Retired, I have become an armchair criminologist, often lost in reading the papers or in thought about 20 or so years of experience and memories as a Canadian prison chaplain. Not too many require my services now that I am an out-to-pasture prison chaplain critical of the traditional rehabilitative prison idea. I have lots to think about though, and so much theological-philosophical reflection to do now with the daily grind and stress of my work-days behind bars behind me. With time to read whatever I want, I still seem to choose books on moral philosophy or criminology. Recently I stumbled across a book by Sir Walter Moberly: The ethics of punishment, London: Faber and Faber, 1968. It was written at the culmination of the author’s career, containing a wealth of a lifetime of wrestling with the same issues that I still struggle with: the ethics and efficacy of penal punishment. Written before the full onset of the modern phase of criminology influenced by neoliberal political ideology, the war on drugs, and the truth in sentencing policies, I can identify trends in criminology, which, like old clothes go in and out of fashion it seems, but always therefore kept in the closet. Shallow thinking about criminal justice issues as well as public malaise regarding justice reform was as persistent in England then as it is in Canada now. Yet the author was hopeful that respectful, virtuous, pluralistic dialogue would lead to more effective and biblically sound interventions in issues of crime; and so am I.
Due to my diminished circle of influence there are fewer people interested in my musings on restorative justice anymore, especially when I spell out specific applications to criminal justice. It seems that many would just like to leave any critical moral theorizing about the “inefficacy” of law and order and the over-reliance on carceral punishment in the dark and not think or talk about it, sweep the issue under the carpet, ignore it; or, paradoxically get on the partisan “campaign wagon” to call for more severe penalties and longer sentences for Canada’s lawbreakers. One can also hear said, “What does criminal justice and politics have to do with the church anyway?” The Church folk tell me that punishing the wrongdoer is the main responsibility of the state; and of course my Wardens told me, other than in my chapel responsibilities, keep religion out of prison politics. To ascribe limits to ecclesiastical abuse of power is wise, but to divorce heart from head in our political economic life is “foolish.” Working in this space between church and state has challenged any static, abstract, armchair creed I ever subscribed to; and, reflecting deeply on specific experience has transformed how I think about justice, love, and reconciliation.