Evangelicals, Punishment, and the Case for Restorative Justice

The Case for Restorative Justice

I’m lucky enough to work in a neuroscience research lab, which has been an incredible opportunity for me to learn from some of the world’s leading scientists and research on neurodevelopment, neurocognition, and all things related to the human brain.

It wasn’t my intention to wind up working here, but my personal life and school led me to reading a significant amount on the topic of trauma, all of which very much contradicted present-day evangelical thinking.

Evangelicals love punishment

Punishment is a central theme in evangelical theology. They sincerely believe punishment works, and the data shows they are favorable to the harshest forms of punishment which are socially acceptable in any given situation.

This commitment to harsh punishment is a function of their theology. Specifically, there are two abusive punishments that they believe God is just in carrying out. The first is that that a radical prophet from the backwater of the Roman empire was brutally tortured and executed because God hates sin, no matter how innocuous. God hates sin so much that he (it, she, they, whatever) resolved that the only solution to sin was to commit horrific violence against an innocent man in the form of human rights abuses.

The second part is the belief that humans who were not privileged enough to know of this backwater radical from 1,000 or 2,000 years ago were all going to have their souls stripped from their bodies, and put into hell where they will be brutally tortured. For all eternity. All of this because someone had the extreme misfortune of being conceived. No one chooses to be born, however, according to evangelical theology, if you weren’t privileged enough to own a specific holy book, or, more likely, any book, you are going to burn forever in hell.

Long story short, the evangelical God has a THING for torture. Maybe it’s his kink? Do not ask me why, but I think you’d agree that if you saw your neighbor pull out a blow torch and use it on his child, you’d be calling Child Protective Services. This behavior is not considered remotely acceptable in most of the world. The evangelical God, if he were human, would rightly be labeled a sadist and sentenced to life in prison.

Based on these sincerely-held beliefs, evangelicals specifically, and to a large extent conservatives in general, also tend to gravitate toward extremely harsh punishments. I will give a few examples.

Children

Evangelicals, despite decades of data to the contrary, believe that they are supposed to hit their children (usually called “spanking”) in order to punish them for any infraction, no matter how minor. This is based on a few Scripture verses, in which punishment is called "painful" which, they perhaps rightly interpret as meaning that when they punish their children, it should cause physical pain.

The Poor

Evangelicals are also strong proponents of punishing the poor. They don’t generally refer to these legislative actions as punishment, it’s typically framed as teaching personal responsibility, employing the use of bootstraps, and encouraging hard work. This is typically accomplished by a concerted effort to cut welfare benefits even as the cost of living skyrockets across the country.

People who have broken the law

People who have broken the law are perhaps the favorite target of conservatives’ love of punishment. They are also the most at risk, given that the law and justice are often severely misaligned. The same neighborhoods are simultaneously over-policed and under-policed; one can be arrested for standing on the sidewalk while murders go unsolved.

The horrific and traumatic experience of being imprisoned in this country, along with the compounded trauma inflicted on children seeing their parents dragged away by cops perpetuates poor outcomes and turns what are often non-violent mistakes into intergenerational harm.

White evangelical protestants also have the highest group support of the death penalty, which is disproportionately used against people of color.

Punishment does not work

Thanks to the tireless and selfless work of neuroscientists and researchers we now know that trauma can severely reduce the likelihood of good outcomes in a person’s life. We know that hitting children doesn’t work, and we know what does work instead. We know that poverty and imprisoning people are traumatic events.

The logical response to this information would be to look for alternatives to punishment. Actions that do not perpetuate trauma and negative outcomes but which could work to support and restore that which was harmed or lost.

Unsurprisingly, evangelicals don’t seem to care for this approach.

There is no framework for restorative justice within evangelical thinking. This is rooted in the belief that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-wise Creator God uses eternal torment to punish billions of souls whose only wrongdoing was being conceived. It is rooted in the belief that God is constrained by some unknowable force he created, and this constraint left him unable to use any method other than violence to purify the world and restore it to himself. This doesn’t sound loving, powerful, or wise. It sounds like… depraved humanity.

Humans are the ones who use violence to accomplish our own ends because we incorrectly believe there are no other means available to us, or our patience runs out. If we were all powerful, all loving, and all wise, we wouldn’t feel the need to use violence because we would have more options at our disposal.

Evangelicals could reframe their beliefs if they wanted to. There is plenty of room in Scripture to support restorative justice, and as a bonus, the science supports moving away from causing pain with punishment and moving toward a way of addressing antisocial behavior that doesn’t perpetuate a cycle of trauma. Traumatic events make life harder and more expensive for both the victim and society.

Even looking at it strictly from the perspective of cost-saving, you would think evangelical conservatives would be on board with this change.

I suppose we can only hope (and pray if you are into that sort of thing) that evangelicals will one day shed their blinders and come to the light.