Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

Other responses to Hearing the Cries
Kathryn Getek Soltis
Bradley R. E. Wright
Wayne N. Miller
Ned Wisnefske

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. (Luke 23:33)

They crucified him with the criminals. Do you know what this implies? Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community. — Karl Barth

[1] The Criminal Justice Task Force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has produced a much-needed clarion call to moral deliberation and action around the wide-ranging and complex social difficulties associated with the nation’s criminal justice system. Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice is a preliminary document, which will assist the task force in its efforts “to write a draft social statement for members of the ELCA to consider in the near future.” However preliminary the document may be, it certainly can stand on its own as a powerful voice grounding the denomination’s belief that Christian ministry to prisoners is nothing less than a ministry unto Jesus Christ Himself (Matthew 25:40).

[2] Yet, Hearing the Cries does not limit its criminal justice ministry to just prisoners alone. The document consistently underscores the powerful currents of unavoidable human interconnectedness, which is the reality of all persons, families and communities touched by the criminal justice system. Indeed, a strong ministry (and theology) of God’s wide-ranging Trinitarian presence grounds the entire document as it highlights many of the direct and collateral social concerns surrounding criminal justice in the United States: the restoration of those who commit crimes; justice in matters of crime and punishment; concern for the dignity of all persons; just and fair laws; the common good; protection of the innocent; the support of those who live their callings in assuring justice; and care of those who suffer the results of crime.

[3] An important strength of the document is its insistence that concrete corporate action must move forward even as difficult moral deliberations among those in honest disagreement continues, guided by the Spirit and witness of Christ. This call to corporate action, as the document rightly advocates, invites denominational members to focused and disciplined reading, reflection, discussion and response to the actual facts concerning the criminal justice system. Uncovering the facts of our criminal justice system takes great care and diligence of discernment because the facts are so often obscured by misconceptions. The document might best be understood as a limited and basic introduction to the web of complex issues surrounding criminal justice. It requires the ELCA membership to explore the issues beyond the introductory intent of this initial statement.

[4] In five clearly articulated chapters, the task force has achieved its purpose of highlighting a representative array of the most intractable and provocative dimensions of U.S. criminal justice. Among the most compelling aspects of Hearing the Cries are the voices and perspectives of the various stakeholders1 who are impacted by the criminal justice system, who speak their own stories. By letting the reader hear actual voices and first-hand perspectives from multiple vantage points, the authors have bought the issues of crime and justice down from the theoretical skies and into the reader’s hearts, souls and laps.

[5] Another critical and indispensable aspect of each chapter are the prayers and Scripture references that begin each chapter, and then the “Faith Reflections” which conclude each. This organizational structure focuses the reader on the ultimate grounds for Christian moral deliberation and action related to the criminal justice system: God. In the context of each chapter’s focus, and as prompts to reflect further about and beyond them, a number of discussion questions have also been provided with each chapter.

[6] “Chapter 1: Many Voices Crying Out” considers, in broad strokes, the social impacts and related consequences of crime on the networks of persons who bear the burdens of crime, burdens which call out for the Church’s attention. Here Christian concern extends out to victims, those accused, offenders, families (adults and children), communities, and persons who work within the criminal justice system. It should be noted that the focus given to those who work within the criminal justice system is especially welcomed given that so many progressive Christians fail to hear the voices that cry out from the mouths of many prison workers in particular, “We too are the prisoners; some of us just experience it in eight hour shifts.”

[7] With the second chapter, “Law Enforcement,” the document begins its task of focusing attention on specific operational aspects of the criminal justice system. Here the authors’ explore important “challenges, trends and practices of law enforcement” at the federal, state and local levels. This chapter displays considerable courage with its willingness to confront law enforcement with difficult questions surrounding race, ethnicity, gender, and religious affiliation in the context of the commonly stated aims of law enforcement: public safety; enforcing established laws (with special increased focus on immigration laws since 9/11); maintaining order; and providing services. Interestingly, the “Faith Reflection” which ends this particular chapter includes an important call to wrestle with a classic twofold theological tension within Lutheranism, namely, how to think about criminal justice in terms that balance “the gospel realities of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation” on the one hand, and the divinely sanctioned authority and justice of social institutions and civil authorities on the other. This is indeed a serious tension in the realm of criminal justice for Lutherans.

[8] In the third chapter we find a discussion of “The Judicial System,” that is, “the world of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and the many others who support them in their key roles in the criminal justice system.” Here the document highlights the multiple voices and perspectives of those responsible for determining the guilt or innocence of persons charged with a crime. A particular strength of this chapter is its raising, even if only preliminarily, the important specters of juvenile justice and the overrepresentation of the mentally ill in the nation’s criminal justice system. As the task force and wider ELCA continue to discern the important foci of this chapter, perhaps the added specter of “disease and incarceration” might be included. Indeed, problems of HIV and tuberculosis — in particular “Multidrug Resistant Tuberculosis” (MDRTB) — along with other infectious disease may well be an added dimension of concern and moral deliberation.2

[9] The fourth chapter’s focus on “Corrections” explores the broad reach of criminal sanction. Here the document correctly reports that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Indeed, some 2.3 million persons currently occupy America’s prisons and jails, which are supervised by a variety of federal, state and local jurisdictions. This number represents the highest per capita incarceration rate in U.S. history. Writing for the National Criminal Justice Commission, Steven Donziger has reported that, “Since 1980, the United States has engaged in the largest and most frenetic correctional buildup of any country in the history of the world.”3 Indeed, with just 6 percent of the world’s population, the United States now holds 25 percent of its prisoners at a cost of about $50 billion per year.

[10] If, in addition to the $50 billion dollar cost of direct administration and maintenance of jails and prisons, one were to also consider the profits now routinely enjoyed by companies that employ prison labor, the annual economic activity surrounding the U.S. prison industrial complex approaches or exceeds $100 billion dollars. And the financial incentive to increase the numbers of those imprisoned is not limited to the pursuit of corporate profit. Over the past three decades or so many economically depressed communities in the United States have come to support the boom in prisons as a way out of financial distress. This chapter rightly notes that the rise of for-profit private prisons as well as the growing use of more restorative community alternatives for nonviolent offenders have been significant responses to the prison system’s unprecedented of rates of incarceration. Public facilities simply cannot keep up with the pace of incarceration on such a large scale.

[11] Intimately tied to the chapter’s broad focus on criminal sanction are the racial, ethnic and class disparities in sentencing and corrections, as well as concern for one of the most virulent aspects of the nation’s correctional system: violence. Here too, as in the previous chapter, “the unique issues surrounding juvenile corrections” is addressed. And with respect to the confluence of violence and for-profit correctional facilities for juveniles, we would do well to keep in mind Alex Friedman’s observations concerning the alarming growth of youthful offenders being held in privately operated facilities: “The juvenile justice system has become enormously profitable as youths are channeled from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse in ever-increasing numbers.”4 Unfortunately, juvenile offenders held in private facilities have not been spared the violence and neglect that are a routine occurrence in both adult and juvenile public facilities. They too experience the disturbing patterns of violence (including sexual abuse), clinical malpractice, and administrative incompetence that are all too common throughout the nation’s correctional facilities.

[12] In sum, this chapter helps propel the ELCA’s collective advocacy of justice as restoration and reconciliation rather than as retribution, vengeance, violence, and humiliation.

[13] The fifth and final chapter of Hearing the Cries, “Life After Crime,” provides an important discussion of Christian responsibility toward offenders’ post-incarceration life, as well as for the ongoing care and support of victims, families and communities that have experienced the consequences of crime. Advocating deeply and movingly for the “one Lutheran family” to speak its voice, chapter five ends with an outstanding effort to offer the faithful an array of concrete and interconnected “Strategies for the Faith Community after Crime.” Giving focus to life after crime is important because experiences of life after crime grounds the present and future possibilities of an ex-offender’s contributions to self, family, community and nation — for better or worse. Here the ELCA will need to pay particular attention to what Jeremy Travis and others have flagged as the many invisible punishments of social exclusion many former inmates experience upon their release from incarceration. Operating largely beyond public view, many ex-offenders will face numerous “social disabilities” post-incarceration. These may include denial of student loans, banishment from public housing, denial of welfare benefits, and/or diminution or loss of voting rights (which the document does mention). Such “invisible punishments” post-incarceration makes positive individual and social contributions more difficult for many former prisoners.5

[14] There is no doubt that the sum of these five chapters represent an important contribution to serious Christian praxis meant to address the many troubling aspects of the nation’s wider prison industrial complex: that is, a set of bureaucratic, economic, political, and media driven interests that encourage increased spending on incarceration. Although I have highlighted (and sometimes supplemented) the many important contributions this document makes to the ELCA’s moral deliberation on the criminal justice system, it would of course be highly unlikely that any consideration of U.S. criminal justice would succeed at comprehensively coverage. This would be true for the ELCA or any other commentator(s). So it is with significant humility that I add an additional dimension for moral discernment to the ELCA Task Force’s already outstanding work in the service of the draft social statement to come.

[15] As the ELCA considers its call “to support a compassionate, just, and wise approach to criminal justice,” “it seeks common ground with other citizens of goodwill and advocates for justice in the U.S. legal system.” So how might the ELCA work with others of goodwill who may seek not reform of the prison system, but, ultimately, abolition of the system?

[16] To what extent does the ELCA’s conception of the common good, as so well articulated in Hearing the Cries, include openness to conversations with those who advocate for “abolitionist alternatives” to the nation’s current criminal justice system? Would it be wise to desire and work for alternatives to our current formal criminal justice system(s) of punishment in ways that reject punishment altogether as even an auxiliary aim of criminal sanction? Could the ELCA go so far as to consider a prison abolitionist voice like Angela Y. Davis who seeks (again) not reform of the prison system, but, rather, abolition of the prison system when she suggests that, “A first step then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system.”?6

[17] Finally I will say with respect to the common good, that although Hearing the Cries is rightly informed by the ELCA’s Christian faith, the document is indeed a significant contribution to the common good. The document ought to be viewed as partnering Christians with those of goodwill from other religious traditions as well as with those who may hold more secular humanistic views of human association. Indeed, the document should be seen as a testimony of hope in the “public square,” voicing its faith-based commitment to confronting the difficulties emerging from the nation’s criminal justice system. While attention to the quality of human relationships vis-à-vis the criminal justice system is, of course, not uniquely Christian, moral deliberation on such quality is a critical focus to which a Christian vision of human restoration can positively inform. Therefore, while Hearing the Cries is indeed an important statement for moral discernment and action within the ELCA, it is also an important statement in the service of the common good of the nation. There is little doubt that with the publication of Hearing the Cries the ELCA Criminal Justice Task Force has given its members and the wider society a critical statement of advocacy against criminal justice practices that (on balance) have significantly transformed the nation’s family and community dynamics for the worse.7

[18] The document informs us that the increased scale of incarceration today has an impact that extends far broader than just individual prisoners and their families; it rightly informs us that the collateral consequences of society’s reliance on large-scale incarceration as a primary means of achieving “criminal justice” includes: the exacerbation of racial, ethnic, class and gender divisions; broad-scale economic hardship; economic and social risk for the most vulnerable of the nation’s residents, particularly children; and the xenophobic demonizing of immigrants and residents viewed as “terrorists,” “foreign,” and/or “non-Christian.” In a voice both broad and specific, the document also tells us that incarceration on such a large scale poses fundamental questions of justice/fairness and civil and human dignity in a humane society. And in all of this, Hearing the Cries unflinchingly confronts the problem of criminal justice grounded in the Spirit of Grace and Justice that has been poured out for us from the bottomless wells of Jesus Christ’s restorative love.

1. Although I (and the document) use the term “stakeholder(s),” I recognize its use as problematic. As Howard Zehr has insightfully pointed out, “…’stakeholder’ is problematic; it may in fact originate from white settlers driving their stakes into the ground to mark what was originally Native land.” See Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002), p. 70.

2. See for example, Paul Farmer, “The House of the Dead: Tuberculosis and Incarceration,” in Marc Mauer, and Meda Chesney-Lind, eds., Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment (New York: New Press, 2002), pp. 239–257.

3. Steven R. Donziger, ed., The Real War on Crime: The National Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996), p. 31.

4. Alex Friedman, “Juvenile Crime Pays–But at What Cost?,” in Tara Herivel, and Paul Wright, eds., Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 148.

5. See Jeremy Travis, “Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion,” in Marc Mauer, and Meda Chesney-Lind, eds., Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment (New York: New Press, 2002), pp. 15–36.

6. Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), p. 106.

7. Marc Mauer, and Meda Chesney-Lind, eds., Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment (New York: New Press, 2002), pp. 1-2.

James Samuel Logan

James Samuel Logan is Associate Professor of Religion and Associate Professor and Director of African & African American Studies at Earlham College.