Christian influences helped foster systemic imprisonment that characterizes the American prison system. Now, it is our long overdue duty as Christians to undo our legacy of harm and criminalization.
According to Prison Policy, the exponential growth in the prison system began in the 1970s alongside “law and order” rhetoric employed by President Richard Nixon in his fight against the “war on drugs,” but it skyrocketed under the Reagan administration. The rise in federal and state prison populations, especially among people of color, was due in part to evangelical conceptions of individual sin and God’s wrath towards wrongdoing.
Retributive justice, our nation’s conception of justice that demands punishment as retribution in accordance to the wrongdoing committed, is largely interwoven into the evangelical compulsion of individual penance before a wrathful God. Affirmations of God’s vengeance towards sin and violence have been twisted into harsh legislative zero-tolerance policies like mandatory minimum sentencing. A toxic concoction of fundamentalist evangelicalism, nationalism and pervasive systemic racism has built the world’s largest prison system that currently confines 2.3 million people nationwide and is costing us not just money, but more importantly, our humanity.
As Christians, we must do better. Retributive justice is not the message of the gospel and cannot be the message of our criminal “justice” system any longer. Systems of punishment, isolation and dehumanization stand in direct opposition to the grace and redemption of Jesus Christ. Christians cannot claim grace for sin through Jesus while passively or actively endorsing mass incarceration. Mass incarceration further perpetuates cycles of poverty, generational trauma and harm to individuals and communities. Despite having the world’s largest prison population, our nation does not talk about mass incarceration nearly enough. The very nature of mass incarceration isolates offenders from society, making it an easy social problem to blissfully ignore or live in ignorance of. But we cannot lock our problems away. We cannot lock our people away. We need a solution, and I believe Christians need to be at the forefront of rethinking what holistic justice can look like.
Whereas retributive justice seeks to punish and isolate offenders from the broader community, restorative justice seeks to address harms through the identification of needs and community obligations. Restorative justice is a transformative model of justice that invites victims, offenders and communities into a cooperative dialogue of radical hospitality in order to cultivate relational and societal reconciliation. Restorative justice is a rightful and necessary practice of the Christian faith and must be implemented practically and ideologically in Christian communities. Together, Christians must work to implement restorative justice in their communities through acts of countercultural, open-handed welcome and acceptance. To achieve such welcome, barriers of judgement and condemnation must be actively torn down to pave the way for radical reception of one another’s pain through listening and loving. Part of being an agent of renewal is necessarily tied up in the assertion Paul makes in Romans 8:1: “There is no more condemnation in Christ Jesus.”
Restorative justice can look like restorative legislation, victim-offender dialogue or rehabilitation programs. It should include prison reform and school disciplinary policy reform. But it can also look like practicing vulnerability and taking accountability. Though it is admittedly broad and often can be too theoretical, at its core, restorative justice prioritizes healing broken relationships. Living in right relationship with God, others and our communities requires the active pursuit of peace. Contrary to our modern conceptions of peace, Biblical peace is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the intentional pursuit of the beauty and blessedness of God upon another through the establishment of justice, harmony and wholeness. God’s promise in Revelation 21:5, which states “Behold, I am making all things new,” includes all of us, including the imprisoned people society deems irredeemable.