Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

[1] It is no secret that some members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) question the value of the social statements of this church. A proposed resolution from a congregation in our synod declares that “social statements have limited value to the ministry and mission of the ELCA, have been divisive, and are expensive to produce.” Not surprisingly the resolution proposes that the ELCA “cease wasteful spending on the formulation and adoption of social statements.”

[2] As I traverse this largely-rural synod on the Northern Plains, engaging in disaffiliation debates and defending the priorities of my church body, I am frequently bombarded by questions about our church body’s social witness. “Why does the ELCA seem to be so hung up on ‘political correctness,’ so focused on matters deemed non-essential to the church’s evangelical witness, so determined to wade into controversial issues on which people of goodwill regularly disagree?” Surrounded by such skepticism, I took up — somewhat gingerly — the invitation to review and respond to the recently-released study Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice from the task force developing an ELCA social statement on criminal justice.

[3] What I encountered immediately was the timbre of familiar voices, speaking from the heart, addressing realities that are deeply woven into the fabric of daily life in God’s world — a world in which we Christian believers regularly confess that we are “captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”1 The stories that begin each of the five chapters of this study reminded me of parishioners and neighbors I have actually known and loved over three decades of pastoral ministry:

Stuart2, a man I visited in a county jail after he was convicted of fraud;
Fran and Richard, an older married couple who never felt comfortable in church after the murder of their teenage daughter;
Phil, a police officer and parish leader, who frequently shared the highs and lows of working in law enforcement;
Sonja, who poured out her heart to me about the loneliness of raising her two kids while her husband was incarcerated for assault; and
Frank, a fellow I grew up with in our tiny Minnesota farming community, and with whom I rekindled a friendship after I preached at his “home” in the State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

[4] Such voices of folks connected to our criminal justice system “set the table” throughout this engaging study. Hearing them, it is hard to imagine that Lutherans of whatever political stripe, ethical persuasion or theological stance will be able to dismiss the topic of “faith and criminal justice” as irrelevant or peripheral to the evangelical witness and calling of the Body of Christ. We follow a Lord, after all, whose central saving act occurred in the context of a judicial execution. We claim as elder sisters and brothers all the prophets, apostles and martyrs who wound up on the wrong side of the law — arrested, imprisoned, punished for disturbing the peace. We worship a living Savior who has promised to meet us in the guise of the prisoners he enjoins us to visit (Matthew 25:36).

[5] The “voices” in these five chapters open the reader up to considering the various “contexts” of our criminal justice system. So we ponder the vocations of those who serve in law enforcement (Chapter 2). We consider the multi-faceted judicial system in America (Chapter 3). We delve into the world of corrections (Chapter 4), and in one of the best sections of the study (Chapter 5) we reflect on “life after crime” — for offenders, victims and the entire community. Attention to these contexts then leads into faith-based reflections and questions.

[6] I am struck by how this study achieves a balance between being both comprehensive and concise, as its various sub-topics woo participants into further study and deeper discussion. This is so critical in addressing a topic that usually is treated like one more political football, bandied about by the agenda-driven talking heads on the cable TV news networks. Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice can, indeed, set the stage for a fuller, richer consideration of an issue that touches all of our lives. This resource is ideal for a church that seeks to set a different tone, a congregation that desires to model the best of moral deliberation among persons of varied convictions and experiences.

[7] Let me spell out what I regard as some of the specific strengths and weaknesses of this study. In my judgment the strengths include:

Its comprehensiveness; the study truly touches most of the bases that need to be addressed to do justice to the topic of “faith and criminal justice.” And this is so critical, given the truncated way too many of us think about matters of crime and punishment — far too influenced as we are by the compelling but partial views of our criminal justice system gained from TV shows like Law and Order, Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), and the various iterations of cable-TV cops-and-robbers documentaries.
The ways the study debunks myths and deepens the data pool on the topic at hand. For example, “When people think of crime, they tend to think of the kinds of violent offenses they hear about in the news; and most people believe that crime in the United States is increasing. In fact, most crime is not violent and crime rates have been declining in the United States since the early 1990s….[M]any people believe that courts treat offenders too leniently, but in fact, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world….[P]opular crime dramas…leave viewers with the impression…that most offenders are apprehended by police, when in fact the majority of offenses do not result in arrest. Another common misconception is that most cases involve jury trials, when only a small percentage does.”3
How the study challenges congregations to view themselves as “social actors” in the arena of criminal justice. Perhaps more than some of the social issues addressed in previous ELCA social statements, members and congregations will be led (by this study) to realize that criminal justice isn’t just “out there” somewhere; it is as close to the daily lives of ELCA members as those with whom they sit in the same pew on Sunday mornings — victims of crimes, ex-offenders, law enforcement and corrections workers, etc. And the study — especially in its conclusion — makes clear the manifold ways that congregations as “social actors” can and must contribute to greater justice for all who are impacted by crime.
The invitation, in Chapter 5 of the study, to focus on “Life After Crime.” This chapter, in my judgment, is perhaps the finest, reminding readers of the long-term effects of crime and calling Christian disciples and communities to greater engagement in efforts to pursue restorative justice. There are no quick fixes or easy answers, but readers of the study are invited to continue the journey.

[8] The weaknesses of the study are more subtle — tending more toward sins of omission than sins of commission:

Although I find the study to be written with even-handedness and balance, I wonder about some biases that seem to creep through. The study could say more about the dangers and opprobrium faced by those who work in law enforcement and corrections, at the same time offering greater affirmation of these God-given vocations of protection and service. I also wonder whether the significant attention paid to issues of race and ethnicity (e.g., statistics linking incidences of arrest, incarceration, inordinate use of force by law enforcement officials) would not benefit from deeper analysis at some points.4 And, as someone who has lived his whole life in rural America, the tenor of the study seems to identify criminal justice as primarily an urban issue. I hope that the social statement yet to come will include at least some explicit attention to the unique challenges of law enforcement, judicial systems and corrections in rural America where so many ELCA congregations are located.

The “Faith Reflections” sections of the study are, by and large, satisfactory as far as they go. Key theological touchstones are addressed (e.g., theology of creation, human beings made in God’s image, the twofold reign of God in the world, the doctrine of vocation). I was surprised, however, that a study on criminal justice did not include a fuller, deeper analysis of human sinfulness (if word counts mean anything, the words “sin,” “sins,” and “sinfulness” together show up only ten times in the entire document). It seems to me that Genesis 1–11 is an archetypal text that could and should be plumbed more deeply to reveal the ways our contemporary concerns around criminal justice are as “old as the hills” in the foundational texts of our tradition. Greater attention to our Lutheran bias toward understanding sin as a condition infecting all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve would enhance the study’s efforts to demonstrate how everyone is caught up in a web of failure when considering the issue of criminal justice.

Only after my second reading of the study did it dawn on me that the study would be enhanced by greater attention to the whole complex of causes of crime in our culture. Causative agents are considered, of course, in passing throughout the study — but I believe that causation probably deserves greater attention, particularly in the social statement to come. Doing so will force us all to ponder the formative influence of homes and families in shaping the social fabric of America. I find it deeply regrettable that those of us who live and move within the framework of mainstream Protestantism have largely retreated from topics such as “family values” or “fatherlessness” — ceding this ground to the religious right in the culture wars. This, despite the fact that there are mountains of sociological data that point to a strong connection between the breakdown in homes and families and the incidence of crime in America.

Finally, as we look forward to the eventual ELCA social statement on criminal justice, I hope that attention will be paid to the narrow but critical question of the religious formation of those who are incarcerated. Although hardly an expert on the subject, I have seen firsthand the ways that the role of prison chaplain (a ministry for which Lutheran pastors are aptly suited) has — often because of cost cutting by state and federal officials — given way to roles such as “religious activities coordinators” in our jails and prisons. In far too many correctional facilities theologically-trained chaplains have been supplanted by administrators of religious programming with minimal if any formal theological education. Indeed, the religious pluralism of the prison population should be addressed so that the faith needs of all are met — but not at the price of losing the presence of mature spiritual leaders who are deeply grounded within the Christian tradition and/or other living faiths.

[9] Members of congregations — like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this essay — will no doubt continue to raise questions about the value of ELCA social statements. But Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice can be an antidote to such suspicions in our church — by demonstrating the usefulness of thoughtful, informed, faithful studies that foster deep moral deliberation around issues that matter in God’s world.


1. “Confession and Forgiveness” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), p. 95.

2. The names of Stuart and the others that follow are not the real names of my former parishioners and friends.

3. Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice, p. 6.

4. Not to mention the broader question of whether the very constructs of “race” and “ethnicity” themselves are changing, and in some sense, disappearing from the scene. See, for example, articles like “Black/White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above,” New York Times, January 30, 2011, p. 1.

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe is Bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.