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Time to let the Gospel take a bite out of crime

The crime rate is a major American preoccupation … which is hardly surprising in view of statistics which indicate that one in every three of us can expect to become a victim of violent crime at least once in our lives.

Our politicians’ response to this has been a stream of legislative measures—boot camps, “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing, and mandatory jail sentences for crimes perceived as particularly heinous—each of which is designed to solve the problem for good and all.

These political nostrums, doubtless, engender a certain sense of deja vu in folks with memories longer than that of the average fruit fly. Such feelings are entirely justified. Mandatory sentences, boot camps, weapons control: There’s nothing that we haven’t tried that the Romans didn’t try before us—with similarly disappointing results.

History shows that there is nothing new about crime waves of the sort that we are experiencing today. Indeed, in the 17th, 18th and early–to–mid 19th centuries, rampant crime was the norm in Europe and the Americas. And all the remedies now being proposed were tried back then—to absolutely no avail.

In desperation, legislators adopted even more draconian measures than we have ever contemplated. Death sentences were meted out as a matter of course to repeat offenders. People convicted of serious crimes were routinely disemboweled and dismembered.

When these punishments signally failed to make a dent in the crime rate, law makers decided the best way to handle the problem was quarantine. So they shipped out those who would not shape up. For best part of a century and a half, England’s petty criminals were routinely transported to penal colonies throughout its growing empire. Nothing, however, seemed to work.

It would be quite wrong to ascribe this catalogue of abject failure to the idea that folks back in the 17th, 18th and early–to–mid 19th centuries were somehow more primitive than ourselves, or less sophisticated. Read their writings on the subject and you’ll discover they were at least our intellectual equals. In fact, they had considered (and, in most instances, rejected on practical grounds) some of the remedies we consider most “modern.” Read Thomas Moore’s Utopia, the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Samuel Butler’s Erehwon.

By the opening decades of the 19th Century, crime in England had gotten so out of hand that Parliament, in desperation, introduced a new London Metropolitan Police to replace the police forces attached to the individual magistrates’ courts. But there was no major improvement in the situation until the 1830s when the Church of England finally realized that a main reason for the moral decay was its sloth in preaching the Gospel.

There followed the most remarkable religious revival the world has seen. A newly–invigorated Church of England launched a crusade to carry Christ into the meanest streets of the inner cities. The Church Army was founded. Religious orders were revived. Magnificent churches were constructed in slums more vile than anything we in modern America have ever known.

Within two decades the tide had been turned. Within four it had been completely reversed. It was not that the Gospel had eliminated poverty. It had not. (The poor, said Christ, are always with us.) But it had eliminated the awful spiritual and accompanies poverty.

As the urban population’s spiritual lives improved, so naturally did morality. Crime was never completely eliminated, of course—it is, after all, a fallen world—but it declined to manageable proportions.

What worked 150 years ago would certainly work today. Let’s pray that we don’t have to wait another century and a half implement it. GPH✠

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