Ted came home from work the other night really excited about a law review article he had found. This was not unusual; we both get really excited about ideas and struggle to read in the same room because we’re constantly interrupting the other’s reading by quoting out loud. Many of the ideas that tweak our hearts center on white, American Christian’s misapplication of privilege, justice, affluence, and the gospel. We see this plainly in NYC and in the projects a few blocks from our apartment. We lay in bed for hours and discuss the implications of ten things or another on everything. I read his most recent find this morning, Law and Grace, while waiting for my new book (Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism) to arrive. Law and Grace is SO.GOOD. Very challenging to my TKC education but at the same time, it fit right in.
Harvard professor William J. Stuntz makes the argument that Evangelical Christians have had two seasons–1890’s to 1930’s and also 1970’s to around 2004–where we voted as bloc and backed political leaders who supported harsher punitive crime laws (which resulted in a high spike in the number of people (mostly minority men) locked in prison); and where we waged cultural wars on sin (alcohol and gambling then abortion and same-sex marriage). He says we’ve done both of these wars ‘wrong’ by being too American in our belief that the legal system can save society and not enough Christian in our understanding of our Savior’s saving.
Stuntz argues that we need to wage war like Martin Luther King Jr. (war toward reconciliation, not retribution) and punish people like in the story of the prodigal son (the self-righteous and judgmental are shamed while the violators are received with mercy+relationship). Stuntz shares a lot about how criminal justice used to take place within each neighborhood (juries, judges, and police officers all lived in the neighborhoods that the crime they prosecuted occurred) and how it’s now outsourced so affluent neighborhoods police poor, crime ridden neighborhoods. Justice without relationship. Sounds to me like the law without Jesus’s redeeming grace. Here are sound bytes from Stuntz:
pg 375, While speaking of the prodigal son: “But the story works only if it is plausible, only if we could imagine real, flesh-and-blood human beings behaving like this.” If only we could understand more of the bible as “real, flesh-and-blood.”
pg 375, “Mercy plus relationship, with a party thrown in for good measure–that’s a pretty good working definition of grace.” You should try throwing a magnificent party for the next person who deeply insults you.
pg 377, “If mercy and relationship are more powerful than we tend to think, judgement and condemnation are more dangerous than we tend to think.” He’s talking about this in principle but all in the legal system and the way we enact punitive sentences for drugs and moral crimes. Why do we impose a different morality in the legal system that we adhere to in our personal lives?
pg 367, “One reason American Christians have behaved as we have is that we have been more American than Christian. That is why so many of us have believes that criminally prohibiting liquor or cocaine, gambling or abortion, would actually or a stop to those practices–when all available evidence suggests otherwise.”
pg 367, “Punitive policies often begin w paternalist goals…the policies are imposed against their targets, they don’t arise out of relationship with their targets.” If God’s plan is to restore the world unto himself, then justice HAS to be relational.
pg 383, “…sacrifice–unmerited suffering–produces reconciliation.” At least, that’s how Jesus did it. And why would we ever try to imitate JESUS?
Law and Grace by Harvard Professor William J. Stuntz was published in the University of Virginia Law Review, Oct 2007. You can read it here.