A Long Review of Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration – Part 2

In the last section, I reviewed Part 1 of Gilliard’s book Rethinking Incarceration which discussed the phenomenon of ‘mass incarceration.’ In this section, I’ll review Part 2, in which Gilliard discusses the theological underpinnings of our view of justice and its implications for a Christian stance towards incarceration.

Part 2 – Reviewing “The Church’s Witness and Testimony”

– As I mentioned in the last section, Gilliard takes a very charitable view of Christians past and present.  He emphasizes how past Christians like Louis Dwight were at the forefront of prison reform in the 19th century and how modern evangelicals like Chuck Colson have active ministries of prison evangelism, discipleship, and advocacy.
– Gilliard makes the very important observation that given the Bible’s admonitions to respect authority, Christians can become wrongly convinced that political authority is always a sign of moral rectitude.  He correctly insists that Christians should not blindly follow the government and should instead hold the government accountable to God’s law.

– Another key theme of the book is the humanization of criminals.  In a culture which stigmatizes and marginalizes criminals, Gilliard urges Christians to remember that neither crime nor sin efface the Imago Dei.  Moreover, as sinners who were shown  mercy, Christians should extend mercy to offenders, working to restore them both to their communities and to God.

– Despite the positives of this section of the book, there are some extremely serious negatives, the first of which is Gilliard’s denial of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).  Gilliard realizes how important the doctrine of the atonement is: “Our atonement theology.. expresses what we truly believe about God.” (p. 159). He also recognizes that “most affirmed theologies revolve around Jesus taking our place and enduring divine wrath” (p. 150) and that PSA has been expounded in various forms by major figures like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, and C.S. Lewis.  Gilliard describes PSA in this way: “sin separated Creator and creation. Sin, which entered the world through the first Adam, created a chasm between God and creation… While God’s ire should have been poured on us -slaves to sin- God, in grace and mercy, sent Jesus – the second Adam- to sacrificially be a substitute for us.” (p. 151) Gilliard emphatically rejects this doctrine.
– Why does Gilliard reject PSA? He provides several reasons: First, “it declares that punishment was needed for reconciliation to transpire [which] disputes a foundational biblical truth – God’s love inspired the incarnation” (p. 159).  Second, it is a “reductionistic theory that forsakes the embodied life, ministry, and relationships of Jesus, reducing Christ’s body to punitive surrogacy.” (p. 159).  Third, it “fails to hold in tension the wrath and love involved in God’s justice… [because] justice is ultimately manifested in the restoration of righteousness within relationships, not in the pain inflicted or the time served behind bars” (p. 159).  Finally, “it makes God’s response to sin too much like our own… as opposed to allowing the divinely inspired Scriptures to speak for God’s motives” (p. 160).
– Briefly, I don’t think any of these objections work.  First, adherents of PSA absolutely affirm that God’s love inspired the incarnation.  After all, what is the greatest manifestation of love? “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Second, PSA does not diminish the incarnation or Jesus’ life.  Not only did the Reformers stress, with Anselm, the active obedience of Christ’s earthly life of love, they insisted -along with the Bible- that he was our model as believers. Third, PSA does hold in tension the wrath and love of God.  In fact, the tension between God’s wrath and love is precisely the conundrum, most clearly articulated in Rom. 3:26, that is resolved by the claim that God is both just in punishing sin and also the justifier of those who have faith in Christ.  Finally, we should absolutely let the Scriptures speak to God’s motives and his character. But therein lies an even bigger problem with Gilliard’s rejection of PSA: its inversion of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
– In the central section entitled “Why Penal Substitution in Problematic,” Gilliard cites only one verse of Scripture: John 3:16.  He does not wrestle with Romans 1-6 or 1 Peter 3 or Isaiah 53, or any of the many passages that are relevant to the doctrine of atonement.  Nor does he explain how to interpret passages like Rom. 13:1-4 or 1 Pet. 2:13-17 which insist that rulers are “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Nor does he advance any alternative understanding of the atonement.  Why not? It seems likely that his rejection of PSA is being driven not by Scripture but by his concerns about the implications of PSA for criminal justice.
– This connection is suggested throughout the book: “Protestant reformers saw physical punishment as part of the salvific process of redemption, largely because of their flawed atonement theology” (p. 108), “This theology [of redemptive suffering behind bars] and the belief that prisons are furnaces of affliction are rooted in poor atonement theologies, particularly penal substitution” (p. 116) “Our embrace of penal substitution has engendered a retributive culture within our criminal justice system” (p. 169).  In these passages, we see the apparent reasoning behind Gilliard’s rejection of PSA: 1) The doctrine of PSA can be used to support the idea of redemptive punishment.  2) But the idea of redemptive punishment is repugnant. 3) Therefore, the doctrine of PSA is false.

– As troubling as Gilliard’s rejection of PSA is, this reasoning is even more troubling.  Foundational to the Reformation was the idea that we must reform everything -our behavior, our theology, our political beliefs- to Scripture.  But this reasoning invokes the opposite approach: reinterpreting Scripture in light of our beliefs about criminal justice.  Once we accept this hermeneutic, there’s no telling where it will lead.  What if we find the idea that we should forgive our enemies repugnant? Or the idea that sex is reserved for marriage?  Or the idea that Jesus is the only way to God? All Christians, regardless of their personal preferences and intuitions, should ultimately submit their beliefs to the totality of Scripture, letting it correct and guide them.

– If Gilliard does not accept this approach to Scripture (which I hope he doesn’t!), he needs to say so explicitly. As it stands, the reader is given the strong impression that radical changes to our theology can be driven by practical concerns with little biblical engagement beyond general observations like “God is love.”

In the final section, I’ll provide a summary of the book’s contributions and its problems.