Crime and Its Victims, by Daniel W. Van Ness (InterVarsity, 1986, 240 pp.; $7.95, paper). Reviewed by Mark O. Hatfield, United States senator from Oregon.

The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country in the world—except the Soviet Union and South Africa. Our prisons have evolved into little more than human warehouses stuffed beyond capacity. Yet despite the highest prison population in its history, the U.S. crime rate remains scandalously high. As a result, there is a growing consensus that our approach to crime and corrections is a failure.

Liberals say what we do is wrong. Conservatives say what we do is costly and not working. Meanwhile, courtroom gavels pound a melancholic drumbeat for criminals and victims and their families as the wheels of justice spin in futility.

We can be grateful for Daniel Van Ness’s new book, Crime and Its Victims. Those looking for a model penal code or a detailed corrections policy will search in vain through this book’s pages. But those who seek a thoughtful and biblical analysis of the state of crime and punishment in America will have their fill.

Van Ness, who is president of Justice Fellowship, the lobbying and educational arm of Prison Fellowship, sees the criminal act as an intimately personal rupture of relationships between criminals and their victims, their families, and society in general. From this rupture flows the fundamental human need for justice and healing. Van Ness exposes what he calls the folly of a criminal justice system that seeks to dissolve any responsibility an offender has to his victim and any relationship that exists between them. As Van Ness points out, such a distortion of reality leads to the woeful situation we find ourselves in: The criminal is convicted of offending some faceless, formless society; the victim is left dispossessed or destroyed; and, the prisons are boiling with violence and barbarity.

Van Ness is a pragmatist who carefully documents how our criminal justice system was formed, how it has broken down, and what needs to be done before matters worsen. He buttresses his position with a wealth of personal perspectives—as a victim of crime, as a defender of accused criminals, as an advocate of progressive criminal justice reforms, and most significantly, as a sincere Christian.

Most welcome and insightful is Van Ness’s application of the Bible to this country’s approach to punishing offenders, tracing the origin of law to the time of Moses and applying scriptural passages to contemporary criminal justice problems. He poses a simple choice for American citizens: Shall we correct with anger or with justice?

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Ticking Time Bombs

Unlike many books on criminal justice reform, Crime and Its Victims provides concrete, common-sense proposals for the healing of wounds gouged by criminality. This country’s criminal justice policy makers could use Crime and Its Victims as a framework for reform. When lawmakers spend money without regard to the amount coming in, deficits accrue. When they require mandatory sentences without regard to the availability of prison space or the effectiveness of such dehumanizing sanctions, our overcrowded prisons become ticking time bombs.

Indeed, a new wineskin is needed. We have poured billions of dollars into the current system, building new prisons at a cost of $60,000 per bed, housing new prisoners at a cost of $20,000 per head, per year.

And yet we find ourselves more fearful and less secure from the threat of being victimized by criminals. We keep playing with the “criminal justice boomerang”—we throw the book at the offender; he or she is caged for a while, then gets out and throws it back at us. While prison sentences seem unavoidable for violent or repeat offenders, what about some creative alternatives for the hundreds of thousands of offenders who are neither?

Moreover, when will the Christian community take Jesus’ teachings to heart and punish without anger, and penalize with forgiveness? When will the Christian community distinguish between the sin and the sinner, the crime and the criminal?

The image of Pope John Paul II in the cell of his would-be assassin cannot be easily dismissed by anyone who is serious about crime and punishment and Christianity. Agca committed a violent crime and had to be punished. The Pope’s visit did not change that. But as Van Ness repeatedly points out in his book, we fail ourselves if we do not allow healing for the parties concerned. Moreover, we violate the very essence of Christian teaching if we punish with vengeance.

Van Ness dispenses with the hysterical rhetoric that has come to characterize any discussion of these issues, and he calls for an approach to corrections that holds offenders responsible for “restoring their victims” and provides opportunities for reconciliation. Such proposals have the potential to revolutionize the quality and character of criminal justice in the United States.

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, by Lesslie Newbigin (Eerdmans, 1986,156 pp.; $7.95, paper). Reviewed by Tim Stafford, senior writer for CHRISTIANITY TODAY and author of Knowing the Face of God (Zondervan).

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Why is it, that, when Christianity is spreading apace in Africa, Asia, and South America, it has shrunk to a pitiable remnant in the European countries it came from? How is it, for that matter, that American evangelical faith can be at once so successful—pews jammed with smiling Christians—and so dismally ostracized from the discourse of American business, communications, economics, justice, and education?

A missionary in India for 38 years, Lesslie Newbigin served the church there as a bishop, and now pastors a small inner-city congregation in Birmingham, England. Missionaries, he says, know a good deal about transmitting the gospel to a new culture, so that the gospel speaks understandably in the language of that culture, yet also confronts it with the lordship of Christ—a higher claim than family, government, and tradition. Yet Western missionaries have not addressed the largest, most dominant culture in the world today: their own. Newbigin turns the tables. He asks how the gospel can be transmitted into Western, “modern” culture, which he says is proving more resistant than almost any other.

Like any missionary, Newbigin begins by trying to understand the culture. He considers the Enlightenment its starting point, as a kind of conversion experience—the conversion of our entire culture (something missionaries often see). Sir Isaac Newton, he thinks, was the germinal figure, because he discovered that by limiting your attention to cause and effect, you were able to discover physical laws. The success of this method, as it led to modern science and technology, and thence to modern psychology, economics, and sociology, has spilled out on every side. He shows how this new faith in reason has led to the concept of human rights; to the rise of the political system as the source of unlimited benefits; to totalitarianism; to youth worship; to large cities, factories, and bureaucracies; to the modern “secular” educational system—in fact to all the well-known marks of our time.

Newbigin’s analysis is the best part of this stimulating book. I do not know of another such brilliantly comprehensive treatment of Western society.

Newbigin wants to show how this modern secular culture, which has given us so many attractive things, is at heart opposed to the gospel. Newbigin explains how the post-Enlightenment world view deliberately excludes questions of purpose and meaning from “the facts”—but allows them plenty of room in private opinions. Newbigin sees Christianity pushed to the margins of society, where it may flourish (with other religions) by offering “meaning” and “purpose” to those who find secular society short on these. As soon as the gospel claims the power to speak about “the facts”—the tenets of the physical or social sciences, for example—our society automatically dismisses it as irrelevant. There is simply no room, Newbigin says, for the claims of Christ in modern Western thought.

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A Culture Unhorsed

A missionary at heart, Newbigin wants, by analyzing our culture, to suggest ways in which we can and must evangelize it. This means more than increasing church membership. To evangelize our culture, he suggests, means confronting it with a Damascus Road experience—which knocks it off the high horse of post-Enlightenment thought.

For Newbigin, the gospel is inescapably public. He points out that the early church could have coexisted nicely with the Roman empire (as the mystery religions did) so long as it did not insist that the lordship of Christ contradicted the foundation of Roman political stability and economic success: veneration of the emperor. It was the early Christians’ refusal to make their religion privately pietistic that led to their persecution—and to the conversion of the Empire.

Newbigin follows this thought to its logical conclusions: The gospel must, for instance, have something to say to economics. Newbigin offers fierce, thought-provoking critiques of both capitalism and socialism. He says that capitalism is based on the freedom to be sinful—to maximize your self-interest without limit. And so no Christian can really approve capitalism as an ideal, no matter how well it “works.” Here, as elsewhere, he insists that questions of purpose and meaning must apply. What Christians might propose as an alternative economic system he leaves, unfortunately, far more vague.

Newbigin also insists that we must, to be good evangelists, proclaim our eschatology. Questions of meaning and purpose can only be resolved by answering the question, “Where will it all end?” Newbigin helps us see how that might be done for modern man.

How are we to claim truth in the proclamation of the gospel—truth as sure and assertive as the truth of chemistry? Newbigin says the gospel speaks primarily of persons—and particularly of a personal God. “We do not infer the existence of another person from an analysis and classification of the audiovisual sensations we receive, but rather we attend directly to the person as a living center of meaning and purpose.… At this point the only relevant questions are: Is there anyone present? Has he spoken? Natural theology ends here; another kind of enterprise begins, and another kind of language has to be used—the language of testimony.”

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Newbigin encourages his readers not to be ashamed simply to testify that God has visited us, spoken to us, died, and risen again—and to insist that this, far from iffeing irrational, offers a wider rationality than our post-Enlightenment world ever can.

Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church, by John Driver (Herald Press, 1986, 286 pp.; $19.95, paper). Reviewed by Robert E. Webber, professor of theology at Wheaton College (Ill.) and author of The Church in the World: Opposition, Tension, or Transformation? (Zondervan).

In recent years, evangelicals have begun to question seriously whether explaining the Atonement as “Jesus’ paying for our sins” should be considered the only “right” interpretation. Although few want to reject this “satisfaction theory” of the Atonement, its privileged status is under attack.

In 1930, Lutheran Bishop Gustav Aulén called attention to the compelling dramatic theory of the Atonement that held sway during the first millenium of the church’s history—that at the Cross Jesus won a cosmic victory over evil and the Devil. Now, in Understanding the Atonement, John Driver, who teaches at the Centro de Estudios of the Mennonite Church in Uruguay, insists like Aulén that we must recover a biblical approach to the Atonement, one that includes a number of complementary images of the work of Christ.

According to Driver, the main problem with current views of the Atonement is that they are rooted in a Constantinian mentality. That is, they are views that serve an easy alliance between the church and the dominant culture rather than the views that served a mission church before the emperor converted.

The process of secularization has now resulted in a cultural situation similar to the era before Constantine. Consequently, it is important for the mission of the church that we return to the biblical and early Christian understanding of the Atonement.

The Logic Of Law

According to Driver, the Constantinian understanding of the Atonement is based on the logic of Roman law and is preoccupied with guilt. Consequently, Catholicism emphasized the forgiveness of sin through a sacramental system based on an abstract saving transaction communicated through an institution. Protestantism modified the Catholic view and taught removal of guilt through forensic justification. In both cases a salvation was promulgated that had little to do with the life of the new community.

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By contrast, the biblical and early church view of the Atonement is not rooted in a system of thought about salvation. Rather, it is grounded in the living, dying, rising, and return of Christ—the events that bring the church into being and that ultimately usher in a new created order.

This saving Christ event is communicated in the pages of the New Testament through a series of complementary images. Driver deals with ten of them: conflict-victory-liberty, justification, vicarious suffering, sacrifice, expiation, martyr, archetypal images, redemption-purchase, adoption, and reconciliation.

The plurality of these images can be traced to the various contexts in which the gospel was communicated. For example, Paul’s heavy emphasis on justification is related to his Jewish readership, people with a heavy investment in the law.

Herein lies the genius of the missionary emphasis. It does not reduce the work of Christ to a single motif, but it communicates rather the mystery of his work so that the target group can grasp it, at least in part. The New Testament writers never reduce the Atonement to one view or another, but encourage God’s people to see it in its fullness.

This is a helpful book. To know there are many images of the Atonement rather than one stretches our understanding of the work of Christ. The mystery of his work—a work that creates the redeemed community and will ultimately re-create the entire creation and usher in the new heavens and earth—cannot be reduced to a formula. Instead, the multitudinous images of Christ’s work are ways of grasping the mystery without rationalizing it. This is important because a proper grasp of the Atonement is not a merely intellectual understanding, but a participation in it through assimilation into the new community of people it creates. This approach to the Atonement calls us to a new way of life that serves the ultimate vision of a restored universe.

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