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Truthful, impartial, merciful

Christians should avoid simplistic rhetoric about crime


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Truthful, impartial, merciful
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After several decades of comparative domestic security, more and more Americans are going to bed each night worried about rising crime in their own neighborhoods. In 2022, the national homicide rate stood 34 percent higher than just three years earlier, and 50 percent higher than in 2014. Increasingly, voters are ranking crime high on their list of political priorities, and they are convinced that our criminal justice system is not tough enough on crime. How should we as Christians respond?

For starters, we should resist the temptation to dismiss criminals as the scum of the earth, contemptible people whom we can’t wait to see locked away or worse. “There but for the grace of God go I” may be a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Our hearts should be moved with compassion not only toward petty offenders who are just down on their luck, but even toward the most hardened criminals, whose darkened souls deserve our pity. But compassion doesn’t mean surrendering our moral judgment. It doesn’t mean minimizing the seriousness of crimes either as a moral issue or as a scourge on society. The recent progressive drives to defund police and stop prosecuting many categories of lawlessness have proved to be abysmal failures, ironically proving most harmful to the weakest and poorest in society.

An authentically Christian approach to criminal justice recognizes that the task of all justice, including punishment, is ultimately that of truth-telling. A society must be able to publicly speak truth about what is good and what is evil; it must be able to name a crime for what it is: a violation of the moral order God has inscribed upon creation, and a violation of the rights of our fellow image-bearers. It is an abomination to hold the innocent guilty or the guilty innocent, and not only in God’s eyes—nothing proclaims the reality of a “law written on our hearts” (Romans 2:15) more than our visceral revulsion at seeing a demonstrably guilty person walk free.

And it is not enough for the judge to pronounce a verdict; ordinarily, there must also be a sentence that matches it. We all know this intuitively: when we commit evil, we know we deserve to suffer the consequences. Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan thus writes that there is a “good always owed to the offender in punishment: the truth about his offense.” In punishment, we symbolically represent to the offender the true meaning of his action, and we do so publicly, so that not only he may learn the error of his ways, but the society as a whole.

We must at least start with the clear affirmation that it is not cruel or vindictive to punish crime.

Of course, this is only a starting point for Christian judicial practice. The truth is a very complicated thing, and the case of even an ordinary criminal may involve all manner of unwitting accomplices and extenuating circumstances. Mercy, therefore, as well as punishment may prove to be part of a truthful response to crime. And we cannot be blind to practical considerations: America already puts far more of its population behind bars than nearly any other country, and it may well be wiser to assign some offenders to treatment programs rather than prison. Still, we must at least start with the clear affirmation that it is not cruel or vindictive to punish crime; in fact, it would be cruel to do otherwise. A society that cannot tell the truth about justice and injustice will soon be unable to tell the truth about other features of created order.

That said, progressives do sometimes have a point when they draw our attention to the double standards that often become entrenched in our fallen systems of human justice. It is easy to be “tough on crime” when it’s a homeless person caught in the act of car-jacking. It is often much harder when it’s a smooth-talking well-mannered financial professional coolly cooking the books to enrich himself and his partners—especially if they’re shrewd enough to do it in a way that is technically legal. The left is often tempted to respond to this imbalance by simply flipping it the other way, mercilessly hounding the rich while letting blue-collar criminals get off scot-free. As Christians, we must resist both temptations: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15).

In our current hyperpartisan environment, it is easy to let ourselves be dragged toward simplistic extremes of rhetoric about crime. A truly just and effective response, however, requires us to speak truthfully about the very real evils being perpetrated on our streets, while also attending to their root causes in which we ourselves may be unwittingly complicit. It will not be content either to leave crime hidden in the dark, or to consign its perpetrators to perpetual darkness, but seek to shine the redeeming light of truth both upon both.


Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.


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