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Why Should Christians Care about Criminal Justice?

When you think of “Christians and the law,” you might think of an attorney who focuses on pro-life issues or the First Amendment.  Or, more recently, you might think of political activists attempting to overturn the recent 2020 election results.

However, our characterizations fundamentally miss (or sometimes completely undermine) the true scope of justice the Bible portrays.  

In this week’s episode of the Good Faith podcast, attorney David French and I discuss justice from both a cultural and theological perspective.  

In this conversation, we discuss:

  • A more comprehensive list of issues “Christian attorneys” might tackle to address Biblical concerns;
  • The cultural ramifications of a poorly designed criminal justice system;
  • How faith ideally intersects with politics, culture, and law;
  • Why the “how” of judicial decisions is more important than the “what;”
  • What Bible verses and concepts should be helpful guides as we approach criminal justice reform;
  • Why we shouldn’t sacrifice our virtue to achieve a desirous legal outcome;
  • How well-intentioned legal concepts sometimes work out poorly in the real world;
  • The difference between our civil law systems and criminal law systems;
  • Whether or not the United States has a “over incarceration” problem;
  • The inherent flaws of “three strike and you’re out” laws;
  • And racial disparities in the criminal justice system today.

CURTIS CHANG: First of all, David, we shouldn’t assume that everybody knows the depth of your expertise in the law. I’m going to ask you to brag a little here. You’re normally so humble, you don’t actually toot your horn.  But just give people a quick survey of the range of your experience and expertise in law.

DAVID FRENCH: Well, I’m not going to pretend to be the guy that, for example, my friend Ken White is.  Ken is a former federal prosecutor and has decades of work as a criminal defense lawyer.  He was a classmate of mine at law school. There are people who have sort of this granular level of the criminal justice system, and I defer to their expertise.

But my first entree into the criminal justice system is when I interned at the United States District Attorney’s Office in Boston, in the Organized Crime Division in the early 1990s.  There, I watched a crazy trial where a defendant actually faked a heart attack. But that’s another story.  

I was involved in criminal justice, military justice, when I was a Jag officer in the United States Army. Then I’ve had a career as a legal and cultural analyst. For years, I’ve really been fascinated by questions of crime and punishment – not just from the wonk side of it all, Curtis, because there’s a lot of wonkery about crime and punishment – but also from a cultural and theological perspective.

What is justice? Are we doing justice in this criminal justice system of ours?

I’ve tried to marry my legal experience to my views on how Christians should view these issues. I really dislike the idea that a Christian bringing evangelical Christianity into the public square means talking constantly about life, religious liberty, and nothing else. When you’re talking about criminal justice, you’re talking about impacting a system that impacts the culture of the country, tangibly the liberty of hundreds of thousands and millions of people over time – the families of millions upon millions of people, and the peace and safety of the community.

This should be absolute wheelhouse stuff for culturally and politically engaged Christians.

CURTIS CHANG: When we’re talking about how faith intersects with things like politics, culture, or the law, often Christians focus on the what of the outcome that a law or political position produces instead of the how.

It made me think of a piece you wrote on the Texas abortion law.  If you were just focused on the what, I suppose a pro-life Christian might believe it was a victory.  They would perceive that decision to be a win for “our side.”

Yet what you pointed out was how the courts arrived at that decision matters, as does how enacting the decision produces some really troubling results.

Will you say a little bit more about why Christians should care about the how of the law?

DAVID FRENCH: Well, there’s a line we use that’s sort of moral common sense: “The ends don’t justify the means.”

We understand that in virtually every other area of life in politics, but we often forget it in politics.  We’re often thinking about policy outcomes more than we’re thinking about how we reach policy outcomes. We’re thinking about who wins more than we’re thinking about how we win.

This is not, in my view, a biblical way of approaching things.

If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know I always go back to Micah 6:8, because Micah 6:8 is a means and ends.

“What does the Lord require you? Oh, man, what is good? Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before the Lord your God.”

So justice is an ends. Justice is what we want.

But then there’s also “love kindness” and a mercy element of that process, and then, critically, a humility element.

This is very salient for the criminal justice discussion, which is this if we are often wrong in the effects we believe that the policy will have.

We will often sacrifice a lot of our virtue to achieve a policy outcome that does not have a cultural or political effect we sacrifice so much to achieve.

What often ends up happening is sometimes even some of the best motivated sort of concepts in the real world work out very poorly.

I can give you numerous examples from the criminal justice world. 

CURTIS CHANG: You just said that we forget the importance of the how in law or politics, but it’s common sense in other areas.

As Christians, as human beings, we make that mistake in all spheres of our life.

I’m a former pastor, and Christianity Today’s Mars Hills podcast portrays a classic case in the pastoral church setting of ignoring the how for the sake of the what.

So Mark Driscoll delivered church growth, church expansion, and a visibly successful church. It’s the how of how he arrived at that – in terms of the culture, values, and ethos – which ended up wreaking enormous damage and ultimately undermining even seemingly fruitful outcomes.

We’re pretty wired to miss the importance of the how and this is an important thing for us to get back to.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOSTS: Curtis Chang and David French

PRODUCER: Kris Carter

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Curtis Chang is the founder of Redeeming Babel.

Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

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