Why Should Christian Mentor Criminals?

Mentoring: A Christian Response to Community Safety

On Sunday, June 5th Deacon Tom English who also serves as Board Chair of Sponsors and Bill Hogan from the Sponsors Mentorship Program provided an Adult Education program on possibilities for lay ministry available to St. Mary’s parishioners. The program was well attended and I was asked to provide something of a summary for The Bellringer. What follows is a summary of that program. 

The Mentorship Program matches recently incarcerated adults with mentors who will serve as a support person, confidant, resource, and friend who engages with their mentee in recreational activities, as well as guides them through the many barriers facing re-entry. It is not designed to be a treatment or counseling program, but simply a way for mentees to build connections with people and their community. 

Why should you as a parishioner be interested in becoming a mentor or supporting such a program?

Criminal practice in the United States today revolves around the process issues of equity of punishments (are offenders being given the same punishment for the same crime), proportionality (does the severity of the punishment fit the crime), and the costs/benefit of imprisonment versus non-custodial sanctions, usually called intermediate punishments. Rehabilitation as the primary purpose of the criminal justice system was declared bankrupt in the 1970s by an unlikely coalition of liberals who felt untested treatments and indeterminant sentences were cruel and unusual punishment* and conservatives wishing to remove discretion from judges and corrections officials. It has been replaced by retribution--those who do evil deserve to suffer as a matter of right and justice. “You do the crime, do the time.” 

The central question for Christians is by what right some people punish others. To this question two others must be added: (1) what do I understand my Christianity to mean in the context of our criminal justice system; and (2) how does this understanding influence the way I deal with the reality of crime.

The most popular understanding of retribution is that of righteous vengeance for crimes committed. The Old Testament lex talionis, law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life (Exod. 21:22-24) is the popular moral basis for the current American sentencing system. Some “neo-puritans” insist that this is a biblical injunction that demands strict retaliation against criminals.

This interpretation of the lax talionis is simply wrong and it is also symptomatic of the wider tendency to interpret all of the Old Testament as being representative of a God whose central attribute is justice and who insists on vindictive punishment of wrong doers. According to most Old Testament scholars, “an eye for an eye, a tooth or a tooth,” was not a divine imperative or a command. Rather, it was limit on human vengeance. Its purpose was to restrict retaliation for crime by providing some proportionality (one life for one murder, etc.) thereby avoiding an escalating spiral of violence as a result of blood feuds between clans.

Jesus explicitly repudiates the lex talionis: “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But now I tell you do not take revenge on someone who does wrong.” (Matt. 5:38-39) Traditionally this passage and the Sermon on the Mount in general have been dismissed as not applying to social situations. This seems a separation of convenience. Neither the Pentateuch nor the Talmud has a separate term for ethics apart from law. Secondly, as Marcus Borg points out, “What distinguished him (Jesus) most (from other charismatic of this time)--besides the extraordinary fact that he was crucified and became the central figure of what was to become a global religion---was his deep involvement with the sociopolitical life of his own people.”** Finally, law and ethics, the public and private were inseparable in Palestine at the time of Jesus.

In the place of vengeance Jesus substituted the ethic of love. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:43-44) As part of that ethic, he rejected the condemnation of others: “Do not judge others and God will not judge you; do not condemn others, and God will not condemn you; forgive others, and God will forgive you.” (Luke 6:37)

For Christians, ex-offenders are humans not just physical entities; they are persons with intelligence and will capable of recognizing what is good. A human person is also a spiritual being made in the image and likeness of God and possessing absolute dignity by virtue of direct relationship with the absolute. While de-humanization through physical abuse and torture have been documented in the American prison system as late as the 1960's and still continues in some places, the main forms today are psychological through incarceration. They include loss of individuality, loss of a sense of self-hood, loss of self confidence from treatment as a sub-rational person, severance of normal human relationships destroying the “rootedness” in healthy relationships, loss of the willingness to trust others, and loss of the capacity to enter into loving, sharing relationships. 

It is important to recognize that in addition to psychological dehumanization, prisons also involve spiritual dehumanization as well. Continual subjection to dreadful physical conditions, to endless routine, to unfilled time, to senseless coercion, and to unspeakable brutality, all combine to kill the human spirit---to convince individuals that there is no hope for the future, that human life has no meaning or worth. Both psychological and spiritual dehumanization are very real forms of pain.

Why is dehumanization of the human person in opposition to Christian belief? As Karl Barth expressed it: “Man is the measure of all things, since Jesus Christ became man.” For it is in human history, and in the human person, that the process of salvation takes place. Humanization is a thoroughly Christian task, and conversely, opposition to theories and social systems which prevent person from realizing their humanity becomes a Christian duty. 

Is incarceration ever OK? Certainly; Christianity has recognized the need for political authority and the maintenance of social order. Likewise, it has never been so naive to assume that all individuals can be trusted to act in a way which will further “the common good”. In fact, Christianity has explicitly taught that government can legitimately use coercive power if it is for the common good and the good of the individual. When incarceration is used, not for the purpose of causing pain, but protect the community and the individual it is appropriate. Research tells us that in most cases this will be for short periods of time until the offender can be safely returned to the community. 

While the goal of the Sponsors Mentorship Program is to decrease rates of recidivism thereby truly increasing community safety by encouraging clients to make positive life choices that will promote healthy lifestyles, community engagement, and lead to personal growth and success, the opportunity for us as people God is to help our brothers and sisters with criminal histories to heal, to restore their humanity by being an affirmative, non-judgmental presence for them.

If you are interested in becoming a Sponsors Mentor or supporting the program in some other way, contact Deacon Tom at english@riousa.com or Bill Hogan at Sponsors at billhogan@sponsosinc.org

* This effort was led by the American Service Committee.
** Borg, Marcus J. Jesus a New Vision: Spirit, Culture and the Life of Discipleship, HarperSanFrancisco, 1987.