Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment

Article excerpt


A discourse of divinely sanctioned moral law undergirds the foundation of American penal institutions. Sixteenth-century Christian European settlers believed that the first being, Adam, disobeyed God, and subjected all human descendants to Gods punishment. Over the course of time, the colonists racialized their interpretations of divine judgment of human nature and behavior: they linked perceptions of immoral character and evil to dark skin. These theological constructs gained extraordinary influence. In the present day, such views have buttressed the building and expansion of the largest prison system in the world.1

This article argues that Reformed theology provided justification for antebellum, postbellum, and post-Civil Rights civic leaders to implement and sustain punitive institutions of punishment that disproportionately penalized people of African descent. I chart theologies of race and punishment to demonstrate how religious and political leaders have associated blackness with violence and disorder.2 1 conclude with thoughts on a social ethic to counter a culture of punishment that has resulted in supervision of seven million adults - nearly half of whom are African American - under the "penal-industrial complex."3

Inherent Depravity and Punishment in Cahinist and Puritan Theology

The sixteenth-century Genevan reformer John Calvin believed that God provided the human soul with a mind to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong, with reason as a guide.4 And yet because the first human Adam freely destroyed himself and corrupted his blessings, all human beings "have contracted from him a hereditary taint" (Inst. 1:15:8). Calvin drew from Pauls writings in Romans 3 to explain the depth of human corruption and "unavoidable calamity" in each soul (Inst. 2:3:2).

Calvin suggested that humans become aware of their destitution while meditating on the Ten Commandments. He elaborated on the meaning and purpose of the Decalogue by delineating three uses: (1) to show God's righteousness and condemn all persons of their unrighteousness; (2) to restrain unbelievers; and (3) to admonish and sustain believers.

The first purpose of the law, known commonly as the "pedagogical" or "theological" use, showed God's righteousness by warning, informing, convicting, and condemning "every man in his own unrighteousness" (Inst. 2:7:6).

The second use of the law was to restrain those who harm the community but are forced to respond to the threat of legal consequences. Calvin believed that God ordered the restraint imposed by government because, if unbridled, the wickedness of men and women would destroy the human race. "The law is lite a halter to check the raging and otherwise limitlessly ranging lusts of the flesh," Calvin wrote (Inst. 2:7:10). Thus magistrates and laws are in place to rein in wickedness. In describing the chief tasks of the civil government, Calvin proposed that magistrates and legislators care for physical needs as well as prevent idolatry, sacrilege, blasphemy against God, and other public offenses against religion. "In short, [the government] provides that a public manifestation of religion may exist among Christians, and that humanity may be maintained among men" (Inst. 4:20:3). Public morality allowed for believers as well as the reprobate to live in a measure of peace and stability, and enabled all persons to know the rudiments of Christian morality and to fulfill the vocations to which God called them.

The third and principal use of the law was to instruct believers, "in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns" (Inst. 2:7:12). The inner freedom already achieved by the Christian was not constrained by the law, but such a state of being inclined the conscience to observe the law. Now under grace, it was in the law - and the gospel - that the believer would continue to know the will of God. To be in conformity with the will of God - the natural law - one only had to contemplate the Decalogue, where God made moral teachings explicit. …

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