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Reforming Criminal Justice: A Christian Proposal. Foreword by Derwin L. Gray

Matthew T. Martens
Published by Crossway in 2023

Matthew Martens is convinced that the United States criminal justice system desperately needs reform. While he is eager to have his fellow evangelicals contribute to “meaningful dialogue and charting a way forward” in that task (2), he sees two obstacles that keep that from happening. One is that we evangelicals are poorly informed about the actual workings of our criminal justice system. And the second is that we lack “a comprehensive Christian ethic of criminal justice” (4).

Martens is right about these obstacles. In fact, I must confess that reading his important book convinced me that I have been guilty on both counts, and that reading the book was for me an exercise in remedial learning. While I have devoted the past half-century to the study of justice, I simply have not made the criminal justice system a topic of sustained focus. Furthermore, Martens makes his theological case by drawing insights from theologians whom I have relied on in my own thinking, especially Augustine, John Calvin, and Herman Bavinck, as well as on the writings of ethicists whom I admire: Oliver O’Donovan, Gene Outka, and Paul Ramsey. Yet I have failed to see the implications of writings by these thinkers for understanding criminal justice. I am in debt to Martens for making me aware of my neglect.

One of the several topics where he convinced me of my ignorance was about plea bargaining. Before reading his book, I had been following news reports of two murder trials. In keeping up on the proceedings I thought nothing amiss in the fact that both of the accused persons had spent at least two years in prison prior to their trials, even though each of them had a constitutional right to a “speedy” jury trial. Neither of the defendants, it turns out, could afford to post bail; the median amount required for bail, I learned from Martens, is $10,000, which is a prohibitive price for financially stressed persons—and then, of course, one does not earn money while sitting in a jail cell.

Typically, in these cases the accused are pressured to agree to a guilty plea, often to a less serious charge—but this means giving up the right to a jury trial. This results in a violation of the demands of justice, says Martens, since “a jury does more than protect against lawlessness; it also serves as a check against callousness”; law enforcement professionals can become jaded in their constant interactions with criminal defendants, while “a jury of average and untrained citizens sees with fresh eyes” (222).

Martens provides accounts of related topics, such as jury selection, witnesses, sentencing, the right of counsel, and so on. In each case he describes how the system actually functions, providing detailed statistics and case studies. More importantly, he gives us a careful assessment from a biblical perspective for each aspect of the criminal justice system. Here too his much-needed effort is well-informed. Martens has not only practiced law for several decades, he is a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate, where his studies equipped him well to approach his subject matter with “a historic, orthodox Christian understanding of the gospel” (15).

Martens devotes considerable attention to explaining the structural character of justice concerns. While this is familiar territory for those of us who have long urged evangelicals to take seriously the systemic nature of racism, poverty, and the like, he introduces a refreshing approach by refusing (in a good Reformed manner, I have to say!) to portray love and justice as in tension with each other. Biblical love has a collective as well as an individual focus, and a criminal justice system that is pleasing to God is one that “operates according to love” (54). Martens’ consistent theme is that the failure to promote justice is a violation of the divine command to love our neighbor.

Christians, then, must evaluate the various aspects of our criminal justice system in terms of whether they promote not only the love of individual neighbors, but categories of neighbors that we have too often ignored. Take the plea-bargaining practice mentioned earlier. The accused person is our neighbor, as is the victim of the crime, and, in the case of a murder, the family members of the deceased. When the accused is held in custody and then encouraged to agree to being tried for a lesser crime, is this being loving toward that neighbor? The statistics show that many of those who take this option are in fact innocent of the crime. In their plea bargains they certainly are not being loved. And if they are convicted of the lesser charge, have those victimized by the more serious crime been treated with love? Can they be sure that the judgement fits the crime? Martens is convinced that injustice occurs in this legal process, and that the loving result will be better achieved in a trial by jury members, who are more likely than a judge to show compassion for the persons seriously affected by jury decision.

Since the year 2000, Martens tells us, 1,039 persons have been exonerated of murders for which our American criminal justice system had imprisoned them. Each of those men and women was seriously denied the justice that was their due. In neglecting that reality, we have failed to love our neighbors.

Martens points out that the Christian obligation to support the criminal justice system is grounded in Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 that God has given to governments the power of the sword—the right to threaten the use of violence and employ it, when necessary, but always with the goals of punishing and rewarding those who do good.

The actual governmental use of violence, Martens argues, begins in the very act of arresting an accused person. Police can arrest a person when there is probable cause that the accused has committed a crime. When the accused is held in a prison awaiting trial, the prison cell functions as the government’s use of physical force, since “the walls and bars of the cell itself,” says Martens, “are physical means to prevent the accused’s movement” (40). To what extent is this use of physical force morally justified? If I personally lock someone in a room, I would be guilty of kidnapping; nor is it enough to say that when the locking up is done by a government it is legitimate. Official arrests must conform to the demands of justice. Here Martens appeals to just war doctrine’s proportionality principle. A government’s incarceration of an accused person is morally justified only when the use of force is proportionate to the threat posed by that person to the safety of society.

The reference to proportionality here is an example of how Martens makes significant use of just war doctrine in applying biblical ethics to criminal matters. “As with military force,” he observes, “the use of physical violence by a legal system poses two questions of justice for the Christian: When is that violence justified? and, if justified, how may it be used?” (46). This is for me an especially valuable feature of his overall approach. This book makes it clear that while we Christians, both on the left and the right, have made bold proclamations on being too soft or too hard on crime, prison conditions, police brutality, violence in prisons, and so on, we have not thought clearly about such topics as plea bargaining, jury selection, and judicial independence. To make use of just war categories in taking these issues up means benefitting, as Martens demonstrates, from centuries of wise Christian reflection on justice concerns.

I don’t want to give the impression that we have no present-day resources to work with in seriously addressing this agenda. It would be wonderful if we could initiate a broad-ranging conversation that draws upon the wisdom of Christians in the legal professions, folks who labor faithfully in prison ministries, and faculty who have taught in recent years in their schools’ exciting degree granting programs for the imprisoned. And I urge that Matthew Martens’ excellent—and I think ground-breaking—book be a key text for providing the wise insights that will enrich that much needed conversation.

Richard J. Mouw

Dr. Richard J. Mouw serves as Professor Emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary and Senior Research Fellow at Calvin University's Paul B. Henry Institute on Christianity and Politics.