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It’s time to let the Gospel take a bite out of crime

The crime rate is a major American preoccupation. And this is hardly surprising in view of statistics that indicate 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 your out” sentencing, and mandatory jail sentences for crimes perceived as particularly heinous—each of which was supposed to solve the problem for good and all.

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

It just goes to show that President Harry Truman was right on the money when he said: “The only thing that is new in this world is the history you haven’t read.”

History shows that there is nothing new about crime waves of the sort we are experiencing today. Indeed, folks worried about early Twenty First Century America’s precipitous decline in civility, and law and order might do worse than to take a look at the Book of Judges.

It is a remarkable mirror on our own age. Judges is a lurid supermarket tabloid of a book crammed with accounts of sordid happenings that make TV’s afternoon Soap Operas look like children’s stories. The reason is that it’s the account of a society in the throes of the sort moral and social collapse we, ourselves, are experiencing.

And, just like so many of us today, back in the days of the Judges the Children of Israel believed the root cause of horrors they were experiencing was a lack of a strong central government. Just how wrong they were is plain for all to see in the Books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.

Fast forward to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and we see that rampant crime was the norm in the great cities Europe and the Americas. And all the remedies now being proposed were tried back then—to utterly 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 of violence 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—including the West Indies, the State of Georgia, the Carolinas and, latterly, Australia.

Nothing, however, seemed to work. Brutal or enlightened, draconian or moderate—all the anti-crime measures the human mind devise seemed inadequate to the task of deterring ordinary people from resorting to crime.

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 our selves, or less sophisticated. This simply isn’t true.

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, for example, 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 parliament, in desperation, introduced a new London Metropolitan Police to replace the “thief takers” who worked for the individual magistrates’ courts.

But there was no major improvement in the situation until 1830s when the Church of England finally woke up to the fact that a main reason for the moral decay was its sloth in preaching the Gospel.

There followed one of the most remarkable religious revivals 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 Catholic Revival” as it became known saw the founding of the Church Army and the revival of Religious orders suppressed in the 16th Century. Magnificent new 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 reversed. It was not that the Gospel had eliminated poverty. It had not. (The poor, as Jesus observed, will always be with us.) But the awful spiritual and moral degradation that, absent the Gospel, inevitably accompanies poverty had been largely eliminated.

As the urban population’s spiritual lives improved, so did morality. Crime was never completely eliminated—it is, after all, a fallen world—but it declined to manageable proportions. England’s experience was repeated in America, with the same results. And it is not accidental that during this period the Episcopal Church became the fastest growing church in the USA.

What worked 150 years ago is certainly worth trying today. Indeed, it is the only solution to work. Let’s pray that we don’t have to wait another century and a half implement it. GPH✠

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