For the past three broadcasts, we’ve talked about the violations of human dignity that are all-too-common in our criminal justice system. Christians cannot be silent in the face of outrages like prison rape, the mistreatment of mentally-ill prisoners, and overcrowded prison facilities.
What makes silence even more unacceptable is that there is a biblically-based alternative to the status quo: it’s called restorative justice.
Four years ago, Mike Huckabee summed up one of restorative justice’s key principles when he said that “we’ve got to quit locking up all the people that we’re mad at and lock up the people that we’re really afraid of . . .”
The distinction between “people we’re mad at” and “people we’re really afraid of” is crucial in restorative justice. Huckabee isn’t the only person to point out the increasingly punitive nature of American criminal justice. Longer sentences, the increased use of solitary confinement, and all-but-officially giving up on the idea of rehabilitation are just three examples of this trend.
Ironically, our justice system has grown more punitive even as violent crime rates have dropped. While there are exceptions, many American communities are safer than they have been since World War II. For instance, it is statistically safer to walk in Central Park at night today than it was in 1950.
We are spending money we don’t have to confine people “we’re mad at,” such as low-level drug and property offenders.
Restorative justice avoids this trap by treating crime as an offense first and foremost against the victim, not as an offense against the state. The wrong committed against the victim injures the peace of the community, what the Bible calls shalom. While punishment can play a role in restorative justice, it is a means to an end and not an expression of anger.
That end is healing the injuries created by the offense – to the victim, the community and, yes, even the offender.
While there are offenders we have to lock up (rapists and armed robbers come to mind), there are alternatives for dealing with many of the rest without endangering public safety. Allowing offenders to work to pay restitution to their victims (you can find examples of that in Exodus 22 and Luke 19:8) enhances their chances at rehabilitation. Especially if they can be supervised safely outside of prison and maintain ties with their families and communities.
And that matters, because Christians believe that no one is beyond hope, including those locked up for the rest of their lives.
Bearing witness to this hope and working for policies that bring light to darkness is not optional – it’s the Church’s calling. And it’s also the work of Justice Fellowship, which Chuck Colson founded in 1983 as the criminal justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
And on today’s "Two-Minute Warning," my colleague John Stonestreet begins a series exploring a proper Christian posture to culture. Like Chuck, John believes the Church’s responsibility is to demonstrate the truth and power of the Kingdom in culture. When aspects of culture—like the justice system—are properly ordered, they can bring life, not death—because this is, after all, our King’s world.
And that King would be Jesus, of whom Isaiah said, “In faithfulness He will bring forth justice; He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on earth.”