Let’s begin with a little theology. Ecclesiology to be precise (don’t switch the page back to BuzzFeed yet!). The local church is one of the best places in our society where there can be a deep interchange between the public and private worlds. In our modern Western cultures, where the divide between public and private can be so vast, the church provides an environment where private life – including small acts of kindness, personal worship, study, and inner transformation – can easily meet with public life – including advocacy, international awareness, and business ethics. Put simply, the church is where private compassion and public justice should build each other up.
This can be seen in any number of individual issues. But one that stands out is our juvenile justice system. No matter what statistics you’re reading, they are grim. Recently I heard an expert say that the number one predictor of adult criminal activity is whether a person has been part of the juvenile justice system. On one hand, this makes sense – the same is true for most risky behavior. If someone starts down the wrong path at a very young age they are more likely to continue that later in life and the more difficult it is to make a lasting change. On the other hand, this reality reveals a deeply embedded brokenness in the system. The fact that our juvenile justice system is so spectacularly bad at reforming, preventing or changing future behavior is alarming. It would seem to me that its most important functions are the deterrence of future crime and the reform of individuals who are convicted. As a whole, our justice system is failing at both.
Juvenile justice, as an issue for the church, stands out to me because the problems are recognizably public and personal. They are public because the brokenness of our system is readily seen by all, Christian or not. The problems are personal because they are affecting and sometimes destroying the lives of thousands of vulnerable children in our country.
The solutions are equally public and personal. They clearly require advocacy and change at the highest, systemic levels. Laws, cultural attitudes, and many fundamental parts of our criminal justice system have to change. But the profound damage that many youths have suffered in the system (or that led them into the system in the first place) requires the very personal response of counselors, mentors, and compassionate advocates.
As the church acts as a necessary bridge between the public and private, what can it offer to this broken system?
There is plenty of space for the personal compassion of concerned Christians to be involved in the lives of these youths. There has been much written about adoption on Shared Justice. And well there should be. For all of the problems within that system, there is still almost no greater gift to give a child than the hope of a new start in life. There are a few programs around the country (see this one in my area http://www.bethany.org/holland/juvenile-community-justice) that provide the opportunity for people to open their homes to youths coming out of the system. This has the obvious goal of offering a new, safe place for a youth to make a fresh start. But it also indirectly involves new people in the system itself who can become informed advocates and perhaps effect further changes.
Private compassion can go even further in not only addressing, but preventing this issue. Nothing makes a bigger impact than forming a personal relationship through a quality mentoring program.
The church should also not shy away from using their collective voice to work for change to the larger system. When a group of concerned people lead a church to take up this issue as their own, big things can happen. There are also many programs already in place where individuals can take on the responsibility of advocating youths through the intimidating and confusing justice system. This can be an important access point to be exposed to the system and do works of compassion at the same time.
But each one of these examples requires something bigger – will. The church has to have the will to put its energy into what will inevitably be a tiring and frustrating issue. More importantly it has to be willing to have meaningful relationships with people and communities that are affected every day by our broken justice system. This may require the hardest change of all: the willingness to take on messy issues of public justice. Not because it will get you bigger crowds or fulfill a strategic vision, but because it is the sort of thing that faithful people do.
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org