Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

Other responses to Hearing the Cries
James Samuel Logan
Kathryn Getek Soltis
Bradley R. E. Wright
Wayne N. Miller

[1] This study, written by the Criminal Justice Task Force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is an “invitation to join this church’s moral deliberation.” Aiming toward a social statement on criminal justice, this study is to provide a more comprehensive framework for approaching the many issues associated with criminal justice than previous documents on the death penalty and community violence. It is to serve as a study guide to help individuals and congregations engage in moral deliberation and so aid the task force in its effort to develop a social statement. Crime shatters the lives of many people — victims, offenders, their families — and shapes the lives of those who work in our criminal justice system. Much of this we do not hear — especially the suffering of the incarcerated — yet scripture strongly gives voice to those who seek mercy, fairness, forgiveness, and who show sympathy. So it is fitting that this study chose the title “Hearing the Cries.”

[2] The study is divided into chapters on law enforcement, the judicial system, corrections, and life after crime. Each chapter begins with stories of people involved in those areas of criminal justice, then explains the context of each of those areas, and concludes with a faith reflection and discussion questions.

[3] As a college professor and regular adult Sunday school teacher I would say that this is an effective study guide. Adults who work through these chapters will be better informed, their sympathies will be broadened and their prejudices questioned, and they will find theological ideas to help articulate their Christian concerns. This indicates to me that the members of the task force diligently confronted the complex issues surrounding criminal justice, and that they deliberated over the varied responses people of faith can make. I am not a legal or theological expert on criminal justice, so my comments on the content of the study will be more general.

[4] First of all, the chapters begin with stories of those involved in the criminal justice system. These function as simple case studies, and case studies are effective ways to study moral questions. Though they provide only bare details, they will help adult students enter into the issues. And, informed by the content presented, class members will be able to make thoughtful responses to the problems the case studies pose. The discussion questions at the end of the chapter invite such assessments. Secondly, the legal and theological issues are addressed in a basic, broad way, noting different approaches while seeking complementarities. For example, both the retributive and restorative approaches to justice are presented with an effort to show that they are not “mutually exclusive.” Similarly, the observation that the Lutheran “doctrine of the two kingdoms” has produced “tensions” within Lutheranism is handled in a way that tries to illuminate more than it divides. Members of an adult Sunday school class would be able to use such content to form their own minds, not be paralyzed by exclusive choices.

[5] In general, the idea that the legal and theological concepts discussed are complementary, not mutually exclusive, and so point us toward a new kind of Christian community, is more fruitful than the idea that there is “tension” between them. That way of putting things invites division and looks backward to past controversies. I would take out such language. For example, applying the concept of God’s two distinct ways of governing the world to this issue was not handled as smoothly as it could have been (28). The “some think,” “others think” construction is not helpful. It would be better to build upon the language earlier in the study, “Although these institutions have a purpose very different from the gospel’s, they are no less God’s gift to us” (26). That way of expressing this theological idea is better because it encourages participants in this study to assess how far our criminal justice system can be an instrument to press forward God’s concern for human dignity, and justice and fairness for all. That seems to be the direction this study wants to take us.

[6] Similarly, “Retribution and restoration — which are not mutually exclusive — offer rich possibilities for reflection” (46). This tone is more fruitful than the “living in tension” theme a few pages later. Such language makes it sound as though we are stuck. It is too inward looking (“look at us as we struggle”), and it takes our eye away from the goal we all seek together. That goal, we read, is “justice as hospitality” (48). But rather than see this goal naturally following from the preceding, it is introduced as “Yet a new perspective” that “changes everything” (48). This invites confusion. Why not simply pronounce that justice as hospitality is the goal toward which worldly justice (retribution and restoration) is ultimately tending, and that Christians are called to strive for that in our own communities and move the wider society in that direction as far as we can? (This paragraph would be less confusing and flow naturally from the preceding if that sentence were deleted, and began with the next, “Acting out of memory we open ourselves to the vulnerabilities of others….”) There are risks with opening ourselves to and welcoming the stranger. The text invites congregations to consider what this calls us to do, and assess how difficult it will be for churches to open themselves to serve offenders. But we can hardly expect the wider society to heed this call and take risks if we do not do it ourselves.

[7] This leads to my main theological suggestion. The “Faith Reflections” state that because all are created in God’s image, they deserve “proper deference” (18), and that means, concretely, “listening,” “bearing together the burdens,” and “advocating for justice for all” (19). Because God is triune, further, we are to live in community too. It is not good for us to be separated and cut off from others. Furthermore, since God is the Creator and a just God, “the judicial system is accountable to God” (37), and since God will also restore the creation, we hope for a “new creation” when this-worldly justice “will have served its course” (28), and “where relationships and responsibility work hand in hand” (59). As we noted, the authors of this study have an idea of where, in the eyes of faith, criminal justice is ultimately leading. The study exhorts us to press toward it. The trouble is, we are not given a very good idea of what this actually amounts to.

[8] The faith reflections end with a question, “Might we think our way, perhaps with the help of Paul’s idea of ‘new creation in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5), to a point where relationships and responsibilities work hand in hand?” (59). I think most readers will wonder what that means. Here is the place to flesh out what it is for congregations to be the body of Christ. What kind of community are we to be, how are we to treat each other, and how far can we press these new relationships forward into the world? The faithful will not all see eye-to-eye here, and we will differ in our vision of what is possible in this world. Nevertheless, because our very identity is at issue, we need to lift up what it means to be a “new creation in Christ.” I think our members will be inspired to hear it boldly proclaimed.

[9] The study concludes with suggestions for congregations to be involved in this ministry. They range from pastoral care programs in prisons, to family transportation, to programs for youth at risk. Even more, there are ways for congregations to get involved by providing a context for victims and offenders to do what we are uniquely qualified to do: listen, reconcile, forgive, and promote amendment of life.

[10] Working through this study, adult Sunday school students will be better informed and their sympathies broadened. They will find theological ideas to help articulate their Christian concerns and also learn what steps they could take to act on their convictions. But the study wants to do more than that. It also wants to elicit responses that will “aid the task force as it begins to write a draft social statement” (6). It “cautions” us that unless “corporate action” is taken, study, deliberation, and individual and congregational action (it appears to say) is not going far enough.

[11] There are two issues here. One, does this study give the understanding required to recommend national policy? Secondly, what is the role social statements play in advocating, guiding, or setting national policy for the ELCA? As a member of the task force that wrote the social statement on abortion, I have wondered what difference that statement made in the way the ELCA conducted itself. This later question concerns social policy statements in general and is best addressed in another forum. But I will address the first question concerning this study specifically. I do not think that readers of this study will be in a position to give insights to those charged with writing the social statement. The study does not provide that kind of specific content.

[12] The study gives a summary overview of an array of problems only the task force members, who have studied and deliberated over them in depth, are in position to weigh and assess. It serves to educate and inspire individuals and congregations to action, not give the degree of understanding required to define national policies. For example, readers will know enough to promote and engage in reforming degrading prisons, but not state as a matter of national policy that “super max” facilities “are a clear example of such dehumanization” (58). A reader would want to know much more about such prisons before making such a claim (and the study does qualify it). Readers could support the task force in its effort to advocate for criminal justice reform: “To advocate is to speak out for the cause or concerns of others with them and on their behalf” (57). But what “corporate action” should follow from this? The study alone does not put us in a position to know. Task force members should not look to readers for substantive input for their statement — those who complete this study will not have such expertise — let alone for support or validation for any particular policy they may want the ELCA to promote.

[13] A final word. Some of the prayers accompanying the study were particularly thoughtful. This one especially held my attention: “Merciful Creator, we live in a world in which crime prospers and violence abounds. Preserve and protect us from our own sin and the sins of others. Help us to care for and protect one another without falling into violence ourselves….”

Ned Wisnefske

Ned Wisnefske is Schumann Professor of Lutheran Theology at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.