Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Christian Criminology: Religious Values and Criminal Justice Policy (Sep-Oct 1999)

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Christian Criminology: Religious Values and Criminal Justice Policy

by Michael A. Hallett, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Criminal Justice Administration
Middle Tennessee State University
September – October, 1999

It is nice to be invited to submit a piece of writing to Wineskins because it offers me the freedom to speak my mind about an issue not entirely welcome in my usual forum, that of the secular State university. The discussion to which I refer – a discussion about the moral and political comments of Jesus and how they patently contradict current ciminal justice policy – is a theme uncofortably greeted by students – especially students who privately (not in the open classroom) describe themselves as Christians, but publicly want to “crack down” on criminals. Some vocal minority of self-described “civil libertarians” or “atheists” in the classroom claim the topic of Jesus has no relevance at all to criminal justice. But it seems to me that Christianity begs analysis of issues vital to criminal justice policy (and vice versa), including especially punishment, separation, redemption, vengeance, reaping and sowing and forgiveness.

The irony for me in all this is that I have long described myself as a civil libertarian and a “progressive liberal” – but still want to (tsk, tsk) talk about Jesus in the “secular” classroom. Rest assured that when I do talk about Jesus in this forum, I take the requisite defense of categorizing the Bible as “a literary document” and Jesus as “a literary figure” representing a distinct point of view worthy of discussion as to themes that repeatedly come up when discussing criminal justice. Inasmuch as the danger always exists that this discussion will break down into a diatribe about Christianity “really” means, I dismiss this as a convenient diversion from having to confront what Christianity actually does mean. As a Methodist minister friend of mine points out, however, all people of faith are necessarily, and must be by definition, “selective fundamentalists.” Let me, therefore, outline my own particular view of what “Christian Criminology” might take as “fundamental” and summon a dialogue about what I take Jesus as a religious figure (if not a literary one) to stand for in regards to crime and punishment. In order to do this, however, we will first have to establish some basic facts about the current state of crime in the United States.

Some Basic Facts: The Crime/Poverty Connection

In the study of crime we are especially confronted with the fact of poverty and its power in the world. In a society such as ours, but basically in any society, there are traditions of stratification and caste, and ours is not exception. These divisions are based on so many things including race, social class, gender, ethnicity, religious tradition, level of education and accomplishment, age, and many other things. Thus, on the one hand in the United States we have an admitted and profoundly high level of diversity among our population (being the nation of immigrants that we are), and on the other have a well-documented history of class warfare and hostility between various groups within our borders (the Civil War being only one demonstration of this). In sum, we are a nation of historically contested space and values.

Whatever one’s thinking about various policies for prevention and control of crime, the phrase “war on crime” best captures the them of our policies over the past thirty-five years. “In a presidential message to Congress in 1965, the ‘war on crime’ was launched. President Lyndon Johnson (on March 8, 1965) declared that ‘we must arrest and reverse the trend toward lawlessness,’ suggesting that ‘crime has become a malignant enemy in America’s midst'” (as cited in Quinney, 1999, p. 77).

The warfare impulse for establishing peace can be traced back to the Crusades, a religious war fought on behalf of the Catholic Church in the 11th through 13th centuries, which justified murder of the “Godless” in the name of religious salvation. As the author of the recent book The Code of the Warrior notes:

The idea of a Crusade that pits the pure against the evil in a drama of redemption and death is still our controlling image for dealing with difficult problems of otherness and conflict. … This image may have the advantage of rousing a dulled and apathetic “public” to pay attention to the news … but it carries the deeper disadvantage of fogging the causes of a problem by reducing its complexities to simple demons” (Fields, 1991, p. 167).

Crusades, at heart, are understood by many to be large scale, hostil attempts to integrate “others” wo are somehow foreign into the fold and life-pattern of another group.

Now, in terms of crime, we must first of all note that the criminal law is a sphere of social control which seeks to impose a like behavioral standard upon all of our diverse groups. Key assumptions of the criminal law are that we are all equal, that we all have equal access to the benefits of society as well as to the law itself, and that the law will treat us all in the same way regardless of where we come from or who we are. (I note in recent editions of Wineskins considerable space devoted to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who most decidedly did not think secular law treats people equally.)

In regards to crime and punishment, the first undeniable fact is that most people who endup being incarcerated for crime in the United States are those we sociologically describe as “disadvantaged.” At the same time, those most frequently victimized by crime tend to match the profile of those most frequently incarcerated – they also come from “disadvantaged” backgrounds. As the U.S. Department of Justice points out, people with annual household incomes of $7,500 or less have roughly twice the violent victimizatio rate as members of households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more. In addition, according to the same Justice Department data, children aged 12 to 15 who live in the inner city have roughly 100 times the rate of victimization of senior citizens living in any jurisdiction. Thus the characteristics of most victims match almost precisely the characteristics of most offenders, except in the case of one variable: victims tend to be younger than offenders. The social profile of most victims and offenders, then, is that of an economically disadvantaged, inner-city, minority male who comes from a broken home, is functionally illiterate, and whose dominant associations to this point in life have not at all been constructive in large part because the conditions of his life have not been constructive.

In criminology, two dominant perspectives (sets of theories) are used to explain why we have “good” and “bad” people: the so-called “volitional” (free will) and “structural” (social environment) perspectivies. Each perspective attempts to answer the question: What factors best explain human criminal behavior? Volitional theories suggest that behavior is the product of carefree choice making; that social conditions are not at all important in determining how someone acts or does in life. The structural set of theories argue the flip side of the coin, suggesting equally stridently (and equally anti-humanely it seems to me), that human behavior is completely “caused” (not chosen) by forces outside the control of the individual criminal. From the structural perspective how one does in life is wholly the product of the environmental conditions which surround the criminal.

Criminology, then, provides a pretty bleak and simplistic view of human behavior either way. On the one hand, criminology depicts human beings as completely hedonistic and calculating masters of their environment, and, on the other, as beings unalterably vulnerable to their environment, like billiard balls on a table wholly directed by the forces impacting them. The first conclusion that must be drawn about criminology from a Christian perspective, then, is that criminology largely misses the flesh and blood reality of the human condition: that humans are both impacted by social conditions beyond their control, but also have the power to direct their lives, if only partially and according to countless combinations of variables too numerous and contingent to enumerate. Indeed, to many Christians and social scientists alike, the notion of “Christian Criminology” seems equally absurd – to Christians because Jesus operates with a power in the world far beyond what any academic theory can explicate – and to social scientists because the “biased” tomes of Christianity are not amenable to statistical formulae which can consistently and with predictability be broken down to enumerate the “inputs” and “outputs” of human life to give us definite answers.

Moreover, our political parties have somewhat different applications of the “volitional” and “structural” perspectives on crime, with fairly doctrinaire “conservative” and “liberal” accounts of the causes of and answers for crime in more or less constant circulation. Generally speaking, conservatives favor policies which offer disincentives for “bad” behavior, imposed as punishments after the fact, designed to “deter” offenders from making bad “choices.” Liberals, on the other hand, offer policies favoring incentives for “good” behavior, emphasizing rewards for non-deviant behavior before crime is committed, seeking to impact the social environment. Both parties assume, of course, that a formulaic tinkering of sorts, either before or after the fact, can influence crime positively, a perspective we commonly label “social engineering.”

Finally, to make matters worse, “criminals” themselves often see crime in an entirely different way than do either political party or criminology. From the perspective of many criminals, there is neither any incentive for good behavior, given the jobless environment from which they come, nor any real disincentive to committing bad behavior, since only a small fraction of criminals are ever actually caught for a given crime. As recently pointed out in a study of the conviction rates achieved by the FBI, the nation’s premiere law enforcement agency has a successful conviction rate of only about 27 percent. What we fail to see for all of our liberal carrots and conservative sticks regarding crime and punishment is that there is a clear and direct association between previous victimization and subsequent offending: that all of these things are going on at once.

Christian Criminology

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18)

In studying the life and message of Jesus, we learn that he was in fact a teacher of “the way,” an educator of the “way to be” in the world. The Sermon on the Mount, the parables, Jesus’ own suffering, his moment of desolation on the cross, all dramatically speak to us about the human condition. Moreover, Jesus’ affinity for those rejected, his exultation of the marginal, his statement, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18), dramatically challenge us to reconsider God’s “terms of acceptance.” We expend enormous energy in this society to be safe, or as my friend Hal Pepinsky explains, “We invest a lot in the illusion of safety – to the point where the production and maintenance of this illusion compromises our ability to achieve it.”

Criminal Justice, of course, is all about trying to make us “safe” – whatever it takes. Over the past 20 years we have spent a lot of time and money building more prisons and incarcerating many more (mostly low-level, non-violent) offenders, but when we watch the evening news, is the message about how we are demonstrably safer now than in in the past?

The following items are all things asserted by the U.S. Department of Justice: that both abuse of children in the home, as well as the murder of children outside the home, are on the increase (with juvenile homicide up over 65 percent since 1985); inner-city single mothers are the leading abusers of children; teen suicide is up dramatically; violence in schools is at record levels; two-thirds of people in prison are functionally illiterate; 90 percent of people in prison come from “disadvantaged” homes; those most frequently victimized by both property crime and violent crime live in poverty; several compelling studies [the most recent from RAND] indicate that “the longer someone spends in prison, the more likely they are to reoffend.”

What strikes me deeply about these facts is the biblical notion of reaping and sowing: that we have a well-heeled cycle of violence and retribution – a model of reaping and sowing – much like the Prophets describe. If sending people into the violent environment of prison seems to induce them to commit more crime, then what have we accomplished? Moroever, when you examine the data historically and in a broad fashion, you find that offenders (especially violent offenders) invariably also have long records of themselves being victims. You find the reality of poverty in the lives of both offenders and victims contributing to their victimization. In the case of property crime, members of households with incomes of $75,000 or more have a property crime victimization rate approximately half that of households with annual incomes of less than $7,500.

The work of criminal justice, then, like the work of Jesus, is a vocation devoted to serving the poor – where we observe the biblical pattern of those with the least to lose, losing the most, holding true. Does Jesus’ promise that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” have meaning here?

In chapter 10 of Matthew, Jesus gives leave to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace, but a sword.” A little earlier (Matthew 5:27) he says: “Think not that I am come to overthrow the law; I have come not to overthrow but to fulfill.” What is the law? In my view, the law is what he said it is: you reap what you sow – and if you sow destruction, in your personal life, or as a society, or elsewhere, destruction is indeed (with certainty) what you will get in return.

Do people have an “equal” chance in our society? Do all people have the opportunity to make equal “choices”? When you look at our society, at our so-called communities, our discipline-focused (rather than education-focused) schools, the cosmic and biblical thesis of reaping and sowing is dramatically supported. The law is fulfilled. Jesus is asked directly: “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” He replies: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and all they soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17). By ignoring the structural forces which produce the conditions conducive to the crime we say we abhor, we only contribute to crime and suffering.

What is happening in terms of our crime problem, and our policies attending to it, is that we have a kind of apocalypse (an “unveiling”) taking place right before our eyes, but that we do not (wish to) see. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching about social justice is the Sermon on the Mount: do unto others, turn the other cheeck, use your life for the sake of others and you will find it. We cannot possibly fight crime without addressing the underlying causes of crime.

If criminology is the study of crime, then Christian Criminoloogy is the study of crime through the eyes of Christ. When you study crime, you find pretty quickly that the cycle of violence and victimization prevail over the long term. Like Jesus’, ours in criminal justice as a vocation concerned primarily with the poor. Jesus defined his vocation as being fundamentally attentive to the social experience of those who are marginal and most vulnerable, with those who endure poverty, and with outcasts, and so it is in criminal justice. But ours – especially in criminal justice education – is also a vocation devoted to helping the “blind” see (Luke 4:16-21). In regards to crime and punishment, we experience a kind of myopia which fixates on the most visible and immediate (an politically exploitable) aspects of the crime problem – violence and drugs – while inducing a plain blindness to the dominant kind of suffering associated with crime, the vicitimization of the poor and less powerful.

In our culture, we are focused on victory and on achieving victory through violent means. In all the news over the past summer about school shootings and crime, I see the common theme of guns. This quote by Daniel Berrigan describes where I believe we are:

We look around at our culture: an uneasy mix of gunmen, gun makers, gun hucksters, gun researchers, gun runners, guards with guns, property owners with guns. A culture in which guns put out contracts on people…[Yes!] We long for a community, we long for our own turf, the arts, a place where some ecology can heal us. And the big boot comes down. It destroys everything we have built. And we recoil. Perhpas in shock, perhaps in change of heart, we begin to savor on our tongues a language that is current all around us: “legitimate violence,” “limited retaliation,” “killing for love of the Kingdom.” And when the phrases make sense – that’s when we have crossed over. We are now an army – we have disappeared into this world, into bloody, secular history. (1988: 169-170; From Letter to Ernesto Cardinal: Guns Don’t Work).

Jesus, however, is focused not on victory or violence, but on mercy and service. A criminal justice system informed by the life and message of Jesus, in my view, would be less focused on “war,” and more devoted to mercy and service.Wineskins Magazine


Fields, Rick (1991). The Code of the Warrior: In History, Myth, and Everyday Life. Harper Collins.
Quinney, Richard (1999). “The Prophetic Meaning of Social Justice.” In Social Justice/Criminal Jusice: The Maturation of Critical Theory in Law, Crime, and Deviance. Bruce A. Arrigo (Editor). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company. Dr. Hallett’s forthcoming book is titled: SACRED WORK IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Transforming Violence, Restoring Community. He can be reached at (615) 898-5655 or online at [].

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