Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Don't Be a Prisoner to Assumptions


Perhaps one of the reasons people consider me a cynic stems from my growing apathy towards opinions from so-called professionals.

For example, anybody from any divinity school can call themself a preacher, but that doesn't mean they can exegete the Bible well.  Being a preacher doesn't automatically prove that their theology is Biblically orthodox.  It just means they fulfilled the requirements for the seminary courses they took.

Just because I have high standards when it comes to preaching the Bible doesn't automatically make me cynical as well, does it?  Maybe if I'm cynical, it's because there are so many people with low standards when it comes to preaching the Bible.

And consider all of the professional, highly-educated economists out there, each one with their personal viewpoints on the state of our economy, and what our elected officials should do to grow it.  Every Ivy League college has their star scholars staking positions within America's socioeconomic cosmos, yet how few of them agree on much of anything?

Generally speaking, I think most engineers and physicians are probably worthy of at least marginal respect, since they deal with a lot with facts, numbers, and conditions that tend to be reliable and objective.  But don't read into that generalization that I'm not a devout Christ-follower.  Theology is one thing, but faith is another, and while I may not be able to prove to everybody's satisfaction that God exists, if you don't believe that He does, you'd better have proof that He doesn't to consider yourself less weak-minded and opinionated than I.

Meanwhile, I take the Bible seriously - and the Apostle Paul seriously - when he encourages the Church at Thessaloniki to "test everything."  More and more, I take fewer and fewer people at their word.  Does that make me a cynic?  After all, the Gospel is the only gospel.  Everything else, at least when we're talking opinions, perspectives, statistics, and ideas, is open to a certain amount of interpretation.

Which is why, when I learned today about a study by Dr. Alexander Volokh, of Emory University, minimizing the effectiveness of faith-based prison ministries, I went into skepticism overload.

Dr. Volokh says studies of faith-based prison programs "can't be taken seriously" but he wants us to take his study of those studies seriously because he's an expert in the law and legal history.  To his credit, Dr. Volokh admits that while he cannot point to any proof that faith-based prison programs work, neither can he point to any proof that they don't.  But for me, the whole topic is fraught with contingencies and aspects that I doubt could ever be measured.  And I'm surprised highly-educated people keep trying.

Several years ago, a prominent social researcher partnered with a prominent pastor to try and gauge the spiritual maturity of evangelicals, and I was utterly baffled.  How can anybody gauge my spiritual maturity?  How can anybody gauge yours?  What are the baselines?  In what increments should spiritual maturity be measured?  Good grief!  The whole idea is so preposterous, and marginally heretical, that I was stunned such highly-educated people were trying to make it scientifically possible.  Fortunately, the project eventually foundered as "experts" couldn't agree on how - and what - to measure.

Meanwhile, I was the cynic who, when I scoffed at the idea as being, well... impossible to measure, was told that since I lacked a seminary degree, I couldn't possibly have a relevant opinion in the matter.

See what I mean?

One of the proofs for which Dr. Volokh has been looking involves a similar assumption:  that the spiritual maturity of prisoners can be measured.  One of those measurements, according to the legal community, should be the rate of recidivism, and whether participation in faith-based initiatives during incarceration helps keep released prisoners from re-entering the system.

Put in that context, it's not so difficult for many of us churched folk to see the flaws in its logic.  For one thing, Christians still sin, regardless of our "faith-based" activities.  Faith doesn't keep anybody from sinning.  Faith doesn't make us perfect.  And guess what?  Nobody can quantify the spiritual maturity of anybody, whether we used to be incarcerated, or we've never even received a speeding ticket.

Of course, if proponents of some of these faith-based prison ministries have ever claimed that religion keeps parolees from going back to prison, then those proponents are also in error.  It's a nice thought, and it's indeed a probability, but it's an impossible thing to promise.

Why?  Well, as most of my readers know, I have a good friend who is currently serving time in a federal penitentiary.  And he's told me things over the past three years that have shocked and saddened me about the miserable state of our penal code.  Things that people like Dr. Volokh don't appear to have taken into consideration.

For example, since life in prison is so regimented and extraordinarily unique from everyday life outside of it, some parolees find their years behind bars have stripped them of their ability to function in our civilian world.  They will actually commit a crime so they can get back behind bars, where they're more comfortable exploiting the coping mechanisms that form the basis for their cloistered mentality.

Hey - regardless of aspirations to the contrary, our prison system does not rehabilitate anybody.  In fact, if they didn't know how before, prisoners are a captive audience to America's largest indoctrination program for criminal activity.  Sure, there are education options within prisons, but they're poorly managed, inconsistently taught, and entirely dependent upon a prison population that knows it can earn far more money selling drugs than holding down any nine-to-five job in suburbia.  And then, even if a prisoner had a tutor from Harvard working with him every day for a decade, that won't get him a decent-paying job of any kind once he's out of prison with a record.  What's there left for an ex-con to do, but get back into the narcotics trade?  A trade that is aggressively taught in virtually any prison in America.

Then there are the guys who my friend says have spent such a long part of their life in prison, the very idea of being up for parole, or of having served their time, becomes overwhelmingly scary for them.  Again, it's the prison culture to which they've conformed that actually comforts prisoners.  In other words, going back out into open society seems worse for them than prison.  And they commit suicide before their release date.  My friend says that happens more often than we'd think.

The ardent religious believer would claim that if they had solidarity with their faith system, such prisoners wouldn't succumb to their personal fears about life outside of their prison's walls.  And sure, maybe that's true, to a certain degree.  But how many of us "free" Christians live parts of our life by some code of fear?  Fear of failure, or poverty, or the simple unknown?  Fear isn't obliterated by faith-based programs of any kind, although fear can be brought under the supremacy of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Yet even that can take time - time that studies like Dr. Volokh's may be too impatient to chronicle.

There's also the reality that a lot of the prisoners involved in faith-based prison ministries don't even privately profess allegiance to their supposed faith.  The federal government mandates that Jewish prisoners, for example, need to be furnished with Kosher meals, but since such meals are usually healthier and fresher than standard prison kitchen fare, registration for Kosher meals has been skyrocketing.  But has the Jewish prison population skyrocketed as well?  Um, no.

My friend is involved in a Christian ministry in his prison, yet he's a professing atheist.  So he puts on a convincing front for the fellow prisoners in his Christian "church."  In his prison, inmates get reward points for attending faith-based ministries, so there's an incentive to be involved in such programs that supersedes any initiative on the part of prisoners to actually apply the lessons of their chosen faith to their life choices.

Add it all up, and now you see why trying to measure the impact of faith-based initiatives in prison can be a fruitless task.  The only real results from these initiatives are the ones that matter to God, and that He sees, as hearts are changed through the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual prisoners.  But just as we believers outside of any jail know full well, our church attendance isn't a guarantee of any special traits we may display as civic participants.  Couple that reality with the brutal reality of prison life, and how realistic is it for any of us to expect quantifiable evidence of changes in the behavior of prisoners inside and outside of their prison?  Just because they attended faith-based activities?  Anyway, most of the changes believers in Christ might expect to see in prisoners who are saved would likely be invisible to the naked, albeit highly-educated eye of somebody who doesn't profess to be particularly devout.  Like many of the social scientists who try and chart such things.

Education is one thing.  Insight is another.  And the insight I've gained as my friend has embarked upon his restitution for his crime against our society is a sobering counterpoint to Volokh's apparent assumption that faith should be as measurable as laws.

In a way, shouldn't we evangelicals be glad that the faith God gives us isn't measurable, like laws are?  Isn't that one of the reasons Christ came to Earth?  To die for our sins, and fulfill the law and its requirements?

Prisoners who are our brothers and sisters in Christ may not always act in full accordance to their salvation, either inside prison, or after they leave it.  But then again, neither do the rest of us.

And fortunately for all of us, God is the only One who can measure any of it.  For His glory, and our good!

That's one thing none of us should be cynical about.


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