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Interdisciplinary Studies

Christian Social Thought and Criminal Justice Reform

When: June 9, 2021, 2:45 pm - Wednesday

Where: Swang 100

Session 2

Session Abstract

Criminal justice reform is a cause célèbre, but what form would a more just system take? This session’s interdisciplinary contributions leverage insights from Christian social thought to offer some answers. The session includes a critical exploration of everyday language in light of Christian anthropology, an appeal to the virtue of hope drawing on cutting-edge economics scholarship, a forthright call to abolish incarceration and captivity, and an attempt to reconcile the seemingly incompatible aims of retributive and rehabilitative justice. Together, these wide-ranging efforts lay the groundwork for a lively, ongoing conversation about the implications of Christian teaching for criminal justice.


Paper Abstracts

Andrew Skotnicki, Manhattan College (Religious Studies), “The Anthropology of Abolition”

There is a growing corpus of scholarship decrying the American criminal justice system and its logic of forcible detention. To what are these pleas appealing? What is the conception of the person with the rational and ethical resources to abolish a system imprisoning not only poor racial minorities, but each of us in a culture of control, surveillance, and suspicion? I argue our quotidian discourse reflects the very violence, dualism, and bigotry feeding mass imprisonment. Christian anthropology is among the few resources possessing the moral ontology for envisioning a justice system in which penal abolitionism can truly flourish.


Carola Binder, Haverford College (Economics), “Criminal Justice and Hope from an Economics Perspective”

Economists have contributed to the study of crime for several decades. More recently, the “dismal science” is also contributing to the interdisciplinary scholarship on hope. In this paper, I reflect on how the economics of crime and the economics of hope may, together, provide insights into criminal justice reform. My discussion is rooted in Catholic teaching on economic and social justice, including the encyclical Spe Salvi, and also draws on the work of Nobelists Esther Duflo and Amartya Sen.


Andrew Krinks, American Friends Service Committee, “Christianity and the Abolition of Captivity”

Carceral institutions—police, jails, and prisons—are religious institutions. Emerging from the intertwined forces of European colonialism, racial capitalism, and Christianity, we do not fully understand cops and cages until we understand the dangerous soteriologies of subjection and captivity upon which they stand. In addition to complicity in regimes of carceral captivity, however, Christian social thought and practice also contain possibilities for catalyzing “release to the captives” and transformation of the social, political, and economic conditions and imaginaries that produce captivity in the first place. In short, the work of God is abolition, and abolition is the work of God.


Micah Watson, Calvin University (Political Science) and Samuel Poortenga, University of Michigan Law School (Law), “Rehabilitative Retribution: Human Dignity & Respect in Criminal Justice”

This paper draws from a debate in the 1950s between an Oxford don and three Australian penologists to argue that, properly understood, retributive punishment is a necessary but insufficient component of a criminal justice system that treats offenders and victims alike with the dignity inherent to moral agents. Moreover, a retributive approach that relies on moral desert not only best avoids the twin dangers of unduly harsh or lenient punishment but also provides principled grounds for rehabilitative programs for offenders irrespective of whether they will return to society or remain incarcerated.


Ben Peterson, Abilene Christian University, Convener

  • Andrew Skotnicki, Manhattan College, "The Anthropology of Abolition"
  • Carola Binder, Haverford College, "Criminal Justice and Hope from an Economics Perspective"
  • Andrew Krinks, American Friends Service Committee, "Christianity and the Abolition of Captivity"
  • Micah Watson and Samuel Poortenga, Calvin University; University of Michigan Law School, "Rehabilitative Retribution: Human Dignity & Respect in Criminal Justice"

Join us in 2024!

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James Cone with conferee at the CSC in 2017

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Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson delivering the CSC plenary address

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Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), delivering the CSC plenary address.

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US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith delivering the CSC plenary address

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David Brooks engaging conferees during breakfast at the CSC

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