Justice Q Do harsh penalties reduce crime? A Getting tough on crime sounds like a good thing to many people who are concerned about justice. It also wins votes. The premise behind the movement toward longer prison sentences for more convicts is that harsh penalties will lead to less crime.
Experience questions that assumption. States that adopted “tough on crime” policies are dealing with large increases in prison populations without a reduction in crime rates. Costs for police and prisons have increased dramatically without improvements in the rehabilitation of inmates. These costs are often accompanied by cuts in crime prevention programs because they are viewed as “soft” on crime. In reality, no one is safer as a result of these policies.
Restorative justice, the approach endorsed by the Christian Reformed Church, takes an entirely different approach. Offenders are held accountable for harm done, but the focus is on restoring both victim and offender so they can live in society again. Putting this into practice is hard work. It is more difficult than throwing people in jail for a long time. But where it is practiced, the results show more promise than long jail time, measured by reductions in repeat crime rates and by restored community life.
Changing the direction of criminal justice systems is a reformation challenge. It starts with asking different questions. All of us can reject “tough on crime” appeals for our vote and advocate for a strong response to crime—one that reflects restorative justice principles.
Related links: Restorative justice resources (crcna.org)
—Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.
Faith Formation Q Two of our adult children are no longer walking with the Lord. I find myself facing a triple-headed monster: I grieve over their faith life, I feel guilty wondering what I did wrong, and I am ashamed to discuss their lives with others at church. How might such a “monster” be dealt with?
A I’m sure you know that you are not the only parent who faces this monster, but that in itself is not very comforting. I find it helpful to distinguish between primary responses and secondary responses.
Your grief is a primary response to this difficult situation. Your feelings of guilt and shame are secondary responses, that is, they are specific ways of processing your grief before the face of God and the Christian community. Your specific secondary responses tend to paralyze your grief and block the healing graces of our Lord.
The good news of the gospel is that you are free, bit by bit, to surrender that guilt and shame; you are free to remember that there are no perfect parents, no perfect children, and no perfect families. You are free to seek graciously safe places where you can be honest about this triple-headed monster and receive godly encouragement from others. You are free to lament in a way that offers your feelings of guilt and shame to the Lord as a sacrifice of praise.
In so doing, you are also free to grow into that strange peace of the Lord that passes understanding, and from that place of peace to love each of your children, allowing the light of Christ to shine through you into their lives as you prayerfully entrust them to the Lord. It’s a complicated and long road, but the Lord walks ahead of us on it.
—Syd Hielema is a professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.
Outreach Q I heard a friend denounce “progressive Christians” as being wish-washy and lacking spine. Is “progressive” Christianity a bad thing?
A Such labeling is sometimes used to categorize someone or something without having to really think about the underlying issues. The assumption is that someone who is “progressive” has cast off the traditional stances of a “Bible-believing Christian.” I think this is a bit of a mischaracterization. Let me explain.
Folks I know who proudly wear the label “progressive Christian”—and I count myself as one—say that they care deeply about biblical values such as justice, caring for the poor, release for captives by changing our current mass incarceration practices, care for the planet, freedom from addictions, peaceful responses to conflict, and so on. While there may be theological diversity about some doctrines among such folks, they consider themselves “Jesus” people through and through. That is, people who long to imitate Jesus’ sacrificial life, his concern for the marginalized, his extravagant grace for sinners, and his prophetic critique of religious and political power abuses. It would be wonderful if we refused to immediately discount fellow brothers and sisters in Christ because of diversity of emphasis in social values or varying doctrinal beliefs.
A larger concern is how such beliefs and values express themselves in our lives. Tired of theological controversy, an increasing number of Christians are interested in seeing our world “progress” to the point where it more and more reflects the kingdom Jesus came to announce and embody.
Whatever labels we use of ourselves or others, let’s be sure to give people the benefit of the doubt before we denigrate them. That itself would be a good reflection to our watching world.
—Bryan Berghoef is a church planter in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God