“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?


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?


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.


“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.

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