Amsterdam’s Red Light District is infamous for its open prostitution. Now, though, it’s being used to raise awareness that what you see may not be what you believe it to be.
Chicago is in serious trouble. There has been a rash of crime over the past few weeks that has brought attention, yet again, to a city that cannot seem to make much progress. The Chicago Tribune reported the following about how out of control the city was this past Father’s Day:
At least 34 people were shot — nine of them fatally — Saturday afternoon through Father’s Day Sunday, stretching from 94th Street and Loomis Avenue on the South Side up to about North Avenue and North Pulaski Road on the Northwest Side, according to authorities. The youngest person killed during one of the bloodiest weekends in Chicago this year, 15-year-old Michael Westley, was fatally shot by a police officer Sunday night.
Shootings from Friday afternoon into Saturday left another 13 people shot, 1 fatally. The combined tally resulted in 47 people shot, and eight killed this weekend. Last year at about the same time, there were 53 people shot, nine fatally, in one weekend.
The rash of violent crime came as Chicago has seen a large dip in overall homicide and shooting numbers so far this year.
May 1st was Law Day across America, and here in Grand Rapids, the Acton Institute joined the Catholic Lawyers Association of West Michigan to sponsor a Law Day Celebration at the St. Cecilia Music Center. The chosen theme for Law Day this year was “Realizing the Dream: Equality for All,” and responsibility for delivering a keynote address on that theme fell to Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico, who reflected on the role of faith in the legal profession in a time of great turmoil in society, in part because of the way that the law is currently being used to effect social change.
The event also featured the presentation of the Catholic Lawyers Association of West Michigan’s Thomas Moore Award to Michigan Court of Appeals Chief Judge William Murphy.
You can listen to that presentation, as well as Rev. Sirico’s address, using the audio player below.
Why is Louisiana the world’s prison capital? Are the residents of the Bayou State more criminal than other people around the world? Is the state’s law enforcement exceptionally skilled at catching bad guys? Or could the inflated prison population be, at least in part, the result of the perverse economic incentives of crony capitalism?
David Theroux of the Independent Institute concludes his two-part article on “secular theocracy” here (the full article can be read here). In this second part, Theroux observes that “C.S. Lewis understood that natural law applies to all human behavior including government officials.”
Indeed, it is hard to see how the rule of law can function apart from a conception of the natural law. Now as Theroux shows, not just any conception of the natural law will do. It has to be one rooted in the divine lawgiver to those created in his image, with the implications for dignity and basic rights entailed by such.
Otherwise you might have a “natural law” that empowers the strong over the weak on the basis of their ability to dominate, or their intelligence, or their “fitness” to rule. See, for instance, Sam Gregg’s explanation of how Plato and Aristotle justified slavery.
In a fine post over at the History News Network (HT: Religion in America), Jennifer Graber, assistant professor of religious studies at The College of Wooster and author of the forthcoming book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, reflects on what the Michael Vick saga (to date) shows us about American attitudes towards crime, punishment, and redemption.
Graber briefly traces the development of public policy and social attitudes towards punishment for violent and heinous crimes. She writes,
In the colonial era, government authorities issued tough criminal sanctions. They branded thieves; they put forgers in the stocks; they hanged murderers and even counterfeiters. The punishments came swiftly and were intended to hurt and to shame. They might deter future criminal activity. But no one expected them to prompt a criminal’s personal reformation.
But things began to change by the time of the American Revolution. At this time, she writes, “Americans encountered a host of new ideas about law, punishment, the body, and individual rights. Some citizens used these notions to call for a dramatic transformation of American criminal punishment.”
So there is a mixed legacy in contemporary attitudes toward punishment and imprisonment, particularly from a Christian perspective which emphasizes the personal transformation that is possible through God’s grace.
In round after round, the reformers claimed that a Christian nation necessarily supported criminal punishments designed first and foremost for reformation. Officials retorted that public safety demanded a realistic approach to corrections, one that used bodily punishments and shame to put unrepentant inmates in their proper place. This endless debate gave us the prisons we have today, institutions caught between simultaneous impulses to punish and redeem.
I survey four different Christian views on these matters in a 2008 law review essay, “To Abolish or to Reform? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF). As I show in that piece, “it is more accurate to speak of a plurality of restorative
justice movements than of a unified and univocal restorative justice movement, particularly with respect to the variety of Christian approaches.” As Graber aptly notes, there are a variety of approaches to the relationship between punishment and restoration. Some hold that the two must go together, while other views hold they are antithetical to one another.
One lesson from the Michael Vick case, I believe, is that imprisonment can have a transformative effect, even if that transformation is note the sole, or even one intended, purpose of incarceration. Imprisonment is one way that society makes it clear to someone that particular behaviors are out of bounds and deserving of significant consequences. It puts the indelible stamp of “No!” on someone’s actions.
As for Vick, he’s recently made public his Christian commitment. Reflecting on his conviction and imprisonment at last week’s Super Bowl Prayer Breakfast, “I wanted a chance to redeem myself,” he said. “Pre-incarceration it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God.”
Vick’s case is only one of the most recent of many such stories of prison redemption. It’s been said before, “Prison saved my life.”
A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”
The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.
Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.
Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).
…a judge has tossed out the wiretapping claims pointing out that there was no expectation of privacy out in public.
“Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public,” the judge wrote. “When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation.”
Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.
Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’
But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”
This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.
But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.
The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.
Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.
No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.
The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.
Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.
This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:
Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.
(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).
My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.