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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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the ways conservative evangelicals regularly derail conversations about the value of black lives in America and the effects of police brutality is by invoking abortion rates among black women. If you’ve spent more than one day on the internet among conservatives, you know this is one of many oft-employed by those who assert they are pro-life, in order to make a racial justice appeal. “The most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb,” they say.
One of the defining characteristics of political evangelicalism is claiming the pro-life mantel, but, as has been said many times, one could make a very strong argument that evangelicals are merely pro-birth. The Republican party as it exists today is fully willing to throw me and anyone who isn’t a white man under the bus (or, in this case, Trump train) in order to stay in power. Respectfully, that’s not pro-life, that’s just power mongering.
Here’s the deal: if you don't care about black lives after they are born, caring before they are born is not only meaningless, it's violent and intellectually dishonest.
Such a stance is literally self-deception.
If you claim to be pro-life but you don’t support black lives once they leave the womb, your pro-life position is functionally meaningless.
If you claim to be pro-life but you’re unaware of or not disturbed by the fact that twice as many black babies die in the first 30 days than white babies, your pro-life position is functionally meaningless.
If you claim to be pro-life but you are either unaware of or have no problem with massive racial and socioeconomic health disparities, your pro-life stance is functionally meaningless.
If you claim to be pro-life but you’re unaware of intergenerational trauma, ACE scores, DNA damage, altered neurotransmission, and its effects in black communities, your pro-life stance is functionally meaningless.
Much like white feminism is exhausting to black women, white pro-life movement is exhausting for black women. Conservatives claim to care about black life in the womb, but their rhetoric, their policies, and their indifference to the quality of black life, in the womb and out of it, tell a completely different story.
When we can see that your words and your actions do not align, when you refuse to listen to us or acknowledge the documented disparities that take our lives on a daily basis, when you dismiss our experiences as irrelevant to your superior insight, it’s clear that “pro-life” means something VERY different to white conservatives and black Americans.
If you support the death penalty, which is disproportionately used on black and brown people, many of whom are discovered after the fact to be innocent, your pro-life position is functionally meaningless.
You can say words “I am pro-life in all circumstances” all day long but just because you say them doesn’t mean they are true.
When you believe that it is moral and just for poor people to die earlier than rich people for lack of access to equitable healthcare, you are demonstrably NOT pro-life.
When you believe that it is moral and just for black people to die younger than white people for lack of access to healthcare, you are demonstrably NOT pro-life.
When you oppose policies that allow low-income and working class white people and minorities access to quality healthcare, how can you claim to be pro-life? Do you want the poor and minorities to live but have severely diminished quality of life? Is that how you justify this untenable position? What’s your end goal for people if this is your belief? For them to suffer in poverty and die without a safety net so that you can put more money in your 401k?
This isn’t about your tax bill, this is about the fact that you claim you want people to live while simultaneously holding the position that their quality of life is irrelevant and that if and when they suffer, it's what they deserve.
I do not understand how you can call yourself pro-life when you believe new mothers should be forced to return to work three days postpartum with engorged breasts and screaming perineal stitches because she has to be able to afford rent and formula and daycare. And don’t start talking about how poor moms with no safety net and no paid maternity leave should just breastfeed to save money. You can’t breastfeed if you’re at work and your employer doesn’t allow you time or privacy to pump and a place to store your milk. God forbid poor and working class moms have access to formula paid for by taxpayers so their children don’t starve to death.
I don’t understand how you can call yourself pro-life when you would find it perfectly acceptable that black babies born to unwed mothers die of starvation while their mothers are at work so that you can keep a couple of cents in your paycheck. Without sufficient maternity leave, the time needed to establish a strong breastfeeding relationship is simply unavailable. Do conservatives and libertarians who want to slash all public assistance truly understand that before these systems were in place there were literal children dying? Is that the end goal here? Children being born so their parents can watch them slowly starve because there just isn’t enough formula for the month?
If your retort is “Private organizations and churches should be responsible for the poor,” then ask yourself why aren't said private organizations taking care of the poor right now? If evangelical churches and their parachurch organizations really did provide sufficient resources to expectant moms, these mothers wouldn’t be going through government agencies. Yet, pregnancy "resource" centers refer women to the same social programs that the conservatives and evangelicals staffing those clinics want to see slashed.
In my limited experience, most evangelicals “love” black people in the same way they “love” Nazis -- because it’s a theological mandate for anyone who claims to follow Jesus not because it changes anything about the way they live, engage with their communities, or their worldview. They do it because loving your neighbor is a theological requirement and scripture is clear that hatred of anyone is a one-way ticket to hell.
But, functionally it changes nothing about the way they live, or their worldview, or the doctrines which they espouse.
To be functionally pro-life is to affirm every person as made in the image of God, full stop. Regardless of how they behave or whether their choices meet our standards. We must recognize that there are times when specific individuals or groups need not only equal treatment, but special treatment when they have endured significant, targeted harms.
I recognize that not everyone can “help” or pitch in with every cause they believe in. That is not my standard of measurement for determining whether or not someone is pro-life. I measure someone’s pro-life position in the arguments they choose to fight and how they choose to fight them. If you claim to be pro-life, but you come and start a fight with me when I say Black Lives Matter, your effort to prove me wrong about the value of black lives tells me far more than any rhetoric that you may espouse about life before birth.
That said, if you really think it’s the responsibility of the church to assist then you should be able to tell me what you’re doing to help your church meet these needs. Giving money to your church doesn’t count since churches spend more than 90% of their income on themselves.
Insisting on making any conversation about black lives to talk about black abortion is a tell -- you do not want to discuss system racism because it doesn’t align with your preferred worldview.
When a black mother knows that pro-life only extends to the end of the birth canal, why would someone in her difficult circumstance have any desire to bring a child into the world?