“The Church and Gun Violence”

Our nation is once again mourning the deaths of several young people and school personnel following another school shooting incident. Schools and churches are two of the main institutions that hold communities together.  The Church offers comfort to those grieving but has also done more than offer “thoughts and prayers.”  Over the past thirty years church denominations have been proactive in speaking out against gun violence.

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  • The United Methodist Church called for reducing the easy availability of guns and regulating their sale and possession in 1976, 1988, and 2000.
  • The United Church of Christ passed resolutions in 1969, 1995, and 1999 to negotiate with the NRA and endorsed policies of one handgun a month, a ban on assault weapons, and regulation of gun dealers.
  • The Episcopal Church passed 8 resolutions between 1976 and 2000 advocating more handgun regulations, banning assault weapons, and prohibiting the concealed-carrying of weapons.
  • The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued policy statements in 1995 and 2005 calling for a ban on assault weapons and regulations on the sale and use of firearms.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1994 and 2008 called on the church to stem the proliferation of guns in our streets, schools, and homes and to work for strong anti-violence conditions in our neighborhoods and communities.
  • The National Council of Churches called for churches to join an Interfaith Call to End Gun Violence in 2000.
  • The Presbyterian Church has passed resolutions calling for reducing gun violence through sensible gun control measures more than 8 times since 1968.

The PC(USA) in 2010 passed a resolution that recommends the following measures to reduce gun violence:

  • Limit personal legal gun purchases to one handgun a month.
  • Require licensing, registration, and waiting periods to allow for background checks.
  • Close the “gun show loophole” by requiring background checks for all gun buyers.
  • Ban semiautomatic assault weapons, armor piercing handgun ammunition, and .50 caliber sniper rifles.
  • Raise the age for handgun ownership to the age of 21.
  • Eliminate the Tiahrt Amendment that limits local law enforcement agencies in their use of gun traces.
  • Follow recommendations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and support laws to require judges and law enforcement to remove guns from situations of domestic violence, and from people with records of mental illness, drug use, or previous criminal records; and increase police training in nonviolent proactive intervention.

[See “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call” ]

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What business does the Church have in getting into the gun control debate?  The Church and people of faith aim to work for a society where God’s justice is foremost, for peace over conflict, where the safety and welfare of the whole community is as important as the rights of individuals.  Many gun owners are concerned that gun regulations may infringe on their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.  None of the recommendations are intended to limit the legal purchase and use of firearms by gun owners with no history of domestic violence, drug use, mental health issues, or criminal record.

Freedom is important to all Americans.  Our nation’s Declaration of Independence called for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Many Americans own guns to protect those very goals.  The proliferation and unregulated sales and possession of firearms however have increased fear and taken too many lives.

The Church calls on all Americans to support government approaches to reduce gun violence through rational, informed policies and not out of fear and force.  Holy Scripture presents another perspective on freedom and offers advice that is appropriate for the public debate on guns.  The Apostle Peter encouraged his friends to respect each other and the authorities:

“As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.  Honor everyone.  Love the family of believers.  Fear God.  Honor the emperor.”     –1 Peter 2:16-17

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In the biblical sense, freedom comes with responsibility; and freedom is not just for the individual, but for the entire community.  The Church and people of faith are saying “We’re all in this together.  Let’s work peacefully, in unity, for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of us and our neighbors.”

 

*[I am indebted to Dr. SanDawna Ashley, Executive of Minnesota Valleys Presbytery for my reflections in this Weblog.  See “Valley Bridge” newsletter for Feb. 21, 2018.

“Lent & American Punitive Justice”

Lent is a 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter practiced for centuries in the Church through fasting, penance, and spiritual self-reflection. What if we American Christians examined our beliefs about criminal justice administration and our roles as citizen-voters?

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Americans are willing to “move on” following tragedies deemed “accidental” or “acts of God” (weather-related events).  We are not willing to do the same for criminal actions, not even for crimes with no victims, no deaths, injuries, or personal loss.  We demand “just deserts,” what we call retributive justice.

The author of a Lenten study quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu that there is “no future without forgiveness” and states “there is no Christianity without forgiveness” (Marjorie J. Thompson, Forgiveness: A Lenten Study. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, pp. vii-viii).

There is no complete justice without forgiveness.  Forgiveness has been called “the consummation of justice” (Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, pp. 255f.)

Many question whether America is in fact “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”  Increased secularism and a diminishing role of the Church raises questions about God’s role in this nation.  The demand for punitive justice however never diminishes. American justice does not emphasize “community justice” or “restoration.”  God’s justice, biblical justice, is about relationships, about community.

To ensure public safety and justice for all citizens, we need to examine what is best for all of us in community.  How can we balance “my rights” with “my neighbor’s rights”?

Lent is a time for personal self-examination and reflection for spiritual growth in the 40-plus days before Easter.  I suggest we also examine our beliefs about an American criminal justice system that does not treat all citizens equally and fairly.  What would criminal justice in America look like if all persons were treated with justice and equality?

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I offer the following quotations for your consideration and reflection.

“The basic brute fact of incarceration in the new era of mass imprisonment is that African Americans are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.” ….

“By building more prisons, severely criminalizing drug-related activity, mandating prison time, and lengthening sentences, lawmakers chose a punitive course that abandoned the long-standing ideal of rehabilitation.”-–Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), pp. 3, 189.


“Nowhere else in the democratic world, and at no other time in Western history, has there been the kind of relentless punitive spirit as has been ascendant in the United States for more than a generation.  That relentless punitive spirit is the philosophy—the point of view—that we call “the Punishment Imperative.”  It has been the rationale for mass incarceration.”  ….

“What makes the Punishment Imperative a particularly insidious social experiment—the goal was never articulated, the full array of consequences was never considered, and the momentum built even as the forces driving the policy shifts diminished.” — Todd Clear and Natasha Frost. The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America.  (New York: New York University Press, 2014), pp. 1-2, 57.


“The main aberration or mystery in American punishment has to do with its severity…. Is the nation unaware, or confused, or indifferent, or misinformed about what happens in its prisons, or does it simply like things the way they are? …. How a culture punishes is part of its very meaning, and any explanation of its American forms must revisit that meaning in its parts and functions.”  ….

“The story of American punishment is a troubling one, and it should worry the citizenry in a republic of laws.  More than law-abidingness is at stake…..  How we treat others dictates how we might be treated in turn, and this time the devil lives in the abstractions as well as the details.”  — Robert A. Ferguson. Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment.  (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 5-7.


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“Punishment is a volatile subject for what it does to people, and it is not easily understood or appreciated…. . Is the criminal justice system of the U.S. so harsh because Americans welcome a strong punitive impulse?”

….  “Voters promote to high office those politicians who want tougher penalties… and those lawmakers who do not agree have learned to remain silent …in order to stay in office.” — Robert A. Ferguson. Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp.170, 172.


“Americans like to think of themselves as a righteous community fighting crime….  In biblical terms, righteousness creates might. In a more secular state… people can believe … that might makes them righteous.”– Robert A. Ferguson. Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment.  (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 210.

“God, Justice, & Policing”

Reading the Old Testament we are reminded repeatedly that “the Lord loves justice” (Psalm 37:8) and “I the Lord love justice” (Isaiah 61:8).  God is active in the world and God’s love of justice is not just a lofty idea. Justice is extended to all God’s people.  We are to work for justice.  As God is just, so must we be just in our actions toward our neighbor.   The concept of justice was part of God’s plan for all humankind, that all might live in peace (shalom), free of conflict.  Biblical justice means “doing what is right; and exercising fairness or equality” (cf. Blog 10, “The Bible and Justice”).  Whether practiced in the church, in the courts, or on the streets, the concept of justice is firmly grounded on the nature of God as revealed in Holy Scripture.

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Most people do not think of police work as a “holy calling” or form of “ministry.”  Based on the central place of justice in the Bible and God’s emphasis on “justice for all” however, surely working for justice can be considered a “Christian vocation.”

Police officers are the most visible criminal justice practitioners in society and as such they come under intense scrutiny in their responsibilities of maintaining public safety, order, and law enforcement.  I documented the pressures and stress faced by police based on interviews, questionnaires, and ride-alongs with patrol officers in several police departments (R. Lawrence, 1984, “Police Stress and Personality Factors: A Conceptual Model.” Journal of Criminal Justice 12(3):247-263).

Police are criticized and questioned for enforcement actions that appear to show bias against persons by race or social class. Questionable police shootings of suspects seem to be increasing; and the deaths of any citizens, suspects, or police officers are tragic events.  Excessive use of force is unacceptable, and officers must be held accountable. The vast majority of police officers however are dedicated to professional law enforcement that places priority on public safety and legal rights for all citizens.

Central to the biblical view of justice is the idea of “covenant” and that God’s justice depends on “community relationships.”  This applies equally to policing and justice.

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Police recognize they are part of the community and they depend on community cooperation to effectively do their job.  This reality was first recognized by Sir Robert Peel who developed municipal policing in London in the 1800s.  Knowing some of the history and developments of modern policing is considered an essential part of police education and training.

A partial list of Peel’s Principles of Policing includes the following:

  • Police depend on public approval in order to perform their duties.
  • Police depend on the public’s cooperation, respect, and voluntary observance of the law.
  • Police preserve public favor by constantly demonstrating impartial service to the law.
  • Police use physical force to the extent necessary to restore order and only when persuasion, advice and warning are found to be insufficient.
  • Police should maintain a relationship with the public that demonstrates the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.

[Sources: Carol A. Archbold, Policing: A Text/Reader (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2013), pp. 3-4; Steven M. Cox, Susan Marchionna, and Brian D. Fitch, Introduction to Policing–3rd ed. (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc., 2017), p.19.]

Police and other law enforcement officers include the thousands of men and women who carry out their sworn duties in small towns, as sheriff deputies in rural areas, city police, state highway patrol, federal officers in the FBI, drug enforcement, customs and border patrol, and many others.  Considering the high standards of “Peel’s Principles” it bears keeping in mind the daily interactions that thousands of officers have with members of the public in all places, at all times.  Police are the most visible public servants who patrol “24-7” and are always available for assistance.  Many officers view their role as a “calling” and they are frequently the only public servants to render aid and assistance to citizens in need.  When they meet the high standards expected of police and enforce the law fairly and equally, surely they are a part of “God’s justice in action.”

“Theology & Justice: Barth to Zehr”

Theology is the study of God:  our beliefs about God, the nature of God, how God is revealed to humankind, how we believe God intervenes in the world and in the lives of persons.  We believe the Bible is a record of God’s revelations to humankind.

My previous blog post noted the central place of justice in the Bible.  Words for “justice” appear more than 1000 times.  It is clear that Justice is important to God!

Biblical justice touches every part of life, referring to both criminal justice and social justice.  The God revealed in the Bible through narratives, Psalms and songs of praise, and declarations of prophets is a God who hates injustice.  The God in whom we believe is a God of justice who demands justice for all people.

It would stand to reason then that theologians would include some references to “justice” in their published works. Let’s take a look at a couple examples.

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Karl Barth (1886-1968) is considered the most important contemporary theologian.  Pope Pius XII described Barth as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.  Barth was a Swiss Reformed pastor and professor and was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church that actively resisted the Third Reich.  Barth is best known for his multiple volume work entitled Church Dogmatics.

Students of theology find Barth to be “heavy reading”—and they are not likely to easily find clear references to discussions of “justice.”  What is less well known is that Karl Barth made regular visits to the inmates of a Swiss prison.  The distinguished Professor of Theology at Basel University did not so much write about “biblical justice” as much as he lived and practiced “God’s justice” through his visits and Sunday sermons in the prison.

 

“We are sinners.  And we are prisoners.  Believe me, there is a captivity much worse than the captivity in this house.  There are walls much thicker and doors much heavier than those closed upon you.  All of us, the people without and you within are prisoners of our own obstinacy, of our many greeds, of our various anxieties, of our mistrust and in the last analysis of our unbelief.  We are all sufferers.  Most of all we suffer from ourselves. We each make life difficult for ourselves and in so doing for our fellowmen.” – Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Wipf & Stock, 2010, p. 37).

The prayers of Karl Barth during his prison visits exemplified his biblical message of God’s call for justice as much as his sermons:

“O Lord our God! …. Let thy lovingkindness shine upon our loved ones, upon all prisoners, and those in the pangs of misery, illness or death.  Bestow upon the judges the spirit of justice and upon the rulers of this world some measure of thy wisdom, that they may strive for peace on earth.  Give a clear and courageous witness to all who are called to preach thy word here and abroad.” –Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Wipf & Stock, 2010, p. 27).

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Howard Zehr is not a highly-published theologian like Karl Barth.  His understanding of biblical justice and theology is clearly demonstrated however in his role as Professor of Sociology and Restorative Justice at a Mennonite University.

Zehr criticized the traditional form of “retributive justice” in our criminal justice system.  The biblical idea of “an eye for an eye” is more than retribution or revenge. True biblical justice means justice that is “proportionate” to the offense—not just “harsh punishment.”

Howard Zehr insists that biblical justice is “covenant justice” focused on the community.  The offender is held accountable but is not the sole focus of justice.  The crime victim and the community must also be included, made whole, and restored.

“According to restorative justice, (1) crime violates people and relationships; (2) justice aims to identify needs and obligations (3) so that things can be made right; (4) justice encourages dialogue and mutual agreement, (5) gives victims and offenders central roles, and (6) is judged by the extent to which responsibilities are assumed, needs are met, and healing (of individuals and relationships) is encouraged.” –Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Herald Press, 2005), p. 211.

I encourage you to join me in future blog posts as we continue to explore theology and justice.