When cleaning out a study towards the end of one’s active ministry, one comes across things of interest, items laid aside long ago for future reference. One such item was a religious periodical, Christianity Today, dated August 16, 1993. Evidently laid aside for future reference due to some article that had caught my attention.
But which and why?
Opening the magazine, I realized what had caught my attention: an article by Charles Colson that was the substance of an address he gave to the National Press Club back in March of 1993. The address was entitled “Crime, Morality, and the Media Elites.”
The title itself was enough to catch my interest. That it was an address given by Chuck Colson added to its interest.
If you are old enough to be familiar with the name Charles (Chuck) Colson, you will know just how unlikely it was that Colson would be invited by the National Press Club to address them on any issue at all. The two were long-time opponents, once despising each other for political reasons, for one. Chuck Colson, who early in his political career was known as [President] “Nixon’s Hatchet Man,” digging up dirt on all of Nixon’s enemies (who were myriad in number); and the other representing the news media, liberal by reflex and actively involved in bringing down the Nixon administration with all its “dirty tricks,” leading to Nixon’s resignation from office in the 1970s, as well as to prison terms for Colson and other of his cronies.
Now, two decades later, Colson was invited to address the representatives of the news media on an issue that concerned them all, the burgeoning prison population and the obvious inability of our nation and its judicial system to stem the tide.
Colson was converted to Christianity while in prison and made it his life’s work from that point on to confront prison inmates with what he labeled “the Good News of Christ Jesus”—Christ Jesus as the one way to renewal of life (true freedom even while imprisoned), and as giving hope for a purpose in life not only for those to be released, but for those serving life-sentences as well.
Some may question Colson’s conversion and the reality of his faith. Many in the liberal media did (just another who has conveniently “found Jesus” in prison in hopes of leniency by a judge to release one early). We leave it to the judgment of God. I am well aware of Colson’s promoting of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and its wrong-headedness. But then, this was essentially what Abraham Kuyper was guilty of in his political career as well, developing the theory of common grace to justify Reformed and Catholics working together to lift financial burdens from those sending their children elsewhere than the state-run schools. Shall we challenge Kuyper’s Christianity?
For such a man as Colson I make the judgment of charity per the Canons of Dordt (cf. III/IV.14).
My interest in the article by Colson is not so much his solution for the corruption of our criminal system, certainly not in its entirety, but his statement of the problem, the undeniable reality of the growing evil in our society 25 years ago, one that is still with us today, and especially of his analysis of how the attempts to remedy this growing evil have been a miserable failure.
Which in turn raises the question, is there remedy for our society? And if so, what?
What Colson has to say about our criminal system and its failures is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.
Colson begins his address by laying out statistical facts that simply underscore in an alarming way the growth of lawlessness in our society back in the late-twentieth century and its inability to deal with it.
Colson’s thesis is simple. As he states at the outset of his address,
Over the past 17 years, I have been in well over 600 prisons in nearly 30 counties. What I have experienced can be summed up tersely, the American criminal justice system is terminally ill…
The statistics tell the story. In 1973 there were 210,000 people in U.S. prisons; the incarceration rate was 98 per 100,000 U. S. citizens, well behind the notoriously high rates of the Soviet Union and South Africa. Last year  the total number of people imprisoned in America was 856,000, plus 425,000 in jails. Our rate of incarceration was 512 per 100,000 (including jails). We are now leading the world by a wide margin.
In spite of the huge number of criminals being incarcerated, our crime rate has continued to rise. In 20 years, violent crime has climbed over 75 percent. And each year the people who commit these bloody crimes are younger. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 20 percent of high-school students carry weapons to class.
Lawlessness lies just below the surface in our everyday life….
To be sure, these are statistics that are some 25 years old. But the reality is that the alarming growth in crime and imprisonment continues unabated to this present day. The U.S. continues to lead the world in people imprisoned. What Colson set before the Press Club in 1993 is still relevant today.
The latest statistics place our prison and jail population at over 2.3 million, about twice the number there was 25 years ago.
Reporting on his own experience in prison, Colson remarks,
I have never been in a place so filled with anger, bitterness, despair, dejection.
It is no wonder to me that, after being released, between 66 and 74 percent commit new crimes within four years; the wonder is that 25 percent do not. The prison experience is brutal, dehumanizing, counterproductive.
Of course, prisons do serve one very important function. They separate dangerous offenders from the rest of society.
What is of interest is Colson’s sharp criticism of our society’s solutions for the growing evil that is bedeviling and threatening it. And not just the liberal Democrats’ solution, but that of the Republican conservatives as well.
A plague on both the Houses!
Colson’s critique of the remedies proposed by both is insightful.
Beginning with the liberals, Colson states:
Let’s consider first the liberal approach. The prevailing sociological view earlier in this century was that crime is caused by environmental factors—poverty, racism, oppression, lack of opportunity. Once this idea took root, it was hard to shake. In the 1960s, Attorney General Ramsey Clark said flat out, “Poverty is the cause of crime….”
If the cause of crime is the external environment, then crime could be cured by changing the environment. Thus we came to believe that prisons are capable of rehabilitating criminals. But rehabilitation proved to be a costly myth. I don’t know any one in corrections today who honestly believes that prisons have a redemptive purpose. Nevertheless, the myth lives on, and so does the notion that individuals are not responsible for their behavior.3
Colson then turns to the conservative perspective.
The assumptions on the conservative side have been equally flawed. They believe the solution to crime is to lock criminals up and throw away the key….I [as a White House adviser] helped shape the law-and-order mentality popular today.
This is called the deterrent theory: Lock them up and we’ll scare people out of crime. But it doesn’t work either. The problem is that fear does little to change behavior. If it did, no one would smoke.
If prisons did rehabilitate or if the threat of prison did deter crime, surely we would be living in utopian peace. But the stark fact is this: though we’ve thrown more people in prison than at any other time in human history, few sensible people would be willing to take a walk in the city’s combat zone after dark….Crime and the fear of crime disrupt our lives and haunt our nights.
Why have these approaches failed?4
And that is the great question, isn’t it. Why have the proposed remedies failed so miserably? Is it that there is no remedy? Society better plan on throwing more and more into prisons, with no end in sight?
We bring this all up not because we suppose we can solve the growing crime rate of our society, but simply to reflect on the reality that we live in increasingly evil days, and what is happening in our society points us to the end, indicating just how close to the return of our Lord we are.
No, we are not making predictions—the end has to be within the next half century or less. Such would be foolishness. But what does become plain is how ripe (rotten) the times are for the Antichrist to appear, when God’s clock strikes the eleventh hour, the last hour before the Lord returns. Everything is dropping into place, so that when the Lord decides it is time, all that is needed is one great crisis accomplished by His providence, and society will welcome the Man of sin to save it from itself.
What Colson’s address makes crystal clear is how deeply rooted wickedness and violence is in our post-Christian society. Lawlessness is on the increase with no letup in sight, so much so that even the most ungodly, the liberals, are troubled and wonder where it will all end. When they start looking to Chuck Colson, that one-time despised ‘Nixon hatchet-man,’ for possible insights, you know they are desperate for answers.
Colson’s criticism of the liberals and their analysis of crime, its causes and resolutions, cannot be gainsaid. Wickedness displayed in violence is not simply due to poverty and the environment. There are countless countries more impoverished than the USA with far less crime and violence. And the much-touted rehabilitation measures have had little positive affect.
Evil and violence are not due to the environment, but are of the heart with its envy, self-love, and greed. And a cleaned-up environment does not improve the heart with its lusts and resentments.
Without acknowledging personal accountability (“I am to blame, not everyone else”), there is no enduring change of character.
Interestingly, Colson dismisses the common conservative perspective as well, namely, the best deterrent to crime is strict punishment—hand-out harsh sentences and “scare people out of crime.” Colson did not see this as the remedy either.
Ultimately, of course, Colson was right. Simple fear of punishment is not ultimately the deterrent to crime, as if such can change a man’s heart and outlook on life and towards others.
This is not to say that punishment and the threat of punishment strictly enforced and rigorously applied does not deter crime and stifle violence. We do, after all believe in the restraint of sin. No, not of the heart, but of behavior when the magistrates exercise the sword or rod of discipline on the evildoers as required by God’s laws.
Singapore is a case in point. The crime rate in that fair city is astonishingly low, at least by our standards. Children can ride the public transportation safely at night unattended.
The reason? Punishment against criminal behavior is rigorously, some would say, severely, and speedily meted out.
And the latter must not, according to Scripture, be ignored.
As Ecclesiastes declares, “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11).
If there is one thing egregiously lacking in the States’ criminal court system, it is execution of sentences with dispatch. Violent criminals are given years of appeals before any punishment is handed out, by which time the citizenry has long forgotten the criminal, the crime, or its penalty. The deterrent of publicly applied punishment is lost.
And when charges against those guilty of crimes are dismissed left and right due to this legality and that, the proposed punishment is merely hypothetical. Who need fear it!
That said, the manner in which our foolish society is committed to doling out ‘criminal justice’ is doomed to failure. It is obvious that Colson’s address has had little affect on changing our criminal justice system. Slick defense lawyers still control the application of our penal laws. And neither the Democrats nor the Republicans really want to change their long-standing approaches. It is their recognized political platforms.
What Colson pleaded for was that the news media would recognize that, since crime is basically a moral issue, they give sympathetic publicity to religious organizations occupying a large place in the prison system. Time has shown that the thoroughly secular, anti-religious news media has little sympathy for such a notion. The vast majority want nothing to do with religion in any shape or form—no recognition of a Supreme Being as ultimate Judge at all—let alone with Christianity and its truth.
Grievous to say, what is coming to light of late in the scandalous behavior of Rome’s priests worldwide, massive pedophile abuses to which Rome’s leaders have been complicit, has given the anti-Christian news media ample reason to scoff at ‘religion being the remedy of evil and abuses,’ especially the Christian religion. They feel justified in maintaining their ‘environmental’ approach to criminal justice. Apostate Christianity has ruined Christianity’s name.
Is there no remedy then to the running evil of our failed criminal system?
Oh, there is a remedy! It has to do with Christ, of course, and the gospel, and true-hearted conversions acknowledging personal responsibility, and seeking grace. But of such our increasingly ungodly society wants no part.
The simple reality is that any real, wide-spread remedy must begin not in the criminal system itself, but in society at large. Lawlessness does not start in the criminal system, it starts in homes, in families, in society as it makes a mockery of marriage in every shape and form. And if these are not ‘remedied,’ criminal systems are powerless to affect change. The gospel brought to criminals may and will transform some souls. But the system’s corruptions will remain.
So, where does that put us?
Praying and waiting for Christ’s return when all evil shall at last be addressed and redressed. But not despairing and not powerless when it comes to the corruptions of our prison system. Christ can still be brought to men and women in prison. And Christ still has power in the midst of such corruption and despair to set His people free.
Maybe it is time that we as Reformed Christians become more actively involved in prison ministries than we to this point have been.
Think about it.
1 Christianity Today (August 16, 1993), 29.
2 Christianity Today, 29-30.
3 Christianity Today, 30.
4 Christianity Today, 30.