“Compassionate Justice”

Tags:  Criminology and Theology 

Last Sunday the message from many church pulpits was about Jesus’ statement that he was “the bread of life.” The Gospel text from John 6:51-58 undoubtedly made some heads “spin” (“flesh and blood”?!), but I focused on the promise of Jesus to people of faith that he “abides in us.”


What does that mean?  What possible significance could a statement that “Jesus abides in us” have for persons in the 21st century?  For most Americans perhaps, not much.  But for those who are believers and people of faith, the promise in the Scripture text rings true.  For many it is a promise of comfort, assurance, and that we’re not alone in facing the “ups and downs” of life.

Does the promise of Jesus’ presence, of his “abiding in us,” offer any directions to Jesus-followers of how this divine presence might be put into action?  Yes, I believe it does.  It is the beginning of “compassionate justice”—and another example of the connections between theology and criminology.

Humankind, we believe, was made “in the image of God.”  “So God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  We are all therefore “children of God” (though many dispute this image, based on behaviors, beliefs, and evidence to the contrary!).  The real significance of this belief is illustrated by the teachings of Jesus, that we are to treat all persons as “children of God” who were all created in the image of God.

          “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. …. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).


Thousands of persons are involved in justice work.  Working with law violators, those suspected of crimes, and with witnesses and victims of crime requires persistence, perseverance, and patience.  Law enforcers from police to attorneys, judges, probation officers, jail and prison officers are held to high legal standards themselves.

Law enforcement and criminal justice professionals who are able to see all persons as “children of God” (despite their behavior!) are more prepared and capable of exercising “compassionate justice.”

          An appropriate question of all persons is:  How do your religious or spiritual beliefs, and your views of God and humankind inform and direct how you relate to other persons?

“Criminals and Us”


Criminology and Theology

My apologies for the delay in regular postings to those who are regularly following my blog.  Preparing for and teaching a summer class on “Punishing Criminals: A Biblical View of Justice” took some extra time.  But I thank you for your patience, and for your interest in exploring the connections between crime and theology.


I was reminded this week of the similarities we share with those convicted of felony crimes and sentenced to prison.  We began a new 10-week session with a group of participants in the “Prison Fellowship Reentry Ministry” for which I volunteer.  The first day we introduced the group of nearly 30 guys to the challenges we all face in trying to make changes in our lives.  In addition to focusing on self-assessment and taking responsibility for bad decisions that got them in prison, we integrate a faith dimension toward making changes.

Two Bible verses that point toward the need for personal change and the difficulty of making changes were written by the Apostle Paul.

“I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  –Romans 7:15

Paul was jailed for charges of violating laws of the Roman authorities; and openly admits that he struggled to live up to his calling as a messenger of God.  The men in the prison group identified with the Apostle’s words—but were also surprised that even a man of God struggled to do what was right.


We turned to a second statement of the Apostle Paul that points to the importance of faith in turning one’s life around.

          “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” –Philippians 4:13


As with all religious and spiritual care services administered through the Prison Chaplain’s Office, our Prison Fellowship Reentry program is open to participants of all religious beliefs.  Many of the prison inmates were encouraged by these Biblical statements.

Even the Apostle Paul struggled with doing right?!  …like me?!

Maybe, just maybe, faith in God, in Christ—or “my Higher Power”—can help me make the changes I know I’ve gotta make!

Yes, my friends: there IS a “criminology-theology-connection”!

*[As always, I appreciate your comments, feedback, and questions relating to this post.]

Religious Programs in Prisons


Criminology and Theology 

Religion in Prisons-Then

Religion in Prisons-Now

          Religion has been a part of American prisons since their development.  In the early 1800s the Quakers in Pennsylvania developed “penitentiaries” that included religious instruction intended to bring about spiritual conversion that would change offenders and instill in them virtue and honesty.  The influence of Enlightenment ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries along with other cultural and political developments in society moved American prisons to programs based on more secular and social scientific directions. The “penitentiaries” in turn changed to “reformatories” and “correctional institutions.” 


          The 21st century has seen a return to more faith-based and religious programming in prisons.  Initiatives that signaled the change include Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministry; and President George Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnership.  Criminology and criminal justice researchers also focused on “restorative justice” as a more appropriate and effective alternative than the retributive justice emphases of American judicial and correctional practices.  Prison administrators (with the “encouragement” of appellate court rulings) also recognized the value of allowing Native American and other religious practices such as Buddhist meditation in prison programs (see the previous blog “Religion in Prisons-Then”). 

          Prison religious programs must comply with requirements under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Religious programs in state or federal prisons may not focus on evangelizing or proselytizing; nor may they exclude any participants based on religious preference or beliefs.  Acceptable programs are inclusive and meet the standards of religious programming consistent with prison chaplains’ guidelines that accept and welcome participants regardless of their religious or theological beliefs.  (See the previous weblog “Religion in Prisons—Now”.)

          Today we have thousands of volunteers representing multiple church denominations and religious organizations who provide religious services and programs under the guidance and coordination of prison chaplains.  Because these programs are conducted largely by trained volunteers from the community under the guidance of prison chaplains, they cost far less than most other correctional programs.  O’Connor and Pallone (see below) estimate the cost of volunteer faith-based programming at $150 to $250 compared with the $12,000 to $14,000 per person served. 

  Are these programs effective?  That is a question we will examine in a future weblog.

 Source:  Thomas P. O’Connor and Nathaniel J. Pallone (Eds.), Religion, the Community, and the Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders (New York: Haworth Press, Inc., 2002).