The following commentary originally appeared on the BreakPoint website.
For many Americans, a single feeling shapes the way we see criminal justice: fear. When we think about our businesses, our communities and our loved ones, and the threat which crime poses to them, we react out of fear toward the perpetrators. And so the approach which has come to dominate much of our judicial and prison systems can be summarized as “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
But this model of justice isn’t Christian—it’s thoroughly secular, based on a worldview which sees the safety and comfort of “the good people” as the top priority. But the Christian worldview starts from a different premise—one which sees everyone as desperately fallen and in need of grace, forgiveness and restoration. This includes offenders behind bars.
That, according to Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske, is the root of an approach to justice which Chuck Colson advocated for years, and which hit a nerve a few weeks ago when BreakPoint host Eric Metaxas brought it up on his daily broadcast.
Restorative justice is a simple idea: Crime, it proposes, is not primarily social delinquency or the breaking of laws, but sin against individuals. So a justice system which sees its primary responsibility as meting out harsh punishments for offenses against the state misses the mark entirely.
Restorative justice proposes instead that we look to Scripture, and ask how God would set up criminal justice. Fortunately, we don’t have to look far. In the first few books of the Bible, God designed a government for His people, Israel, which dealt with crime very differently from the way we often deal with it in the United States. Instead of “locking them up and throwing away the key,” God’s system sought not only to punish the offender (a right goal), but to restore and make amends for the damage done.
But not only does restorative justice seek to repair damage in the community, explains Jim, but it also seeks to restore individual offenders on a spiritual level, no matter what their crime.
“Instead of asking, ‘how can keep bad people out of society,’” he says, “we need to be asking, ‘how do we bring changed people back?’” Restoring our communities to what the Hebrews called “shalom” should form the heart of our model for justice.
These ideas weighed heavily on Chuck Colson, an ex-offender himself, because he had experienced the redeeming grace of Christ first hand. It was this experience which inspired him to found Prison Fellowship to minister to those behind bars, and later Justice Fellowship, a ministry dedicated specifically to advocating for criminal justice reform.
Through these organizations and their outreaches (particularly programs like “Angel Tree“), Chuck and his team worked for years and continue to strive toward a biblical vision for administering justice. This vision, Jim says, has never been about “being soft or hard, liberal or conservative” on crime. Instead, it has sought to incorporate the uniquely Christian belief that every human soul is precious, and that no one is beyond God’s grace.