Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Where Are the Reformers?

During a Presidents’ Day weekend search for a TV special on Abraham Lincoln, I stumbled across National Geographic Channel’s “Prison Nation.” I was riveted to this documentary that told the story of America's troubled prison system where more than 2.2 million convicts live in a world of increasing violence, extreme crowding, rampant drug use and gang warfare. I couldn’t watch it passively; instead, I set my mind to a question: if Christ-followers are called to be salt and light in the world, where are the reformers of this generation?

Germany had her Luther, England her Wilberforce. Our most prominent social reform, the move from slavery to civil rights, was fueled by the Christian imagination of such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These pioneers did not have an easy time with their causes and didn't live to see the fruit of their labors. Neither were their vocations the same. But I can't help but believe God might be calling and equipping someone in our generation to meet the challenges presented by the overcrowding, corruption and largely disappointing results of our current system.

By this observation, I don't mean to imply that Christians aren't active within the system. Ministries like Prison Fellowship and, locally, House of Hope, are doing great good. But it seems to me that the American penal system is overburdened by trying to solve social problems it wasn't designed to fix. From what I saw in "Prison Nation," many young men find themselves behind bars for misdemeanor crimes (drug possession, for example) where their need to survive hardens them. After three years, an average sentence for many first-timers, they are released into society as seasoned criminals. Add to that dynamic the national immigration crisis, and you wind up with a massive overcrowding problem in prisons and unsafe streets. I read that in California (where "Prison Nation" was filmed), the prison population was twice the operating capacity of most prisons. Standard prison ministries can't fix the problem. But they may provide a clue to where the answer lies.

Perhaps God will call someone already involved in prison ministry to think about the entire penal system on a different level. Maybe a guard, a lawyer, a judge, or an inmate will find herself or himself energized and equipped to read, study, get educated and get involved in real reform. It will take abilities and experience beyond what most of us have to effect a change in the system. But our Christian vision of spreading Christ's kingdom and promoting the message of redemption is the right place to start.

In fact, moving away from a redemptive vision of prison may have been where our trouble started. In a fascinating essay, James Beha develops a thesis, very relevant to the current question, that nineteenth century prison reform moved away from a redemptive model to one essentially therapeutic:

...major shifts within the criminal justice system and society at large led to the transformation of the concept of rehabilitation from a religious and spiritual process (“redemptive rehabilitation”) to a highly medicalized and rationalized process (“reformative rehabilitation”). This transformation was driven by a small band of social-scientific pioneers acting during a period of major social upheaval following the Civil War. (Beha, James J.,Redemption to Reform: The Intellectual Origins of the Prison Reform Movement(August 5, 2008), p. 774. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1204707)

Beha details this shift to demonstrate how it fit within the larger cultural shifts of the nineteenth century.

The prison reforms of the late nineteenth century were part of a much larger transformation in American society, which can be termed, following Professor Nelson, “the quest for a scientific morality.” This quest was related to two developments in the late nineteenth century: the move toward a more secular culture and a related move to greater bureaucracy and professionalization (Ibid, 783).

As a Christian, I react to Beha's description of nineteenth century reforms in two ways: 1) with a growing appreciation for the way any societal institution must adapt to changing needs and demands, and 2) with a sense of determination to do my part as a teacher and radio personality to call out whomever might answer the call to bring a Christian mind, Christian imagination and Christian ethics and values to this pressing problem. Maybe someone reading this blog will hear a much greater voice through my feeble reflection.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Talent, Character...Whatever Happened to Virtue?

A phone call that never made it on the air got me thinking about virtue. The caller, a practicing Catholic, was reacting to a conversation that Carmen, Dave and I had about talent and character. Blogger Pete Wilson (a Nashville pastor) got us going on this subject with his post on the recent troubles of olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Pete's point, the germ of our conversation, was that character is ultimately more important than giftedness because (as I read him) in times of stress, temptation, or relaxation our character rises to the top. For Phelps, character rising meant public exposure of "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment." For several readers of Wilson's blog, however, the flaw was not Michael's bad judgment but Pete's attempt at good judgment in pointing to Michael as an illustration of his point.

After our on-air rant, the caller voiced his disappointment that people, including those reactors we pointed out from Pete's blog (a cross-section of Christians, we assume) seem to be all-too willing to be selective with Christian virtue. Faith, Hope and Love, the three "theological virtues" in classical theological texts, are acknowledged, while other virtues are barely even recognized in Christian teaching. Prudence (proper judgment), temperance (restraint), fortitude (courage) and justice are terms so foreign they must be parenthetically defined when mentioned. Yet these four qualities of Christian character are so familiar to our Western forebears (Aquinas, Augustine, Plato) that we, devoid of teaching or talking of these "cardinal virtues," look foreign to them. Thus, Pete Wilson spoke a strange language for some readers when he exercised prudence in commenting on Michael Phelps.

Rejecting prudence in the name of love is commonplace: "After all, the Bible says 'Judge not'!" Nevermind that the difference between condemnation and discernment -- both synonyms for "judgment" -- is formal and material. The unpardonable sin (sorry, "mistake") in today's public discourse is judgment of any kind. If Michael Phelps or anyone else we idolize for talent's sake displays a public character-slip, we may lament it, gossip about it, ignore it, identify with it or forgive it, but we may not under any condition treat it as moral failure. We don't even have a category for moral failure anymore. There is no such thing as culpable sin, only commonplace mistakes. How could the eyes of love even recognize sin, we reason? Love so sloppily applied that it removes prudence is cannabalistic -- virtue devouring virtue.

Comments on public forums give concrete expression to the problem. And the irony is that, in the name of love the "haters" are demonized in the most vulgar, hateful terms, as this comment in a Dallas Morning News blog illustrates:

The haters - and if you're here bashing Michael you are hypocritical, sanctimonious, moralizing, jealous, vindictive haters, don't fool yourself by thinking otherwise - ignore the simple fact that people break "laws" all the time.

The contributor recognizes the hypocrisy of Phariseeism while ignoring his own hypocritical condemnation of those who mix moral discernment with love. Label it Puritanism and you might as well call discernment the unpardonable sin (ahem, "mistake"). By the consensus of comments on the news blog, moral discernment is the only sin there is. Lawbreaking is human. Pointing out that there are laws is Puritanical.

To be plain at the risk of Puritanism, I say there was nothing unloving about Pete Wilson's using Michael Phelps' poor public behavior as an example of our tendency to exalt giftedness over character. He stopped short of condemning Michael (temperance), yet he did not shrink from confronting his audience's idols (fortitude). He treated Michael's lawbreaking as a public character slip -- and it became public the minute his picture hit the press -- yet his point was not Michael's failure but our own in turning a fallible man into an idol. Michael can outperform anyone in the pool, but that does not make him a god. It does make him a public figure who would do well to consider the lesson Pete Wilson offered in his blog: talent sells, but character sustains.