauded. The bartender was probably too embarrassed to report the incident to the police. Stephen Dennison received only token compensation for his extended incarceration. Mr. Mueller was punished, but his victims received no compensation. In fact, tax payers had to foot the bill for the time he spent in jail.

The Bible outlines a way to deal with crimes like these: restitution. Restitution includes compensating a person for stolen or damaged property or physical harm done to someone. Restitution laws cover a variety of circumstances: assault (Exodus 21:18–19); bodily injury (21:26–27); liability (21:33–36); theft (22:1–4); property damage (22:5–6); irresponsibility (22:7–13); and the loss or damage of borrowed items (22:14–15). Voluntary restitution required the return of the item plus “one-fifth more” (Lev. 6:1–7). In most cases double restitution is required (Exodus 22:4, 7–9). Some crimes required payment of four (22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6) or five (22:1) times the loss or injury. Multiple restitution was usually mandated for items that had extended value. Sheep reproduce at a high rate and their wool can be made into clothing. To steal a sheep is to rob its owner of present and future productivity. An ox has similar value plus the added ability to pull plows and carts, essential functions in an agrarian society.

In all cases, laws of restitution placed a limit on revenge and a burden on the lawbreaker. Roger Campbell writes in his book Justice Through Restitution, that in each of the biblical cases, the “result was that the victim was restored to a better position than before his loss and the lawbreaker was punished by having to make right his wrongs in a manner that cost more than his potential gain.”

Many Christians believe that laws governing restitution are relics of Old Testament law that no longer apply. The New Testament tells a different story. Zaccheus promised to make four-fold restitution because of his abuse of power as a “chief tax-gatherer” and being an oppressor of the poor (Luke 19:8). While restitution did not save him, it was evidence that he had truly repented in the way he abused his power. For this Jesus could say, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). The Apostle Paul instructs the thief to “steal no longer; but rather . . . to labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need” (Eph. 4:28).

Laws of restitution have been abandoned by the courts largely because crimes are perceived as ultimately against the State. Campbell points out that “As the power of government increased, crimes were considered not so much as injury to the victim but as violations of the king’s peace. Laws were enacted that made it a misdemeanor for a victim to settle with an offender without bringing him to court. Instead of restoring the injured party to his condition before being wronged, fines now went into the government coffers and the attention of society turned to ingenious punishments for lawbreakers.” Contrary to the humanistic theory of punishment, laws of restitution remind the criminal that he ultimately is responsible to God for his actions (Ps. 51:4), and his victims, created in God’s image, must be compensated in the manner prescribed by the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25).

And where are policy makers on this issue? Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship, describes the time he addressed the Texas legislature and outlined the Bible’s view on how to deal with non-violent criminals.

I told them that the only answer to the crime problem is to take nonviolent criminals out of our prisons and make them pay back their victims with restitution. This is how we can solve the prison crowding problem. The amazing thing was that afterwards they came up to me one after another and said things like, “That’s a tremendous idea. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?” I had the privilege of saying to them, “Read Exodus 22. It is only what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.”

A question, however, still remains: Should restitution be made for wrongs done hundreds of years ago? For example, should present-day Americans pay restitution for slavery? My grandparents immigrated to the United States at the turn of last century, long after chattel slavery was abolished. Where is their guilt and the guilt of their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren? If biblical laws governing restitution teach us anything, they teach us that the guilty should pay and victims should be compensated by those who brought on the harm.

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About author

Gary DeMar

Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, His most recent book is Exposing the Real Last Days Scoffers. Gary lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and four grandchildren, Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).

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