While “the separation of church and state” is embedded in the First Amendment, there is no denying that this country was, for better or worse, built on Christian ideals. These ideals have been a guide for our society and its laws since before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The patriarchal structure that has prolonged for centuries is rooted in Christianity; God is referenced on our money as well as in the Pledge of Allegiance; and whether one is being inaugurated into public office or testifying in court, they are asked to swear on the Holy Bible. This country has never even elected a non-Christian president. There are countless examples that prove the church and state have been very much bonded, rather than the contrary.
U.S. citizens also vote with their Christian ideals in mind, using their religious beliefs to justify a political stance, on either side of the aisle. When it comes to criminal justice issues, this has very much been the case. Christianity is built around rules and when these rules are broken, punishment is inflicted by God. Religious people apply this same ideology to society’s manmade laws -- those who commit crimes should be punished however the state see fit, transferring the power from God to the government. Once someone from society has been convicted of a crime, they go away to a place most of us will never have to see. Most of us will never question the punishments that the state chooses to inflict. We can turn a blind eye and convince ourselves that whatever the punishment may be, it is God’s will.
I typically do not support appeals to religion in political or social arguments, but I do find it rather important to point out the hypocrisy of those who do so proudly and publicly. I write these words as a life-long Catholic speaking to my fellow Christians: the current prison system we perpetuate goes against our religious values, specifically forgiveness, loving thy neighbor, and a respect for human life.
In the Bible, the line between good and evil is made very clear, but many interpret this to mean that a single person can only be good or evil, forgetting that we all have the ability to cross that line on any given day. God has deemed us all sinners, not just those of us who have been convicted of a crime. This is why we as Christians practice forgiveness, for both ourselves and for others, just as God does for us. Furthermore, we are taught that all sins are equal in the eyes of God. Which is to say that jealousy is just as sinful as stealing; I am no less of a sinner than a person who is incarcerated. Society has deemed some crimes worse than others, in order to justify the inhumane practices that happen inside prison walls. Why can’t our laws reflect a culture of forgiveness rather than one of violence?
The New Testament’s number one rule is to love thy neighbor as thyself. We seem to forget that this applies to all of our neighbors. The way we allow the state to treat incarcerated people is in no way loving, let alone humane. Even if one does believe imprisonment is a just punishment, the additional punishments that are inflicted during the imprisonment that most of us never hear about -- beatings, solitary confinement, sexual assault -- cannot be justified.
Lastly, we as Christians value and respect human life; the prison system does not. Sitting in a box or a cage is a complete waste of life. Even if someone is released from prison, they can face insurmountable mental and physical challenges as a result of the trauma they experienced inside, often resulting in death. Furthermore, execution at the hands of the state is the most extreme disrespect for human life. Who are we to decide when a person’s life should come to an end? When did we assume the power of God?
There are some instances throughout history where Christian ideals have been cited for the betterment of society -- in particular, the abolitionist movement to end slavery. The movement was led by religious people who recognized the injustices and atrocities of slavery, which went against everything they preached and believed. I am in no way advocating for the abolition of law and order itself, but of the current justice system we perpetuate and accept. In order to truly honor the ideals of forgiveness, loving thy neighbor, and respecting human life, we must employ a restorative justice system for our nation. A system that recognizes people who commit crimes as human beings. A system that is committed to determining why crimes takes place, as opposed to harshly punishing those who commit them. The current justice system has been proven to not lower crime rates or prevent future violent acts from taking place, in fact, the system has had the opposite effect. Since so many in this country have allowed their Christian ideals to direct their political beliefs, it would suit them to reconsider their views on criminal justice. Restorative justice aligns with our Christian values. Let us learn from the Christian abolitionists of the past and use our ideals to better society, not do further harm.