“Karl Barth and Prison Ministry”

Tags:  Karl Bart

Criminology and Theology

The name Karl Barth comes foremost to mind in discussions about theology and theologians today.  But many students of theology are not aware of Barth’s connection with criminology.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) is generally regarded as the most outstanding theologian of the twentieth century.  As the main author of The Barmen Confession he was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church that resisted the Third Reich of Adolph Hitler.  Barth taught theology for nearly five decades. After he was removed from his faculty position at Bonn by the Nazis in late 1934, Barth moved to Basel where he taught until 1962.

He is best known for his multi-volume work, Church Dogmatics, and his Commentary on Romans.  Karl Barth wrote many other books and essays in theological journals; and he can be credited for thousands more pages written about his theological contributions by scholars and students of theology.

Barth is less well known for his prison ministry.  While teaching at the University of Basel, Barth regularly visited and preached to the inmates at Basel Prison.  A collection of his prayers and sermons in the prison chapel in Basel between 1954 and 1959 have been compiled in Deliverance to the Captives.




One sermon resonated especially with me.  A sermon entitled “The Criminals With Him” was based on a single scripture verse: “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33).

“They crucified him with the criminals.  Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?  As a matter of fact, both are true!  One thing is certain: here they hang all three, Jesus and the criminals, one at the right and one at the left, all three exposed to the same public abuse, to the same interminable pain, to the same slow and irrevocable death throes.  Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested somewhere, locked up and sentenced by some judge in the course of the previous few days.  And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him.”  ….

“They crucified him with the criminals. Do you know what this implies?  Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community.  Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance. ….  To live by this promise is to be a Christian community.  The two criminals were the first certain Christian community” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, pp. 76-77).

This great theologian who wrote volumes on all of the doctrines of the Christian Church also declared the Word of God in simple, clear language to “the common man.”  Few of us would envy the day-to-day lives of those serving time in prison; but the residents of the Basel Prison sixty years ago were privileged to hear the gospel message proclaimed by one of the greatest preachers and theologians of the century.

God calls us all to minister to the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-40).  Karl Barth knew his calling.  He put down his pen, left the university and declared the good news to prisoners in his “sermons in a Swiss prison.”  Barth’s prison ministry serves as an example for our own ministry to prisoners.

“Religion in Prisons–Now”

Tags: Constitutional Right to Religious Expression


Religion in Prisons–Then

This blog post is a continuation and extension of “Religion in Prisons—Then” (see above). I encourage you to review the introduction in that post regarding the close relationship between prisons and religion.  Religion has been important in prisons since their development, for two reasons: the right to religious expression and practice is a Constitutional Right; and religion has been recognized as beneficial to prisoners’ adjustment to the prison environment and for prisoners’ successful return to society after completing their prison sentence.

In the previous blog post I shared the first of two prisoners’ religious rights cases with which I have a close personal connection. The first case of Cruz v. Beto involved a former professor and mentor of mine and a prisoner plaintiff in a Texas prison located close to the criminal justice graduate school where I was studying.  The second case occurred some thirty years later and involved a faith-based prison program that I had visited (in a different state prison) as part of a research study.  This second federal court case also has special significance for me in my role as a Prison Fellowship volunteer in a program that meets constitutional guidelines for religious programming in a state institution.Prisoner2

Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries 

In December 2006 a U.S. District Court Judge in Des Moines, Iowa found unconstitutional a faith-based, in-prison rehabilitation program that was operating in the Newton Prison Facility of the Iowa Department of Corrections.  The State of Iowa had contracted with Prison Fellowship Ministry to conduct the rehabilitation program called “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” (IFI) in the Newton prison. The lawsuit was brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).  The plaintiffs complained that the state’s contract with this religious organization to provide the rehabilitation program involved an establishment of religion and was thus in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  (Details of the case may be found at 432 F. Supp. 2d 832).  The plaintiffs, “Americans United,” viewed the court ruling as a victory and a strike against state-supported religion.  Prison Fellowship / IFI and their supporters viewed the final court judgments as support for religious liberty and the right to offer programs in other prisons.

    Dr. Winnifred F. Sullivan, Professor of Religion at Indiana University and Maurer School of Law, was called as an expert witness in the case.  Her summary of testimony and analysis of the case is invaluable for understanding the constitutionality of religious programs in prisons (see Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution, Princeton University Press, 2009).


Good Intentions—but Unconstitutional

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program in the Iowa prison was modeled after the Prison Fellowship Ministry program begun by Charles Colson who was an assistant to former President Richard Nixon before serving time in a federal prison for illegal actions in the Watergate affair.  Based on his personal experience, Colson was convinced that prisoners’ lives could be changed more completely and effectively through a Christian intervention program.

Testimony from prisoners in the Newton Prison and from representatives of Prison Fellowship indicated that requirements of the program reflected what Sullivan describes as an evangelical Christian view that limited participation to prisoners who were willing to comply with that particular form of Christian beliefs, worship, and Bible reading.  Jewish and Muslim residents (though few in number) were not welcome in the program.  But even many Christian participants felt less than welcome.  A Roman Catholic prisoner for example described his feelings of exclusion at being told that his Catholic Bible (containing apocryphal and deuterocanonical books) was not appropriate for use in the IFI program.

Another prisoner was terminated from the program for refusing to sign the required statement of faith that held a position of “biblical inerrancy” and that the Bible was in general historically and scientifically true.   Required twice-weekly worship services, “revival meetings,” prayer services, Bible studies, and required personal testimonies of participants’ religious and spiritual experiences were some of the other elements of the IFI program in the Newton prison that led the Federal Judge to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Iowa IFI program provided religious programming that they believed would instill positive changes and pro-social behavior to help released prisoners adjust to society and not return to prison.  Regardless of their good intentions, the Court ruled that the nature and requirements of the program violated the First Amendment clause against establishment of religion by a state agency.

Constitutionally Acceptable Religious Programs

Religious programs that meet constitutional guidelines can and are being conducted in federal and state institutions.  A Wisconsin federal court ruled in support of religious programs run by the National Chaplains Center of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The court in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Nicholson [469 F. Supp. 2d 609 (W. Dist. Of Wisc., 2007)] ruled against the plaintiffs, finding that religious programming in VA facilities did not violate the religious establishment clause.

The Iowa prison program was shut down following the AU v. IFI case; but Prison Fellowship is operating several religious programs in other state prisons that comply with the First Amendment.  I studied one such program in Minnesota (“The InnerChange Freedom Initiative: A Faith-Based Prison Program,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Cincinnati, 2008).

The two key factors that distinguish the program from the unconstitutional Iowa program: (1) Voluntary and more inclusive participation; and (2) funding of paid in-prison staff by private donors rather than by the state.

Prison Fellowship programs to assist prisoners in pro-social change and responsible behavior are now called PF-Academy.”  They operate in prisons of 26 states and aim to serve prisons in all states by 2026.  Are they effective?  A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that fewer than 1 percent of participants who successfully completed the program returned to prison, compared to an average recidivism rate of 40 percent of state prisoners.

“Religion in Prisons–Then”

Tags: Freedom of Religion  https://www.history.com/topics/freedom-of-religion

Prisons and Religion  https://wordpress.com/view/criminologytheologyconnection.com


The idea of prisons in America was first proposed by a religious group.  The Quakers (or Friends) promoted prisons as an alternative form of punishment to replace the cruel and inhumane physical and corporal punishments that were used in England, Europe and colonial America.  The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was designed to hold criminals securely in an institutional setting and make them penitent for their criminal behavior.  Despite the good intentions and limited success of this “American experiment,” the prison and “penitentiary” movement expanded rapidly in the 19th century with scores of these brick, concrete, and granite fortresses still housing thousands of convicts nearly two hundred years later.  I regularly enter the secure gates of one built in 1889 for volunteer work in the prison chapel.


Religion in Prisons has been a reality from the beginning—but not without some “hitches.”  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to religious expression.  Constitutional rights apply equally to persons convicted of felony crimes because they are not deprived of their legal rights as U.S. citizens. The courts have determined however that “prisons are different.”  Prison inmates do not have all the same rights as citizens who are not incarcerated. The reason: safety and security are the top priorities in prison, and federal courts have given prison administrators the right to limit constitutional rights if they infringe on prison safety and security.

That includes the First Amendment right to the freedom of religion. (See Sheldon Krantz, The Law of Corrections and Prisoners’ Rights in a nutshell (West Publishing, 1983, pp. 148-151)

A couple of court cases might best illustrate the right to religion in prisons.  The two cases, decades apart in time and miles apart in location, originated very close to where I was at the time.  I share these two cases in two parts: “…–Then” and “…–Now.”

The library of the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas looks out over the old original “Walls Unit” prison of the Texas Department of Corrections.  Just two blocks away.  The center was built by prisoners. Its location near the prison reflected its purpose: to provide criminal justice and corrections education; and in-service training for corrections and law enforcement officers and administrators

Just three years before I began graduate studies there, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in a major case involving religion in prisons [Cruz v. Beto 405 U.S. 319 (1972)].


Plaintiff Cruz

A prisoner who had adopted the Buddhist religion complained that he was not allowed to use the prison chapel, he was prohibited from writing to his religious advisor, and when he shared Buddhist religious materials with other prisoners, the prison authorities retaliated and placed Cruz in solitary confinement, 22 hours per day on a diet of bread and water for two weeks, without access to newspapers, magazines, or other sources of news.  The Federal District Court and Appellate Court denied his appeal, holding that his complaint should be left to the discretion of prison administrators.  The Supreme Court overruled and held that Texas prison officials discriminated against Cruz by denying him a reasonable opportunity to pursue his Buddhist faith comparable to that offered prisoners of other religious faiths.

Texas prisons encouraged inmates to participate in other religious programs, provided at state expense chaplains of the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant faiths; provided copies of the Jewish and Christian Bibles; and conducted weekly Sunday school classes and religious services.  Good merit points were given to prisoners for attending orthodox religious services, and they were eligible for better job assignments and early parole consideration.  As a member of the Buddhist Churches of America, the plaintiff Cruz did not receive any of the good merit points and was instead punished for his requests and for sharing Buddhist materials with other inmates.

The U. S. Supreme Court found that the State of Texas unconstitutionally infringed upon plaintiff Cruz’s rights to religious freedom under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.  The Court opinion stated that the State discriminated against Buddhism, a religion that was established in 600 B.C., long before the Christian era; and therefore denied Cruz and other prison inmates any possible benefits of the Buddhist religion that may be comparable to the exercise of any other religion, Catholic, Protestant, and other Christian denominations.


Defendant Beto

The defendant in this case was Dr. George Beto, Director and chief of chaplains of the Texas prison system in 1972.  Before taking that position Dr. Beto had been President of Concordia College in Austin and of Concordia Theological Seminary in Illinois.  As Director of Texas prisons, he was instrumental in improving prison education through a unique non-geographical school district that covered all Texas prisons; and received awards and recognition from the American Correctional Association for his work in improving prisons.

The Cruz case illustrates the challenges of changing the prison culture, the perceptions of corrections officers and administrators toward inmate residents, and the long-established prison practices.  George Beto was ordered by the Supreme Court to personally pay from his own funds the legal fees of $10,000 to the plaintiff’s attorneys.

Beto joined the faculty of the Criminal Justice Center where many graduate students (including myself) benefitted from his knowledge and personal experience in Correctional Administration.  Together we learned about the challenges of running prisons which are resistant to change, and for which citizens and taxpayers want to lock up more criminals but do so at minimum costs to the State.  George Beto was called “walking George” by prison inmates and officers for his habit of regularly visiting and walking through all prison units.  We who were his students saw him as a professor and mentor who greeted us with a smile and “Hello, young man!”

My fellow graduate students and I did not hear about the Supreme Court case involving Mr. Cruz and the Texas prisons from Dr. Beto—nor did we ask him.  We sensed that the court appellate process and final ruling was not a high point for him—but he never mentioned it nor did he ever show any animosity toward the Court or the ruling for the right to religious expression—any religion—in prison.

Today I reflect back on religion in prisons then, forty years ago.  The Supreme Court Justices in the 1972 Cruz v. Beto case declared a truth worth pondering:  that prison inmates may well benefit from the practices of a religion established 600 years before Christianity.   No citizen, including prison residents, can be denied the right of religious expression guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

To my Christian friends who have difficulty with religious diversity in America I would say “Our God is a big God—and doesn’t need our feeble, human efforts to defend this Almighty God!”  This truth is confirmed through our reading of the Bible.  We can also learn from other religious beliefs, as noted by J. Philip Wogaman in his book, What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

The United States continues to look to jails and prisons as a “solution” to crime.  The high rate of return to prison of released inmates suggests that incarceration is neither an effective deterrent nor source of positive change for convicted criminals.  Correctional expenditures are increasingly used for security with less money going for education, rehabilitation, and treatment services.  Prison administrators are therefore turning to outside volunteers for religious services and other programs to help prisoners make positive changes and prepare for reentry into society upon their release.  Religion in prisons makes a difference: both in the prison environment and for prisoners’ successful return outside the walls.

“Biblical Justice”

Tags:  Punishing Criminals       Biblical Justice  Seeking Biblical Justice

Criminology and Theology

Justice is a major theme and emphasis in the Bible.  The Hebrew and Greek words translated as “justice” (mishpat, sedeqah, dikaiosune, krisis) are used more than 1000 times in the Bible.  “Doing what is right and fair” and “treating all persons fairly” have always been important among the people of God.  Biblical justice is more comprehensive than our Western concept of justice.  It touches every part of life: the personal, the social, public and private, political and religious.  Biblical justice includes both social and criminal justice.


Hebrew and Greek terms for biblical justice are translated into English as “righteousness,” a term that carries a connotation of “religious piety” or “personal moral purity,” thereby limiting its presumed impact to only “religious” persons and institutions.  As a term for Biblical justice however, “righteousness” refers more broadly to “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right”—in all of life, the religious and the secular.

The very foundations of justice for all persons, societies, and institutions can be found in the Bible. Theologians and Bible scholars believe that the sixty-six books that make up the Hebrew and Christian (Old and New Testament) Bible reveal the nature of God, God’s revelation and actions among people throughout history and through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Bible’s teaching on justice is significant for Christians, Jews, and all persons of faith; and has had an immense impact on cultural and political developments throughout history.  People in every nation throughout the world cry for and demand justice.  We all want to be treated fairly. We want all persons, authorities, institutions, and businesses to “do what is right.”


The work of Christopher Marshall has been invaluable in my understanding of biblical justice. [See The Little Book of Biblical Justice by Chris Marshall. Published in 2005 by Good Books, Intercourse, PA.]

Justice is an Attribute of God

Biblical writers wrote of justice as the very nature, personal attributes, and virtue of God.  Justice is the very being of God.

“I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God!  The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just.  A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:3-4).

Emulate God’s Justice

Human beings, who are created in the image of God, are to emulate, live out, practice and reflect God’s justice.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Biblical Hope is Rooted in God’s Justice and Faithfulness

“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God… who executes justice for the oppressed…” (Psalms 146:5-7).

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

A Commitment to Action

Just as God is the epitome of justice, so also God demands a commitment from all people to act and treat one another fairly and justly.

“You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes… Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

Justice is Relational

Justice is an attribute of God and all persons are to bear God’s image in how they treat one another, so it follows that justice is all about relationships.  All persons are to act toward one another in the same way that God has acted toward them—with justice, mercy, and equity.

“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15).

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.  For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Justice is Restorative

In contrast with the Western concept of administering justice, Biblical justice is not about punishment but about restoring the victim of injustice.  Justice is satisfied by repentance, restoration, and renewal.  Restitution and compensation to the victim are more important than punishing the perpetrator.

“But if (an offender) has caused pain, he has caused it…to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him…. I urge you to reaffirm your love for him…. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive” (2 Corinthians 2:5-10).

“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).

“Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:1-3).

Criminology-Theology Connection

Biblical Justice is in many respects more complex and demanding for all persons than our Western concept of justice.  It relates to all persons in every part of life.  It is not limited to “justice professionals.”  It is not singularly focused on a “criminal” or “perpetrator” but involves the community and the victim toward the goal of renewal and restoration.

Is Biblical justice an unachievable goal?  Is it unrealistic and impossible to achieve?  No. But it is difficult in a society that is individually-focused more than community-oriented.  “Restorative Justice” is the newest form of response to criminal behavior; and has been an active component of judicial sentencing and offender change strategies in the past three decades—from North America to New Zealand.  Restorative justice is a promising approach that can accomplish what our current retributive justice has not done in the two hundred years of harsh punishment and mass incarceration.  Restorative justice promises to bring long-term change to the perpetrators of crime, the communities in which they live, and the victims who suffer the effects of crime.

“White Privilege and Justice”

Tags: https://wordpress.com/prison  + White privilege + racial disparity  

    Growing up in North Dakota, the first African-American I saw was among a group of airmen in Minot who had come into town from the Air Force Base north of the city to do some shopping.  

   Fast-forward several years and I find myself as a juvenile probation officer assigned to the southwest part of San Antonio, where Air Force officers begin their service in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. Children of the officers often acted out in school and the community, bringing them to the attention of the Juvenile Court.  Attending six or more different schools by the age of 13 might explain their difficulty in adjusting! 


   My caseload included Hispanic, White, and African-American youth from the south and east sides of San Antonio who were facing a juvenile court appearance.  Talking with my probation officer friends over coffee one day I asked them about the differential treatment I observed among youth of different economic and racial backgrounds.

   After listening politely to my accusations of racial disparity “down here” they asked me about my Native-American neighbors up in North Dakota. “Oh, they have it pretty good.   The government provides good schools for them there on the reservation, and they get some financial assistance.”  To which my friends responded: “Oh, so they’re fine on their Indian Reservations, as long as they don’t mess with ya’ll in your white communities, is that it?!”

  Well, I assured my friends I didn’t exactly say that, and certainly didn’t mean that.  But on reflecting further, then and the years since then, my friends had a point.  No place in America is free of racial disparity and the effects and consequences of “white privilege.”  Our nation was settled on the lands of Native Americans.  Our economy was built on the backs of African-American slaves.  White privilege has been a part of America since its development and continues today.

  We usually think of the South when we think of racial discrimination.  In reality the “race problem” is not restricted to the southern U.S.  My home state of Minnesota offers an example of racial disparity in criminal sentencing.


   Black residents make up about 6 percent of Minnesota’s general population, but 37 percent of the state’s prison population is black. American Indians and blacks together made up nearly half of Minnesota’s prison population but comprise only 7 percent of the state’s population.  The Minneapolis Star-Tribune  used data from the Minnesota Dept. of Corrections to show this is not a new problem. In 1990, black people made up about 2 percent of the state’s population and 20 percent of people in Minnesota convicted of felonies. The black population increased by the 2000 census to nearly 4 percent of Minnesotans but were then 28 percent of the state’s convicted felons and 36 percent of prisoners.  American Indians made up 1 percent of the state population in 2000 but comprised 6 percent of felons and almost 7 percent of state inmates.  

    Justice officials are quick to note that several factors account for these disparities. Racial and ethnic minorities comprise a disproportionate number of police arrests, and prosecuting attorneys are more likely to forward their cases on to court.  This is not to say that either police or prosecutors engage in racially-biased decision-making.  They are acting on police calls, observed behavior, and official reports.  Crimes committed in public places in high-crime neighborhoods are more likely to get police attention and official action because police patrols are more concentrated in high-crime areas. 

   Persons who are lower income, under-employed, and racial minorities do commit a slightly higher proportion of index crimes—but not in the same disproportionate rates as those reflected in prison populations.  State and federal prisons hold a large number of drug offenders who are racial and ethnic minorities.  Based on self-report and related evidence the majority of drug buyers and users are Whites, many of whom are from middle and upper-class backgrounds.

   “White privilege” clearly explains many of the disparities in arrests, court cases, and prison commitments of African-Americans and Native Americans.   

 Criminology-Theology Connection

  In a country that calls itself “one nation under God” and that aspires to “do the right thing” in upholding high standards of criminal justice, what are we to do with the glaring realities of racial disparity in sentencing and the evidence of white privilege? 

   Michelle Alexander refers to the black incarceration rate as “The New Jim Crow.” 

     “It was the white men who dominated politics, controlled the nation’s wealth, and wrote the rules by which everyone else was forced to live.  No group in the United States can be said to have experienced more privilege, and gone to greater lengths to protect it, than ‘the white man’. …. (I)f meaningful progress is to be made, whites must…be willing to sacrifice their racial privilege.”  (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (The New Press, 2011, pp. 255, 257).

     As a white man who has been complicit in enforcing laws, court orders, and probation conditions for young offenders from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, it is not easy to recognize and accept my privileged status.  I do not personally feel and experience the effects of racial disparities in sentencing; but I see them each week as I enter a prison to work with offenders preparing to reenter society.  The disparate prison sentences for Blacks and Native Americans is not just their problem.  It is an American problem, and it affects all of us.

“Changed Lives: Theirs and Mine”

Tags: prison  theology  faith   Prison Fellowship

In 1974 Chuck Colson former top aide to President Nixon pled guilty to obstruction of justice on a Watergate-related charge and served seven months in a federal prison.  That same year I was completing my second year as Research and Training Director in a metropolitan juvenile court in Texas.  Both of our lives were changed through our experiences.  Chuck Colson went on to found Prison Fellowship. I went on to graduate school–first Criminal Justice and Criminology and later to graduate studies in Theology.


I never personally met Chuck Colson, but our paths have crossed.  In the prison where I took students to see a piece of prison life I now lead a Prison Fellowship Reentry group.

Prison Fellowship believes that a restorative approach to prisoners, former prisoners, and those affected by crime and incarceration can make communities safer and healthier. The faith-based approach emphasizes hope, healing, and a new purpose for each life based on Christian principles

Why Help Prisoners?

  • 2.2 million men and women are in prison.
  • 95% of prisoners are released.
  • This year 600,000 will return to their communities.
  • 2 of 3 are rearrested.
  • 2.7 million children have a parent in prison.
  • [See https://www.prisonfellowship.org/ ]

Prison Fellowship uses faith-based programs to show that through God’s love revealed through Jesus Christ there is hope for change and a better life for prisoners and their families.  Prison Fellowship provides training for volunteers to work with offenders inside and outside of prison in support of restorative justice.  Programs for wardens, prison staff, and volunteers provide alternatives to create safer, more rehabilitative prisons that prepare prisoners to return to their communities as good neighbors.

For more than 40 years, Prison Fellowship has been going into correctional facilities, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those behind bars, and offering the hope of positive life change.  Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers use Bible-based programs coupled with life skills resources to help offenders who are committed to work at real change in their lives and attain the hope of a promising future free of irresponsible and criminal behavior.

Chuck Colson saw firsthand from his time in prison that paying for crime through incarceration has its costs, not only to government budgets but to prisoners, their families, and to society.  Protecting society and isolating prisoners from the gangs, drugs, and crime associates related to criminal acts also means they are cut off from spouses, their children, positive family members, friends and employers that help them stay “straight.”  Few prison inmates maintain relationships with those outside prison in the months and years of incarceration.  This partly explains the high rate of repeat offending upon release.

Prison Fellowship is actively involved in helping inmates make a positive adjustment upon their release.  Reentry preparation begins in the prisons with life-skills and personal responsibility training, rebuilding lost relationships with family members, and developing a plan for a crime-free life.

Outside correctional facilities Prison Fellowship volunteers serve as mentors to newly released prison inmates and help them connect with churches, employers, and local service providers to help them support themselves, their families and loved ones.


Changing Lives and the Justice Process

Criminal behavior hurts people, instills fear, and undermines our sense of public safety.  Criminal justice should set things right by helping victims, reduce fear through making communities safer, and hold offenders accountable while providing opportunities for positive change.

Our nation’s focus on punishment and mass incarceration does not provide justice or public safety for victims or communities because offenders come out of prisons worse than when they went in.  The small number of prison employees involved in education and rehabilitation do their best to reverse that reality, but it is not enough.  Police, courts, probation, and parole officers are overwhelmed as resources and budget limitations fail to meet their needs.

New approaches to preventing and responding to crime are clearly needed.  Crime is a community problem.  “Community justice” is one alternative to reduce that problem. Prison Fellowship is an example of encouraging communities to play a role in creating a safe and just society helping to change those responsible for crime.

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you yourselves were in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3).

“…I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

Thousands of volunteers meet weekly with jail and prison residents.  Lives are changed: theirs and ours. 

“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.


  • 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” ]


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


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?


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.

“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.



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.



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.


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).


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.