A few days ago as part of his Christmas schedule, Pope Benedict XVI visited a prison in Rome to decry overcrowding and assure the inmates that no matter what they had done, they are worthy of respect and dignity.

The Pope received a rapturous welcome from the prisoners, many of whom were visibly moved by the occasion.

This practice of visiting prisoners goes right back to the start of Christianity. It is a response to the words of Jesus to his followers: “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you came to me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Prior to Christianity, there was no tradition in the West of seeing prisoners as people deserving of respect and dignity, as people we should be willing to visit even if they are total strangers who may have done terrible things.

This is only one of many ways in which Christianity transformed the western moral imagination, a transformation many of us now take for granted.

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