Editor’s note: Is America’s justice system really a system of injustice? Charles Colson, the former special counsel to President Nixon who served seven months in a federal prison for Watergate scandal complicity, has authored a new book that raises this question and proposes some novel ideas for reform. Following is the second of a two-series excerpted from “Justice That Restores,” by Colson, who now heads Prison Fellowship Ministries and also founded Justice Fellowship.
Part 1, in yesterday’s edition, was titled “The root cause of crime.”
The remedy to the criminal justice crisis goes far beyond building more prisons, hiring more police, or writing tougher penalties into the law.
Such measures, no matter how draconian, will have no effect on consciences or on the culture that trains consciences. Moral failures don’t register on metal detectors, and other proposed panaceas such as eliminating poverty and racism, tighter gun controls, better education, or more therapy are nothing but palliatives for the crime problem.
The primary purpose of criminal justice is to preserve order with the minimum infraction of individual liberty. Accomplishing this requires a system of law that people can agree on and that therefore possesses not just power but also authority.
It also requires commonly accepted moral standards that serve as voluntary restraints and that inform conscience. Those standards need to express an accepted understanding of what is due to – and required from – each citizen.
Finally, criminal justice requires a just means to restore the domestic order as well as a punishment system that is redemptive.
One can quickly see that rethinking criminal justice involves questions far more profound than simply what should be done about sentencing policy or prison construction. One reason our criminal justice system has fallen so short in reducing crime and disorder is precisely that it has not been considered in the broader context of one of the most fundamental questions any society must deal with: What is justice?
I see this question as being inescapably connected with worldview assumptions, with questions about life, ultimate reality, origins, and human purpose. So this extended discussion of criminal justice will lay out four fundamental categories for analyzing worldviews, addressing questions the great philosophers have always wrestled with.
- Where did we come from, and who are we? Were we purposefully created? Did we merely happen to evolve? Is the human an amalgam of body and soul, depraved because of original sin yet capable of redemption by God? Or are we animate bodies, naturally good, or at least morally neutral until corrupted by society around us, but capable of self-redemption or of redemption by government activism? Each answer leads to its own anthropology with its own implications about how to achieve justice and deal with crime.
- What has gone wrong with the world? How do we account for the evil that drives men, women, and children to commit crimes? What do we make of evil and suffering – the bad things that happen in our midst? The answers to these questions have profound implications for the basis on which we strive to build a society of law and justice.
- Is there a way out? Can individuals, as well as cultures and societies, be redeemed? Can we be freed from that which oppresses us? Here the alternatives are as numerous as the various religions and philosophies of the world. Yet, in the final analysis, all the non-Christian alternatives are forced to answer with a resounding no, while the answer of Christianity is a resounding yes. In saying this, I do not mean to deny that people of other faiths or people who hold to no faith at all can participate in restorative justice programs, implement redemptive policies, or be rebuilders of broken communities and broken lives. They can do all those things – but in so doing, they are “doing a Christian thing,” a thing that cannot be fully explained apart from Christianity.
- What can we do to fix what has gone wrong? If there is hope for redemption, how does it apply to problems and consequences of crime? Can the peace of societies ravaged by crime be restored? I believe that there are concrete, empirically tested answers to these questions, and I believe those answers are found in the concept of restorative justice.
In this book I will attempt to answer these four questions in the context of what it takes to create a just society and what kind of criminal justice system is necessary to support it. I suppose I have tipped my hand, so, having reflected on these questions for many years, I shall tell you at the outset my conclusion.
Only the biblical worldview can sustain a rational, livable, and just society. No other worldview – be it naturalism, Eastern pantheism, the New Age beliefs, postmodern secularism, liberation theology, or whatever – can escape either its own internal contradictions or disastrous implications that lead to moral and social disarray. No other worldview can create a truly just social order. I hope the material in these pages will persuade you of that. I believe that as we struggle with these issues, we can rebuild a culture of civility and decency out of the chaos of modern life.
Before we examine justice in the light of these four worldview categories, we need to address what we mean by justice.
This is a central question for any society to ask in any era, in any time, because it goes to the heart of what society is. At the very least, every society wants to create a just, moral order so that people can live together in harmony and security.
Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century taught that people create civil society by resorting to an omnipotent government out of fear. But he was wrong. They create it by agreeing on certain principles of justice. This agreement may be explicit, as in the case of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution or in the case of the Pilgrims founding their society in New England with the Mayflower Compact. Or it may be implicit, as in those societies — such as Britain — that develop many of their standards of justice through tradition and experience. Either way, some concept of justice is necessary to unite a society.
Any society has to possess some bedrock agreement on how it is going to arrange its social and moral relationships and its political structures to ensure that its citizens can live together in some reasonable, safe, and sane way.
A society that is raising questions about how it must order its political social relationships, by what moral principles it is to live — not just in political theory seminars, but regularly, publicly, and frequently — is a society in revolution, despite the outward appearance of calm and continuity. I suggest we are in such a time. Underneath the thin veneer of the “Era of good feelings,” where high stock values and an ever-expanding set of middle-class entitlements seem to anesthetize most people to the questions of life, those great questions are nonetheless being asked. The media and the political classes anxiously label such questions “divisive” and hope they will go away. But they won’t. They are foundational, and without finding answers to them, the foundations will crumble.
The question, “What is justice?” takes us back to the foundation of political philosophy.
In Plato’s Republic this question touches off the whole dialogue. In trying to get at the strengths and weaknesses of various definitions, Socrates and his young students examined almost every facet of social life: artisanship and trade, family life, war and peace, and finally the life of the philosopher.
I wish I could tell you how they end up answering the justice question. Their conclusions have been hotly debated. After proposing that society be ruled by philosopher-kings, Socrates seemed to discourage his listeners from politics and instead urge them toward the life of philosophy, considered to be something abstracted from politics. (Does he therefore mean that communal, social justice is impossible?) Along the way, he conclusively demolished the belief that justice is nothing more than the interest of the stronger prevailing over the weaker and thus that justice is a sham. He showed that justice is not some shifting, arbitrary cultural construction but an objective, knowable reality.
On this foundation, political philosophy was born. On this foundation law rests.
Read Part 1: “The root cause of crime.”