Christianity has played a paramount role in mass incarceration. Mass incarceration’s origins, sustainment, and astronomic growth are inherently linked to Christian theology. Our embrace of penal substitution has engendered a retributive culture within our criminal justice system. The church has adopted and supported a meritocratic ethic that declares people get what they deserve. This worldview has subconsciously fostered an unquestioning allegiance to the state, and it has led the church to unwittingly consent to and affirm that crime is primarily a legal offense committed against the state rather than a sin that relationally harms individuals and communities, infringing on the shalom that God intends for us all. The church has adopted and supported a meritocratic ethic that declares people get what they deserve. Click To Tweet
The Impact of Meritocracy
Our understanding of God’s wrath colors our response to crime. We have read of God’s vengeance toward sin and legislatively translated it into zero-tolerance policies. There are many problems with this; primarily, we need to understand God is perfect, and we are fallible. God is the only righteous, impartial, and just judge. Only God can purely define, respond to, and legislate sin while also knowing the nature of a person’s heart. As fallen people, our judgment is never completely pure; everyone is embedded in culture and has conformed to the patterns of this world to some degree. Consequently, when it comes to enforcing no-tolerance policies, the officials commissioned to enforce and govern these policies are often unable to do so without bias—whether conscious or subconscious. Our understanding of God’s wrath colors our response to crime. We have read of God’s vengeance toward sin and legislatively translated it into zero-tolerance policies. Click To Tweet
Christianity is predicated on grace, which opposes meritocracy and the rugged individualism we pride ourselves on. Meritocracy insidiously compromises our vison. It distorts how we see ourselves and perverts how we relate to and interact with our neighbor.
Meritocracy places us in a position of judgment over and against others. It subtly fosters a fear of the other by differentiating us from them. It endows us with a sense of moral superiority in which we indict others and look down upon them. Meritocracy engenders an anxiety that clings to fearmongering and embraces jail cells border walls, and ethnic exclusion as social safeguards that will protect us from them.
Legislatively, meritocracy seduces us into supporting policies that punish, racially target, and geographically profile. Meritocracy holds that those people deserve to be quarantined and caged like animals because their actions prove they are dangerous and immoral. Meritocracy thereby holds that retributively responding to crime is not only right, it is also responsible. It ensures the peace, stability, and safety of moral citizens.
Over time, the church has welcomed a meritocratic ethic, which forsakes the grace our faith is founded on. Christian meritocracy has evolved as the byproduct of syncretizing biblical and nationalistic values. This toxic mixture trivializes grace and promotes the dichotomy of saints and sinners that ignores the fact that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. Meritocracy, sanctified and baptized by the church, breeds stigmatization, disunity, and dehumanization. It therefore serves as a stumbling block to Christian reconciliation and redemption. It hinders lost sheep trying to find their way back to their Shepherd, and blinds those who believe that they have spiritually arrived.
Meritocracy has led professing Christians to endorse and actively participate in the largest prison system in the history of the world. Largely due to meritocracy, the vast majority of us have seen no contradiction between legislatively supporting the policies that bred mass incarceration and bearing witness to the in-breaking kingdom of God. Meritocracy has led professing Christians to endorse and actively participate in the largest prison system in the history of the world. Click To Tweet
The Artificial Separation of Church and State
Christopher Marshall says that when meritocracy is buttressed by the separation of church and state,
Christians today often suppose that their ecclesial ethics—how believers are called to treat one another within the church and community of faith—have no pertinence to the ethical standards and legal practices that apply in mainstream society. Church and world are assumed to be entirely separate domains with their own distinctive norms. As a result, conservative Christians in America often rank among the strongest supporters of the current, highly retributive penal system, with its galloping rates of incarceration and its enduring, shameful reliance on capital punishment.
This observation helps explain the church’s eerie silence during the evolution of mass incarceration, the convict leasing era, the War on Drugs, and the present war on immigration.
According to Marshall, Christians who see the church and world as “entirely separate domains, with their own distinctive norms” are able to “sense no tension between their support for a relentlessly punitive criminal justice system and the incessant call in Scripture to practice forgiveness and reconciliation, a call they conveniently confine to the sphere of interpersonal relationships within the Church.” Marshall lambasts this theological schizophrenia, saying that “such incongruity is theologically indefensible.” He declares,
The Church is called to bear witness to the reality of God’s saving justice in Christ, both by proclaiming it verbally in the story of the gospel and by putting it into practice in the way it deals with offending and failure in its own midst. Knowing God’s justice to be a restoring and renewing justice, the Church is obliged to practice restorative justice in its own ranks and to summons society to move in the same direction.
Even in spite of legislation around the separation of church and state, Marshall concludes that “there can be no justification for saying one thing about God’s justice in Church and advocating the opposite in the world.”
As followers of Christ, we must be cognizant of how embracing meritocracy impedes our ability to reflect God’s gracious character, restorative nature, and missional activity in the world. God is actively restoring all things, including fallible people like you and me, as well as those we sometime mistakenly believe are beyond the point of redemption.
*Taken from Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique Gilliard. Copyright (c) 2018 by Dominique Gilliard. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Also—check our recent Missio webinar with Dominique exploring the themes in Rethinking Incarceration!