The Supreme Court recently vacated a life sentence imposed upon an Oklahoma woman. (LINK) The Court decided that the woman had not received adequate legal assistance, and did not understand the choices set before her during the sentencing process. She will be sent back to the Court of Appeals, where she will likely receive a lighter sentence.
What was the woman’s crime? Shoplifting. Specifically, she stole a $275 purse and a $380 purse from Dillard’s.
Now, this was not a first offense. Far from it. Since 1971, the same woman has been punished almost 30 times for theft. She’s a habitual thief. No doubt about it. To make matters worse, she is a habitual thief because she habitually needs money to buy drugs. She is an addict. Judge Ray Elliott, in handing out the life sentence (plus 17 years from revoking a previous probation), called her a “one person crime wave” and clearly felt exasperated at having to deal with the same criminal so many times.
In America, we punish drug addicts. We punish people who steal because they’re poor. We punish people for a lot of crimes that are clearly related to environments that are not their fault. There is a fundamental disconnect between our view on crime and punishment and a staggering body of scientific evidence that our system doesn’t work.
Most of us are familiar with the statistics by now. America has more people in prison than… everyone. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of the prisoners. What we haven’t really thought much about is why we’re so infatuated with the idea of locking our fellow man behind bars. I suggest that like so many other poisonous attitudes held in the Land of the Free, Christianity is lurking at the bottom of the causal chain.
One of the central tenets in Christianity is the existence of good and evil. On the surface, it seems like a bit of a no-brainer. Some things are bad and some things are good. But that’s not what Christian doctrine really says. Christianity rests on the premise that “good” and “evil” are inherent qualities, like “green” or “metallic.” It asserts that God is essentially “made of good,” and Satan is “made of evil.” The reason Satan and those who choose to reject God are doomed to eternal torture is that they are evil, not because they have committed evil.
In order to justify eternal punishment for humans, we must believe that they are evil. We cannot believe that they made a mistake, or that they are capable of being good. What can we say about a god whose idea of rehabilitation is eternal punishment with no hope of parole? It’s clearly nonsense to even suggest such a thing. But for those who insist that their specific god does exist, and hell is real, there must be a reconciliation between God’s “goodness” and the “justness” of punishing people for eternity. The only thing that salves the conscience is to believe that some people are just evil, and there’s no hope for them to begin with. Only hell is suitable for them, since that which is evil cannot be good.
How would this belief translate to the real world? I suggest that we are looking at it right now. Why would we expect followers of a god who offers no rehabilitation to believe that rehabilitation is a good model for an earthly justice system? Wouldn’t we instead expect “good Christians” to believe that only extremely harsh sentencing is appropriate for “evil criminals?” Life sentences? Locking them away out of view, in the same way that Christians believe they will be separated from the evildoers for eternity?
While we’re on the subject, let’s think about the torture angle. The Christian God not only advocates torture, he included it as an integral part of the most loving and good plan ever devised — the plan of salvation. Those who do not fit into God’s “perfect society” are tortured forever. What would we expect from followers of such a God? Of course, we would expect them to also believe in the virtue of torture. And they do. (LINK)
Let’s talk about omniscience next. The Christians believe in an omniscient god, whose primary occupation is spying on every intimate detail of every person’s life. Because God is good by definition, then it is also good by definition for a Christian government to emulate God as closely as possible. Are we then surprised that Christian Republican legislators recently voted in lock step against a bill that would prohibit employers from requiring Facebook passwords from its employees? (LINK) Are we shocked when an Evangelical president orders illegal wiretaps? Why would it surprise us that a Christian government would attempt to be “god-like” by knowing everything it could about its citizens’ personal lives?
The reality on the ground is that Christian beliefs do matter, and they do shape society. Since the 1970s, when we handed control of our government over to Evangelical Christians, our prison population has skyrocketed. We have become warmongers. We have tortured and indefinitely detained not only “enemy combatants,” but our own citizens. We have spied on our citizens, exposing their most private secrets and preventing virtually all measures that would protect privacy. We believe that more cameras, more time in prison, and more “moral virtue” will end the crime problem. Each of these phenomena can be traced directly to a Christian belief. I believe we ignore this connection at our grave peril.
The objective reality is that each of these beliefs contradicts mountains of empirical evidence. The countries with the least crime are the ones whose crime policies are the most opposite ours. Across the board, societal dysfunction is linked most strongly to two variables: poverty and unhealthiness. America, with its ecumenical aspirations given nearly free rein, has proven itself devoted to preventing people from obtaining healthcare, and putting as many poor criminals as possible in prison.
There is a final element of Christian theology that insinuates itself into our policies. That is the belief in perfection. God, we are taught, is a perfect being, and when we die and go to heaven, we will also be restored to the perfection we lost in the Garden of Eden. Perfection is real, and we are expected by God to strive towards perfection even though we are incapable of achieving it.
This is actually a rather sinister belief, when you think about it. The truth is, there has never been, nor will there ever be a society which completely eliminates crime. Evolutionary Game Theory teaches us that every stable population is defined by a level of defection (cheating) that does not lead to the destruction of the group. In other words, “Zero Tolerance” is a profoundly non-scientific approach to crime prevention.
If we were a society devoted to science, our approach to crime and punishment would be some mix of the following: Eliminating poverty, integrating preventative and curative medicine into every citizen’s life, providing mental health services, addiction recovery services, and screenings for mental disorders, and resorting to jail as a last resort. Our Christian society approaches the subject from almost the polar opposite direction, locking people up as a first resort, and only engaging in rehabilition or mental health services begrudgingly, and with enough red tape to prevent any real services from being reliably provided.
Christian beliefs do matter, and they do cause great harm to society.