Curing The Crime Crisis

Convicted: New Hope for Ending America’s Crime Crisis, by Charles Colson and Daniel Van Ness (Crossway, 111 pp.; $4.95, paper). Reviewed by E. Calvin Beisner, author of Prosperity and Poverty and Psalms of Promise.

Chuck Colson is angry with America’s criminal-justice system. You should be, too.

Colson, who has seen the system from both sides, is angry because the system fails almost completely to perform the most essential tasks of criminal justice: reparation for victims, punishment for criminals, deterrence of crime, and maintenance of order and peace in society. And it fails despite billions of dollars being spent on it every year.

That, Colson figures, is reason enough for every American to be angry and insist on a change, for every American is affected by the failures: through higher tax rates to build and run more prisons, through rising crime rates, through direct loss of property, and sometimes through personal injury.

In Convicted, Colson and coauthor Daniel Van Ness clearly and succinctly analyze the causes of the system’s failure and set forth basic prescriptions for its cure. They write from both experience and careful study—Colson as chairman of Prison Fellowship (PF) and attorney Van Ness as president of Justice Fellowship, PF’s lobbying arm. They appeal to Scripture for their chief understanding of human nature and morality, and they pay careful attention to academic studies on criminal justice and reform.

The authors describe three chief roots to the growing crime problem:

First, crime has been redefined from injury to individuals to violation of the laws of the state. This means that the state has replaced the victim as the injured party in criminal cases. Hence, victims are neglected, restitution rarely occurs, and the broken relationship between victim and aggressor almost never gets repaired.

Second, imprisonment has replaced restitution as the chief form of punishment. Hence, costs of punishment have skyrocketed (it now costs an average of $15,900 per inmate per year to operate prisons) while offenders are warehoused together in conditions that foster abuse, anger, and recidivism.

Third, social environment has replaced sin as the theoretical cause of crime. Hence, offenders are not held accountable for their crimes but are viewed as victims themselves—victims of poverty (although statistical studies show that poor people do not commit crimes any more often than wealthy people, though they are more frequently victims), of family breakdown, of poor education, and on and on. None of the social scientists’ theories stands up to valid statistical analyses, but in a society that has banned the notion of sin, no other explanation offers itself.

Restorative Justice

As an antidote to these problems, Colson and Van Ness prescribe what they call “restorative justice,” founded on three principles: (1) “crime causes injuries”—primarily to the direct victim, but also to the community—“that must be repaired”; (2) “all parties affected by crime should be included in the response to crime” (meaning that victims should not get shut out of the prosecution and sentencing process); and (3) “government and local communities must play cooperative and complementary roles.”

Reparation of injuries gets most of the attention in the book’s description of how “restorative justice” can be implemented, and the attention focuses on restitution paid by the offender to the victim.

The authors also attack vigorously the current practice—in the name of being “tough on crime”—of imprisoning nonviolent offenders, pointing out that this almost invariably hardens rather than rehabilitates them and often turns them into violent rather than nonviolent offenders.

It would have been interesting to see Colson and Van Ness wrestle with the question of how far they should go in allowing Scripture to guide their understanding of crime and punishment. They protest imprisonment only for nonviolent offenders. As they themselves write, however, Mosaic law sees imprisonment as appropriate only to detain a suspect (and protect him or her from would-be avengers) until trial. The use of imprisonment for punishment is, among nations much influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethic, a recent phenomenon and a dismal failure. What do they think are alternatives for punishing violent offenders? What do they think of the Old Testament’s generous use of capital punishment?

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Convicted is a fine, short book. Adopting its recommendations would save thousands of lives and billions of dollars lost to crime and prison construction and operation. It ought to be put into the hands of as many legislators and correctional officials as possible. But they are not the only ones who could work to implement it: Private citizens, armed with this knowledge, could influence their local, state, and national representatives to work toward reform of our criminal justice system. An appendix offers practical suggestions for grassroots efforts.

The Canon’S Roar

The Canon of Scripture, by F. F. Bruce (InterVarsity, 349 pp.; $19.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Arthur Patzia, director and associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary extension in Menlo Park, California.

Why do Catholic Bibles include the Apocrypha while Protestant Bibles do not? What is the significance of recent archaeological discoveries, such as the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt that contains “Gospels,” “Acts,” and other literature supposedly written by disciples of Jesus (Thomas, Philip, Peter, Mary, and so on)? What if a new and supposedly authentic document was to be found? Should the church re-examine the Canon and “open” it to include new material; or will the Canon forever remain closed?

These are just some of the questions about the nature of the collection of writings that we call Scripture. Over the years there have developed a number of serious academic challenges to the canon of Scripture. Some critics are questioning the legitimacy of the criteria that originally were used for the formation of the Canon, as well as claiming that the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was more a product of church politics than of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

“Canonical criticism” is the most recent challenge to our traditional concepts of understanding and using the canon of Scripture. Here scholars ask which “form” of the Old and New Testament is authoritative for the church today. Is it only the earliest form of the text as originally given or the latest redacted, or “edited,” forms that we currently possess? This is having a great impact on the way some scholars do biblical exegesis today.

In The Canon of Scripture, F. F. Bruce confronts these issues. He takes the reader through the historical, theological, ecclesiastical, and practical concerns that led to the canonization of Scripture.

The major portion of the book focuses on the formation of the New Testament canon. Here Bruce shows how and why the early church regarded the words of Jesus and the writings of the apostles as authoritative, utilized the various “criteria” of canonicity to weigh the value of other literature, and decided which 27 books were to be canonized—a decision that was finalized by the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397.

In spite of recent challenges to canonicity, Bruce remains committed to historical-critical exegesis and is confident in concluding that within the canon of Scripture we have multiple witnesses to Christ and the unity of the church. The divine Spirit who brought together the various books of our Bible is the same “Spirit of God who continues to speak through them.”

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This book should serve both the specialist and nonspecialist well. Readers will find it to be a helpful reference for ancient documents, early church leaders, and crucial definitions.

Professor Bruce is to be commended for his cautious scholarship, even though some critics may not agree with all of his conclusions. He pronounces that “there is no evidence” or “it cannot be said with certainty” upon some traditionally held theories. His analysis of the historical process and diverse opinions that ultimately led to the canonization of Scripture quickly dispels any false notions that the Bible was lowered down from heaven on a golden string. At the same time, however, Bruce strongly affirms the providential role of the Holy Spirit in the formation of the Bible and the need for the church to retain a closed canon of Scripture.

The Anabaptist Option

The Transformation of Culture: Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr, by Charles Scriven (Herald, 256 pp.; $19.95, paper). Reviewed by Rodney Clapp, coauthor with Robert Webber of People of the Truth and general books editor for InterVarsity Press.

What is the best option for evangelical political involvement? Charles Scriven believes the answer lies in adopting the Anabaptist model.

With The Transformation of Culture, Scriven adapts his Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, Calif.) doctoral dissertation and argues for both the biblical and political viability of Anabaptism. Scriven’s title refers to H. Richard Niebuhr’s landmark 1951 book, Christ and Culture. There Niebuhr introduced his now-famous typologies of Christian relation to culture: Christ above culture, Christ of culture, Christ against culture, Christ in paradox with culture, and Christ transforming culture.

The Christian And Culture

Scriven thinks Niebuhr was foggy about the concept “culture” and failed to get straight the Anabaptist approach, which Niebuhr considered an exemplar of the Christ-against-culture type. Jesus was, after all, a flesh-and-blood person, and like all persons he was “a cultural figure, a participant in cultural life.” If we understand culture to include such things as language, transportation systems, and education, no one can be human and escape it. Thus Scriven cogently argues that it is impossible for there to be a Christ against culture. What Anabaptists reject is not culture per se, but certain “ways of being cultural.”

Accordingly, Scriven also criticizes Niebuhr for implying there is one, monolithic culture with which Christians have to deal. In fact, we live in the midst of competing cultures. So again, Scriven says, what Anabaptists reject is not culture in general but the “prevailing culture” to the degree it conflicts with the demands of Christ’s lordship.

On these points I think Scriven carries the day—almost, but not entirely. Though he is surely correct that no Christian group truly avoids culture, he glosses over Niebuhr’s point that some Christian sects have indeed thought they were avoiding culture. And the perception that one’s sect is beyond culture, even if it is a misperception, certainly does not promote constructive political contribution to society.

Reinterpreting Niebuhr’s categories in light of his criticisms, Scriven moves ahead to assert that the Anabaptist model is actually truest to the type of Christ transforming culture—the ideal in Scriven’s as well as Niebuhr’s view. Drawing on Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Scriven insists that “God gave us through Jesus ‘a new, formative definition’ of what it is to be human in society—a new standard to live up to.” If Scriven is right, all sincere Christians should reject the false choice of choosing culture or Christ and instead strive “to be in culture as loyalists to the cause of Christ” (which, of course, sounds agreeably like the Johannine injunction to be “in the world but not of it”).

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Scriven does not duck the difficult consequences of the Anabaptist option; he freely acknowledges it as “radical.” In a particularly fine passage he writes, “We would all think it odd if someone claiming to be Christian tried to redeem human sexuality from within the brothel, as though this were a proper means of cultural transformation. The radical point is that we must be prepared to keep our distance from any number of social institutions, including some that are ordinarily considered honorable. Even if few of them resist the church’s values as sharply as prostitution does, there are many from which we must at least withhold our full participation.”

Violence And Peace

Along these lines Scriven agrees with Yoder that lethal violence is a cultural practice Christians should reject. But he does not agree with Yoder that they should absolutely reject it. Scriven argues for the cultivation of skills that promote peaceableness. Yet he can imagine exceptional instances in which Christian refusal to kill would detract from a constructive witness to the way of God in Christ.

There are strengths to Scriven’s conception of pacifism as the cultivation of skills that promote peaceableness, rather than the legalistic prohibition of all violence. His innovation could reopen consideration of pacifism for those who formerly considered it absurd on its face. Yet his version creates fresh difficulties. If there are exceptional circumstances in which refusal to kill would harm Christian witness, it would seem that Christians (at least some Christians) should practice skills that would enable them to kill effectively in the exceptional circumstances. So despite Scriven’s protests, it is not at all clear he has found a stopping place between absolute pacifism and some kind of just-war reasoning.

Mostly in conjunction with its pacifism, Anabaptism is accused of being apolitical. Yet there is an irony here: Whatever their smaller differences, Scriven agrees with Yoder that the basic mission of the church is political rather than spiritual. Thus, though one of the common criticisms of Anabaptism is that it is inadequately political (necessitating withdrawal from wider society), many evangelicals will fear this Anabaptism is too political.

But Scriven’s assertion is not as troublesome as it may first appear. He means by it that individual (or “spiritual”) and social change should go hand in hand, that there is no real and lasting Christian conversion that does not include both the individual and the social: “These interests must be kept together, as they are in Scripture.” The flow of Scriven’s argument is correct, but he would have helped it by refusing the common equation of spiritual with individual.

Scriven has an uncommon talent for discussing theological points with crystalline clarity. Anabaptism, so easily misunderstood, is the Dr Pepper of evangelical traditions. Charles Scriven has extremely important things to say on its behalf, and he says them well.

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