Science in Christian Perspective



Should Lawbreakers Be Treated or Punished?

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From: JASA 28 (June 1976): 66-70.

In recent years, the philosophy behind our penal system has shifted from an emphasis on punishment to a primary concern for rehabilitation. At a surface level, the shift appears to be both humanitarian and Christian. In this paper, I attempt to demonstrate that holding rehabilitation as the primary purpose of prison can undermine the entire concept of justice. Much of present day thinking rests on one of several pre-suppositionary bases assumed in psychological theory. After tracing the background for the current focus on rehabilitation, I then suggest certain difficulties, with the rehabilitation model from a Biblical perspective.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that Christians must oppose the humanitarian theory of punishment, root and branch, wherever they encounter it. The view which Lewis so strongly rejected does away with the idea of punishing moral wrong and replaces it with the more "humanitarian purpose of rehabilitating social deviants by psychological treatment. A recent issue of the American Psychological Association Monitor (May, 1975) told the story of Patuxent Institution in Maryland, a "therapeutic" prison which for the last twenty years has implemented the theory to the hilt. Although it has all the trappings of a normal prison (high fences topped with barbed wire, steel gates, etc.), Patuxent claims to provide a therapeutic milieu compatible with its orientation towards treatment rather than punishment. Instead of a warden, the director of the institution is a psychiatrist. Personnel includes a staff of sixty-seven therapy-type professionals. People committed to the prison are regarded not as criminals deserving societal retribution or chastisement for misdeeds but rather as sick people, undersocialized or in some other way maldeveloped, in need of therapeutic intervention.

Consistent with their philosophy, they regard any opposition to their helping efforts as evidence of serious

Dr. Crabb holds the Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Illinois. Formerly assistant professor at the University of Illinois, then Director of the Psychological Counseling Center at Florida Atlantic University, Florida, he is now in private practice in Boca Raton.

problems. As the Moniter reporter put it, ". . . to assert one's rights or one's dignity against an institution that is by definition benign, is automatically to be branded recalcitrant, or simply sick." Without the concepts of justice or fair desert, there are no grounds for deter mining length of sentence. Murder and petty shoplifting do not represent different levels of moral of fense which justify greater or lesser punishment; they are both taken as evidence of mental sickness which require treatment. Duration of treatment is of course something which the rofessional must determine, since only he in his role 'of expert is qualified to pronounce a patient cured. It is consistent therefore that everyone's sentence, at Patuxent is indeterminant: "When we decide you are better, we will release you." The medical model of not discharging a physically ill patient from the hospital until his temperature is normal is closely paralleled at Patuxent. (Considering the con fusion in the field of psychodiagnostics, one immediate problem with Patuxent's procedure is the absence of a reliable thermometer of mental health.) In theory, a murderer who conned his therapist into believing he had clearly seen the error of his ways and wanted to live right could be pronounced cured and released in a week, while a one time petty shoplifter who refused on grounds of personal integrity to submit to forced therapy could remain imprisoned for twenty years.

Let me be clear that I am not taking issue with concern for restoring lawbreakers to a useful and constructive role in society. Such concern is right and Christian. Nor am I arguing that psychological techniques may not be useful in achieving that goal. Criminal behavior is often related to psychological disorder. Counseling procedures have a justified, legitimate place in rehabilitation efforts. The issue which concerns me is rather the repudiation of the concept of justice as a foundation for governmental handling of lawbreakers, In this article, I want first to trace and briefly critique the philosophical background of the humanitarian theory of treating criminals according to a psychological as opposed to a moral model and then to highlight a few major contradictions between this view and Biblical Christianity.

Individualism in Modem Psychology

Every system of psychological theory developed apart from reliance on Scripture is typically rooted in humanistic thinking. Man is regarded as supreme and central. One form of humanism running through the presuppositions of much American psychology is a point of view known as individualism. An emphasis on the uniqueness and worth of the individual developed as a reaction to the dehumanizing structure of Medieval society. In that stifling climate, a high view of the importance of every person was a welcome breath of fresh air. In recent years, the doctrine of individual worth and freedom has moved to an extreme form. One observer of the American scene has commented:

Individualism has culminated in an ideology that equates liberty with the absence of all bonds, all commitments, all restraints upon social action." He goes on to say that "the ideology of individualism is so powerful that we look on bonds as restraints ... The remaining structures of shared existence are assaulted as unjust obstacles in the way of liberty, as impediments to the free assertion of self. (Goodwin, 1974)

In a recent issue of the American Psychologist, Hogan (1975) has described four different strands of individualism identifiable in modem psychology: romantic, egoistic, ideologic, and alienated.

Romantic Individualism

Romantic individualism has historical roots in Rousseau's teaching that children should not be forced to perform academically. In a climate of minimal external influence and warm acceptance, healthy, appropriate development will flourish. Children will learn because they want to learn and will enjoy their educational experience. Carl Rogers most closely epitomizes this thinking in current psychological circles. If left alone, man will naturally tend towards constructive avenues of self-actualization. Rogers (1961) expressed himself clearly when he said, "I have little sympathy with the rather prevalent concept that man is basically irrational and that his impulses, if not controlled, will lead to the destruction of others and self." The only question which matters, says Rogers, ". . . is 'Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which totally expresses me'."

Other prominent psychologists like Piaget and Kohlberg assume a form of romantic individualism in their teaching that moral development is strictly an inside job: an internal pre-programmed sequence of developing structures will lead to a healthy moral sense unless blocked or diverted by efforts to imprint or force compliance to external standards. Someone who

The issue is the repudiation of the concept of justice as a foundation for governmental handling of lawbreakers.

has broken the law is seen as someone whose natural developmental direction towards good has been thwarted by external pressure. Since the problem was caused by external pressure, it will certainly not be solved by more of the same. If moral wrong is the result of an oppressive environment, further moralistic or punitive measures will only compound the problem. Punishment is theoretically untenable. Better to bring the repressed, stifled individual (forcibly, if need be, for his own good) into an accepting atmosphere of therapy where his true self will emerge.

As with most ideas, one can only deal with the implications by clarifying the presuppositions. It will do no good to rant about the need for punishment without challenging the presuppositionary basis upon which romantic individualism rests. In simplest terms, the romantics assume that people are basically reasonable and good. If that is true, then appealing to their reason and providing an opportunity for self-expression is a logical method for handling law-breakers. But the Bible teaches that man, although possessing rational faculties, is thoroughly corrupt at the motivational core. We are self-seeking, we have all gone out of the right way, in our natural selves dwells no good thing. All of our behavior is stained with the motive of utter selfishness and rebellion against God. Nothing but divine intervention can rescue us from personal, social, and eternal destruction. If one accepts Biblical presuppositions, one must reject the romantic individualist's program of freeing law-breakers from the effects of social oppression on their personality. (It might be noted in passing that the opposite extreme of total control is also unacceptable. God always lays down a form, limits beyond which one must not go. Within that form, there is considerable room for freedom. Form without freedom produces robots. Freedom without form leads to utter godlessness.)

Egoistic Individualism

Hobbes and Nietzche operated on the assumption that man is basically selfish, base, and otentially cruel. Freud's observations that people are Sriven to gratify their own egocentric desires is quite in line with that assumption. Problems develop when a moralistic conscience forces these selfish motives underground. They then reappear in the form of neurotic symptoms. Cure depends upon the liberation of one's individualistic strivings within bounds not of morality but of social intelligence. In other words, Freudians believe that one must gratify his needs but that self-gratification should be done under the rational supervision of a controlling ego which will mediate between society's demands and a person's desires. As Rieff (1959) observed. "The aim of Freudian psychiatry is . . . the reconciliation of instinct and intelligence. The intellect (not the conscience: my note) is set to helping the instincts develop, tolerantly, like a prudent teacher." In this view, the conscience is stripped of any guiding function whatsoever. Morality is a hang-up to b overcome.

Egoistic individualists would suggest that criminals need insight into their own motives and rational education to help them gratify themselves in a more acceptable manner. Punishment for moral wrong would have the effect of strengthening the conscience, certainly a poor maneuver if an overactive conscience has been the culprit all along. Punishment is again seen to be antagonistic to the best interests of the lawbreaker. Reasonable discussion leading to an intelligent strategy for self-gratification is the preferred treatment. In such an amoral position, questions of justice and fair retribution are at best irrelevant and at worst harmful.

God's solution to the problem of dealing with selfish people is not to accept their selfishness but to inflict righteous judgment either directly on the offender or vicariously on His Son. Biblical solutions never overlook the issue of justice. Jesus died that God might be just in pardoning the sinner.

Ideologic Individualism

Ideologic individualism holds that there is to be no mediator between the individual and truth. Insisting on objective, propositional revelation as a source of truth before which one must bow is regarded as an impudent affront to the individual in his personal quest for truth. Kohlberg defines the ultimate in moral development as that stage in which one acts on the basis of personally derived, individual principles of conscience. Moral truth becomes whatever the individual perceives it to be. Although there may be a certain warrant for the form of ideological individualism known as academic freedom, the thinking behind this view effectively undermines all efforts at enforcing justice by not permitting anyone to challenge the morality of another person's behavior.

This form of individualism most clearly denies the existence of moral absolutes. God is reduced to a word with no character. In the absence of an ultimate and personal arbiter, there is no ground at all for deciding that someone's behavior is morally wrong and deserving of just consequences. The concept of punishment, which assumes that the punishing agent can make a moral judgment about another's activity, is left without rational foundation.

Alienated Individualism

Fritz Perls reflects another form of individualism in his forceful insistence that conformity to social roles is a denial of individual freedom. Many of the existentialists hold that self-autbenticity requires a determined sense of alienation from society, a conscious effort to be uncontrolled by cultural expectation, and to be oneself regardless of how that might contradict local custom. Society, it is maintained, cripples freedom whenever it squeezes someone into its mold. One writer likened the process of socialization to a beggar maiming and mutilating his children to make them fit for their future role in life.

According to this view, Biblical roles for husbands, wives, children, parents, employees, employers, citizens, elders, deacons, etc. are stifling and should be disregarded in the interest of self-expression. Social expectations like speed limits may be in the common interest, but while appropriate should not be valued to the point of punishing offenders. Individualistic estrangement from society is seen to be healthy, never culpable.

Hogan (1975) observed that it seems clear that the dominant temper of American psychology . . . is wedded to an individualistic perspective; that is, most if not all of the better known theoretical perspectives on the problems of human social behavior can be identified readily as forms of individualism. To the degree that this is true, much American psychology can be plausibly described as theoretically egocentric.

There is a Christian form of individualism. Christ demonstrated a wonderfully high regard for each unique person when He died to redeem us. Individual worth is realized and recognized when one accepts Christ as Savior, yields himself as a slave to Christ, develops his God-given unique abilities under the Spirit's control, and enters into the fellowship of Christ's body.

Let me return to my present concern. Think for a moment about the general implications of this secular individualistic perspective for a penal system., No matter what someone does, we fhust be careful not to encroach upon his rights as an individual. Theoretically, every one should be allowed to do as he pleases. Laws become guidelines for sensible living which reasonable people of good faith will willingly follow. The problem with this idea is that it simply does not work. A recent syndicated column entitled "Myth of Human Kindness" illustrates the point. The article reads

During Human Kindness Day in Washington recently, many hundreds of whites and blacks were robbed by gangs of young toughs. (People) . . . were systematically attacked-beaten or stabbed-in this great outpouring of human kindness. An assistant to Agriculture Secretary Carl Butz was crossing the monument grounds on his way home, as be does every day. He was assaulted and stabbed in the eye. (The doctors say he will lose it.) Blood streaming down his face, be called for help but the crowd turned its back on him. Emelda Sutherland, a black woman, had a camera snatched from her hand. She called out after the teen-age thief, 'Stop him, he's got my camera'-and got blank looks from human kindness celebrants who witnessed the crime.

No system of logic which begins with wrong presuppositions about human nature can possibly stand the test of reality. People cannot be counted on to act on good faith. They willingly break laws which they rationally know are for the common good. The harsh truth is that we care about ourselves so much that we will sacrifice others for our own self-interest. Persuasion, more freedom, exhortations, and reasoning do not stem the tide of our destructive selfishness.

Rather than backing up and correcting their faulty presuppositions, individualists cling to their humanistic optimism about man's inherent goodness or his capacity for rational self-control and neatly deal with the embarrassing reality of criminal people by labelilng them sick. Their thinking runs something like this: "If people are at root good or at least rational, then any bad or irrational behavior like killing or stealing is evidence not of culpable immorality springing from a sinful person but rather of personal maldevelopment. Somehow their capacity for reasoning has been blocked or their inherent goodness has been stifled. We will not regard them as criminals to be punished but as sick people who need help. Some have been so badly injured in their personal development by our oppressive society that they do not realize that something is wrong. In our deep concern for their individual well being and self-expression, we will therefore benevolently coerce them into treatment. When with our gracious assistance they come to see the irrationality of their behavior or break through whatever blocks to self-expression which society has cruelly imposed, they will thank us for our help. Naturally, in the interests of their personal development, we must keep them under our care until we are able to cure their psychological disorder. Only we as helping professionals are in a position to determine when they are truly cured. Therefore each person's 'therapy sentence' will be indeterminate, subject to the evaluation of his therapist."

In practice, this line of thinking effectively strips people of all civil rights without appeal to due process , and puts them at the mercy of an uncertain science which at best presents a puzzling array of widely differing approaches to helping people, none of which can scientifically claim to be either true or uniformly effective. I personally would much rather be sentenced on grounds of justice to a legally determined punishment than to be forcibly subjected to the kind intentions of a psychotherapist who would impose his questionable "treatment" on me with a beneficent smile. In the former situation, if I felt my punishment were unreasonable (and one must admit that unreasonable punishments and unfair handling do certainly occur) I could appeal to a corporate sense of justice in my society with a far greater optimism for reasonable disposition than if my only court of appeal were a board of psychologists assigned to measure my mental adjustment.

Contradictions between the Bible and the Treatment Model

The most serious objection to the humanitarian theory of punishment is theological. Christians believe that there really is a personal God, with a definite and revealed character.'Any system of thinking must be ultimitely measured by whether it can be gracefully integrated with what the Bible says about the character of God. The really frightening danger is that some people think that the treatment model for prisons which utterly disregards questions of morality is wonderfully consistent with Jesus' emphasis on peace, love, acceptance, forgiveness, and restoration. One seldom hears great terms like truth, righteousness, holiness, and justice. And yet Jesus' primary purpose in coming to earth was to satisfy the claims of a holy and just God against our unrighteousness. An approach to discipline (whether in society or in the home) which teaches that we must appeal only to the good in people, show them their wrong, set a good example, and positively reward desired behavior assumes that if God is there at all, He is not offended by moral wrong but is patiently indulgent in a grandfatherly sort of way.

Skinner teaches that you should not punish, only reinforce. Adlerians tell us that punishment is never appropriate. Deal with misbehavior by letting the offender experience the consequences of his own behavior. When he sees the rationality behind right living, he will evidence his inner goodness and intelligence by shaping up. The problem with such thinking is that it consistently misses the entire Biblical teaching about sin. Menninger's book Whatever Became of Sin hints

I would much rather be sentenced on grounds of justice to a legally determined punishment than to be forcibly subjected to the kind intentions of a psiychotherapist who would impose his questionable "'treatment" on me with a Beneficent smile.

in the right direction but falls woefully short of providing a substantive definition of sin based on an understanding of God's character. For Menninger, sin is social offence. For the Christian, sin is a culpable, punishable, heinous offense against a holy God. Man is not good, he is bad. While he may be able to see rational reasons for limiting self-indulgence, he basically does not want to change and is truly incapable of really changing. If the Bible is correct in its presuppositions al~o4 people, dealing with lawbreakers by building up their individualistic self-expression and letting loose an assumed positive nature will not really work in the long run, nor is it doing the criminal any favor. This last point needs to be underlined. A truly humanitarian approach to dealing with lawbreakers is to fairly punish them. They need to experience the stemness of the law. Paul says that God's inflexible commandments are intended to function like a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ by pointing up our helpless inability to ever satisfy a holy God. The treatment model takes all the sting from the law and renders impotent a God-ordained instrument for driving people to Christ.

The treatment model for dealing with moral wrong implicitly denies the central act of all history, Christ's atonement for our sin. His death is reduced to merely a wonderful example of forgiving those who despitefully use you. According to this view, Jesus knew that those who killed him were misguided people who simply did not understand. His words of forgiveness are held up as a model for dealing with lawbreakers. The fact that Jesus could offer them forgiveness only because He was at that moment enduring the punishment from a righteously angry God which their sins (and my sins) deserved, is not recognized or believed.

The kind of individualism which encourages people to concern themselves with being true only to themselves not only goes against Biblical teaching like "esteem others greater than ourselves", "submit one to another," "bear each other's burdens", it also denies validity to any external authority before which one must bow. We need to return to the Biblical position that criminal, delinquent, and immoral behavior is the expression of man's sinful nature and is not to be taken merely as evidence of psychological maladjustment. It must therefore be firmly and primarily dealt with according to God's standards of holiness and justice and not according to man's psychological theories of treatment. Government is ordained of God to enforce the law responsibly in order to keep sinful man from totally destroying himself. Those who break the law have committed a real moral offense and deserv unishment. People are responsible and morally culpable for criminal behavior. Lawbreakers must not be regarded primarily as non-responsible, emotionally disturbed people in need of therapeutic assistance. Efforts to rehabilitate through counseling are right and proper but must never replace righteous and just discipline. Counseling is helpful and appropriate when it fits within the concept of justice and moral responsibility and when it recognizes that the fundamental problem with people is spiritual. Only regeneration provides a real and lasting answer. Any other approach denies the character of God and must be ". . . opposed root and branch wherever we encounter it."

Goodwin, R. H. Reflections: The American Condition. The New Yorker, 1974, 49, 35-60.

Hogan, R. Theoretical Egocentrism and The Problem of Compliance. American Psychologist, Vol. 30, 5, May, 1975, 533-540.

Rieff, P. Freud: The Mind at the Moralist. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959.

Rogers, C. R. On Becoming A Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.