Friday, April 6, 2012

First Thoughts on the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Criminal Justice

I'm really excited for discussion of this draft Social Statement on Criminal Justice for several reasons. As a theologian, I am delighted at the kinds of reasoning that it displays and how the statement puts forward a succinct and persuasive framework for Christian ethics.   As a Christian, I hope it can aid our congregations and communities to seek out a more just criminal justice system at the same time to build up our most precious crumbling infrastructure, civil society!

What follows are a few non-technical observations on this draft statement and a few gestures to show how wonderful and utterly evangelical (in the best sense) this draft is.

1.  First thing.  You won't find a lot of big-spun theories here. I do like complex and subtle reasoning but I don't think that huge swaths of airy speculation are that helpful unless they are really necessary.  What we need most of all is a bit of orientation.  Just as we find our directions through Google maps we don't really need to know our absolute location in the entire world, we just need a bit of a direction, a slight view of the road ahead.  So when we raise the question:  how should Christians consider and respond to a situation?  we should just try to get a shard of perspective.  We certainly don't need more than that.  What this statement gives is that the Christian dwelling in baptism, in the word, in the Scriptures is an orientation.  Nothing more, perhaps less since we may not know what lies ahead but we may learn which way we can go.

2.  Whose justice?  Which rationality?  This draft statement makes a statement and separates itself from many approaches to Christian ways of being-in-the-world by holding that a Christian doesn't get special equipment to learn new things or insights about the way the world is nor does seeing the world in the cross of Jesus somehow pull back the curtains on all that is hidden.  This is to assure us that God has many ways of working in the world, most of them hidden apart from the ways that God is hidden in Jesus.  And the various kinds of justice that God offers, gives, and demands are served by the justice that Jesus accomplishes in his death and resurrection.

This worldly justice and the eternal justice of the gospel is a sharp departure from what is probably the dominant way of thinking of justice and Christian ethics in the last century:  that God's justice is not divisible or at odds with itself.  Especially in American Christian ethics, justice is considered continuous across the various domains of church and community.  This would mean in drastic oversimplification that the world already possesses justice and the church merely reflects that or that the world is to be utterly absorbed into the church without remainder.  Both of these approaches, and with qualifications, a few more, are competing ways of approaching Christian ethics that would issue far different sets of Christian action and ways of reforming criminal justice.  More on that later.

3.  The whole orientation of the what the draft statement -- following Martin Luther --- is that the marks of the church permit us to search, weigh, consider, and invest ourselves in the needs of others.  This is an orientation, it is giving ourselves a direction.  It does not supply us with new riches to invest in others; rather baptism and the gifts of the Spirit are there to permit a full-blown self-giving to others.

4.  This entry into the needs of others also opens a way for pleading for the limitations of what we can accomplish in our actions.  It allows for us to bear the guilt of our failures and to confront the lost and forgotten ways of the past.  This is a further strength of the orientation this statement puts before us.

None of these points have gotten me to the substance of the document, positions that are worth much more careful reflection than these first few thoughts.

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