Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter joined 96 other Christian leaders supporting a campaign for criminal justice reform announced June 20.
Spearheaded by Prison Fellowship, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, National Association of Evangelicals and the Colson Center for Worldview, the Justice Declaration seeks to rally evangelicals and other Christians against mass incarceration and for alternative sentencing for criminals who don’t pose a significant threat to society.
“We have a criminal justice system that does not stop crime but in many cases actually furthers crime,” ERLC President Russell Moore said in comments at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington quoted by the Washington Times, “making criminals out of those who are not yet criminals [and] ignoring those who have been victims of crime.”
“I think most of us in American life can agree our criminal justice system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to,” Moore said. “We should fix it. And, as evangelical Christians, we should be among the first to say so.”
The 10-point declaration urges Christians to:
- Affirm that the God of the Bible is a just God: justice flows from God’s very character, and the works of God’s hands are faithful and just;
- Treat every human being as a person made in God’s own image, with a life worthy of respect, protection, and care;
- Foster just relationships between God, fellow human beings, and property, which will lead to human flourishing;
- Redouble our efforts to prevent crime by cultivating the “seedbeds of virtue,” including families, churches, neighborhoods, schools, and other sources of moral formation;
- Care for the physical and emotional wounds of survivors of crime, ensure their safety, and support their meaningful participation in the justice system;
- Take up the cause of the poor and vulnerable, ensuring fair access to education, economic opportunity, the social safety net, and, for those accused of crimes, the instruments of justice;
- Advocate for proportional punishment, including alternatives to incarceration, that protects public safety, fosters accountability and provides opportunities to make amends;
- Preach the good news of the gospel and proclaim that true freedom in Christ is available to all, including prisoners, recognizing that His atoning sacrifice covers all sin;
- Invest in the discipleship of incarcerated men, women, and youth, protect their safety and human dignity, and minister to the needs of families and children with incarcerated loved ones;
- Celebrate redemption in our congregations and communities by welcoming back those who have paid their debt to society, and by providing opportunities for all persons to reach their God-given potential.
“Because the good news of Jesus Christ calls the Church to advocate (or ‘be a witness’) for biblical truth and to care for the vulnerable, we, His followers, call for a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all,” says a white paper accompanying the declaration drafted by Union University professor Ben Mitchell. “The Church has both the unique ability and unparalleled capacity to confront the staggering crisis of crime and incarceration in America and to respond with restorative solutions for communities, victims, and individuals responsible for crime.”
According to the paper, nearly 2.2 million people are behind bars in the United States, 3.7 million are on probation, another 870,000 on parole and an estimated 65 million Americans have a criminal record. The rate of violent and property crimes, meanwhile, has decreased by half since the early 1990s, mostly attributable to reasons other than incarceration.
Over-incarceration disproportionally affects minorities and youth, the paper says. African Americans are significantly more likely to be arrested for a drug crime, even though rates of drug use and trafficking are roughly equal across all races, and if convicted face tougher sentences. Juvenile court caseloads have nearly tripled since 1960, even though the number of crimes committed by youth is about the same.
“As a society, we have turned to prisons as the one-size-fits-all response to public safety concerns,” Moore and Prison Fellowship CEO James Ackerman said in a blog announcing the initiative on Politico.
“Meanwhile we have allowed our centers of moral formation to erode, we have enacted draconian sentencing policies based more on fear than on evidence, and we have failed to imagine or enact effective alternatives to prison time. In an effort to secure law and order, we have lost sight of justice based on the God-given value of each human life.”
The two leaders said some churches and denominations have long sought prison reform, but the broader Christian community, and particularly evangelicals, is just now waking up to the problem. A recent Barna poll reported 87 percent of practicing Christians agreed to some degree that caring for prisoners is important based on their values.
“The time has come for Christians and churches to apply those same values to advance a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all,” Moore and Ackerman said.
Signers of the declaration include Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; David Allen, dean of the school of preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Nathan Finn, dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University; and John Mark Yeats, dean and associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and College.
The presidents of Baptist-affiliated Louisiana College and Union University and executive directors of the Missouri Baptist Convention and Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas are among signatories. Pastors include David Crosby, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, and James Merritt, lead pastor at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
While most of the names supporting the declaration identify as conservatives, the list also includes social progressives such as David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, and Ron Sider, founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action.