Sunday, January 06, 2008

More on what clergy can do to respond to and reduce violent crime

Yesterday I mentioned that my brother John asked on his blog for suggestions what local clergy could do to reduce violent crime and its consequences in light of a rising local murder rate in Shreveport, where he is an assistant pastor.

I've been thinking about the subject since then, and believe the restorative justice model provides opportunities for creative new approaches to the subject.

Restorative justice asks "who's been hurt, what are their needs, and what process can we use to meet those needs and help them transcend their victimization?" As a thought experiment, how might that philosophy play out applied to attempts by the clergy to reduce violent crime through their local ministries?

First, who's been hurt? Obviously, the murder victim's family and friends rank first on this list, and any restorative justice approach must minister to their needs.

I'd also argue for including the family of the offender in the list of "who's been hurt," particularly any children of the offender. That's especially important if a goal of the mission is to reduce violent crime: Children of incarcerated parents are 6-8 times more likely than their peers to wind up in prison themselves, so when a parent commits a serious crime, it places their children at significant future risk.

There are many things churches could do to help meet the physical and psychic needs of those harmed by violent crime. With an interdenominational coalition focused on the problem, perhaps it would be possible to create a volunteer system to establish liaisons to victim and offender families in the wake of such tragedies?

The first step for such a mission would be to track and monitor violent deaths, perhaps partnering with the local PD to make sure the ministry is notified when a murder occurs so assistance can be provided.

For victims', what people need most in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy is a friend. In the short term, a helpful gesture might be simply bringing food so the victim's family doesn't have to cook while making unexpected funeral preparations, or assisting with babysitting or household chores while the victim's family takes care of its unhappy business. Not only are these acts of service helpful to the victim's family, they give average parishioners a way to participate in the ministry that's doesn't insist on the kind of long-term commitment that will be needed from staff and core volunteers.

Another obvious need: Perhaps churches could either establish a fund to help pay for indigent funeral expenses, or provide resources for services pro bono in the case of murder victims.

After the initial "rapid response," churches could establish interdenominational group sessions for grieving victims and families, preferably led by a licensed counselor, or possibly, for victim families who are willing, they could work with prison ministry groups to pursue victim-offender mediation like the Bridges to Life program in Texas. Such programs give victims a voice and contribute to real rehabilitation for offenders.

Similarly, it's pretty easy to identify key assistance churches could provide for offenders and their families using the restorative justice model that might help reduce crime and promote rehabilitation. Christ did not forsake sinners, and neither should His bride, the church.

For starters, I don't think any New Testament reading can get around the church's duty to visit and comfort the offender in prison. Not only does this fulfill a biblical mandate from Christ himself, talking with the offender may be the best way to identify who within his own family may have been harmed by what happened and give the ministry intelligence about how to proceed in ministering to the offenders own clan.

Just as I suggested a "liaison" to victim families, a liaison to the offenders families would give the coalition a wedge into crime producing dynamics. Children of offenders, IMO, should receive special attention from the church if the ministry's goal is to reduce violent crime. After such an incident, they're inevitably confused, angry, mournful, and incredibly likely to descend into delinquency that will eventually send them into a life of crime. Programs to mentor children of murderers (and other prisoners) may be among the most productive. (In Texas, Big Brothers Big Sisters has launched the Amachi program, which might be a good vehicle for that work.)

A lot of churches in Shreveport including my brother's operate private schools. Perhaps it would be possible to pursue grants or other resources to pay for education of indigent children of victim and offender families, offering them a more promising future despite the tremendous loss they've suffered.

A key to these ideas working would be to suborn proselytizing to a more direct service type ministry. Though tragedy may draw one closer to God, it's a person's own spiritual journey, not some badgering stranger, that's most likely to lead them in that direction. In such a painful environment, if folks think you're there for your own benefit instead of theirs, they're likely to turn away.

Demonstrating piety through acts of service and humility is a better approach,and if there's ever a time for humility it's when facing the trauma caused among survivors by a violent death. IMO the mission could only succeed if participants focused one showing their faith through mercy and action rather than pridefully trumpeting the benefits of salvation. Similarly, some folks will reject assistance, both among victim and offender families, and it would be important to respect those boundaries when they're drawn.

While I've never designed a church ministry, the functional process seems not that much different from designing a political campaign - evaluating goals and resources then creating strategies and tactics designed to achieve them. Viewed in that light, John's "goal" set an impossibly high bar: To "end violent deaths in 2008."

I don't think that's an achievable goal. But goals of 1) reducing the harm from violent crime and 2) reducing the amount of violent crime in the medium to long run, seem both achievable and like a worthy project for an interdenominational, citywide mission.

What do you think of these ideas, and what else could a motivated, citywide coalition of clergy do to respond to and reduce violent crime?


Anonymous said...

Before any progress can be made toward reducing violent crime.. Texans need to rethink their moral center... the "we-ah got Jee-sus, y'all 'sum bitches ain't" only increases the alienation of the offenders.. it's basic... the Texas mantra is an assault on the self esteem bringing out only hostile actions to off set the dislocation of the self.

It's the fundamental pathology of all humans... even Texans... on a larger scale, that is the underlying motivators for terrorist groups every where. To embrace the notion of a "chosen" status only sustains the problem.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

Anyone who considers himself/herself as of "chosen" status as a Christian, needs to take a long read of Matthew. Start with the story of the Magi -it sets the stage for the rest of the story. Then read what John says about those who say they love the God they cannot see, while failing to love the neighbor they do see.

There is much that the clergy can do to encourage their parishioners to get involved in restorative justice programs. One of the restorative justice programs that addresses the children of inmates is the Angel Tree program.
Old Salty

Anonymous said...
or contact Rt.Rev. Rayford High at for more information and contacts for interfaith restorative justice ministries, such as Angeltree, Kairos and Epiphany ministries.
Old Salty

Anonymous said...

this article/blog is excellent. All very creative and progressive ideas. I would only hope that this would spread amongst our society and be acted upon. Society tends to only think of the victim and their families (which is important)and doesn't consider how the offender's family can be helped in order to stop a trend. Very enjoyable blog!

John Henson said...

Thanks for the ideas, Scott. You have given me much to consider here for our local context.

nandabean said...

As one who frequently works with the victims of the criminal justice system, I have mixed feelings about the restorative model. How does the restorative model address the case of Charles Chatman, for instance? How can the model help ease the tension in poor communities between young males and law enforcement? Sometimes, the victims and offenders aren't easily distinguished.

Anonymous said...

No one model can possibly solve all problems. It starts with the will to make a difference. Jesus certainly did not solve all the problems of the Palestine of his time, and he got nailed to the cross for his efforts. The essence of the Christian faith is that he conquered death and he calls and empowers others to do the things he did. Unfortunately, too many folks who call themselves Christians miss the point (and have for 2000+ years). Justice, tempered with mercy is what He was about. I applaud Scott's brother for seeking to live out the call. O/S