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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Purpose of Prisons

Recently, the state legislature in Indiana cut funding for a program paying for prisoners to receive a college education while incarcerated. On the surface it might seem that purpose of this decision was to save money in the state budget. It looked bad politically to give something to prisoners when so many others were suffering from other program cuts. From a political standpoint this decision must have seemed like a no-brainer.

Yet, however politically savvy this decision might prove to be, it will likely prove to be fiscally irresponsible. Incarceration is terribly expensive to taxpayers, and any program that reduces repeat offenses is both a social and economic good (in that our society gets a productive member), and cost effective from a state budget perspective in that taxpayers will not have to pay to incarcerate the prisoner again. Everybody wins!

But as a society, we have decided that the purpose of prisons is not to make our society better. The purpose is not security, not restitution, not rehabilitation, not restoration, not helping prisoners become and asset to our collective social well being. The purpose is punishment. And in a society that believes, first and foremost, in the punishment of prisoners, paying for their education is a bad idea.

Such a punishment system is irrational, of course. It serves no socially productive purpose. When a prisoner "does time" to pay her or his debt to society, it does me no good at all. Someone simply languishing in prison doesn't pay anything to me. In fact, as a taxpayer I have to pay. It's a lose-lose proposition.

To be sure, some people may not live safely in society, and need to be incarcerated for the good of all. But this is different than punishment. Some have argued that punishment acts as a deterrent. This may be, but the language we use suggests otherwise. Our language suggests that punishment is an end in and of itself, not a means to a greater good. The purpose of prisons is punishment for the sake of punishment.

My best guess is that the punishment theme in our society is a vestige of the Roman penal system. If we read the scriptures with care, we see instances of punishment, but the overall thrust of biblical justice is otherwise. Unfortunately we project Roman understandings back on the scriptures and see punishment when none is there.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Simple Living is not so simple

Simple Living

When Beth and I were first married we, like many couples, brought different lifestyle understandings to our relationship. Both of us believed we practiced simple living, but we had different values when it came to spending money. Beth believed in spending money on long distance phone calls (which were expensive back in those days), but I thought it was an extravagance. On the other hand, I would more readily spend money on eating out, when Beth thought it unnecessary. We both thought it was okay to spend money on travel, which by some standards is luxury.

My experience of Mennonites is that we love to use the term simple living to describe our distinctives, as in, "we believe in peace, community and we practice simple living." I have found that these are abstractions, and that we generally do a poor job of explaining what these three characteristics mean. And particularly elusive is this concept of simple living. In addition to being elusive (one person's simple living is another's unnecessary luxury), I find our concepts of simple living are rooted in cultural and contemporary economic models rather than biblical understandings. We use the abstract idea of simple living to support values we have adopted from society around us. Here are a few.

Since the 1960s or 70s a prominent simple living model has been the Bohemian lifestyle, or variations on it. The artist colony, sophisticated but anti-establishment sensibilities, valuing artistic integrity over commercial success, independence, free thinking, anti authoritarian, unconventional, and the like are characteristics of Bohemian simple living. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar reflect the development of a Bohemian spirituality within Christianity. The social rebel, vagabond Jesus, traveling around with his community, helps shape this way of thinking about Christian faith.

Another simple living model is the rural lifestyle, which gets a nostalgia boost in an era of urbanization. These values are marked by tie to the land, a slower pace, rejection on urban ways as overly sophisticated, and cultural practices that kept rural communities together.

Another model is the frugal lifestyle. This is an American middle class staple that one should not live extravagantly. A person should not drive a car that is too expensive or live in a house that is too big, and should avoid sticking out at all costs.

Another model, dealt with in a prior post is the anti-tech model. Technology is an alienating force making our lives more complex, and separating us from other people and from creation.

In some sense, the embrace of simple living grows out of the fear that all of these lifestyles are dying. Bohemian culture has been co-opted by the establishment as cool goes mainstream. Rural culture is in decline as the world becomes an increasingly urban place. Frugality may make a comeback, but people under 67 (boomers and younger) still seem to have different ways of valuing money the those older. And new technologies will continue to shape our lives.

The reality is our lives are complex, perhaps increasingly so, and not simple. It is also the case, I think, that the Christian life is not necessarily simple. I am wondering if it is time to jettison a term like simple living and use something else altogether, a term with a stronger biblical pedigree, less elusive, and more helpful to us as we try to be faithful Christians. The term I propose is just living.

Just Living

Some recent reading, as well as some recent events, got me thinking about the difference of what we call simple living as opposed to what we call just living. Since "simple living," as elusive as it is, still seems to focus on personal economics, I will keep the focus on the same.

I read an observation recently that ought to be obvious, but it had not quite occurred to me before. The cost of a $100 t-shirt is the same as that of a $2 t-shirt. That is the toll that each takes on the earth is the same. The same amount of water, nutrients in the soil, fuel needed for transport, electricity for manufacturing is the same in each case. In fact, one could argue that socially and environmentally, the $2 t-shirt is more expensive than the $100 t-shirt. The $2 t-shirt is more likely to be made cheaply, which means it is likely to break down faster. It is also more likely to have been made by workers not receiving a just wage, or laboring in an unsafe factory (see Bangladesh fire). Now few of us would be inclined to call buying a $100 designer t-shirt simple living. But if you can afford it, do you not have some obligation to spend your money on the more just product? You are providing a just wage to workers, and helping an honest business person make a living.

The counter arguments here might be to buy your t-shirt at a thrift store, or buy the cheaper shirt and give the money to charity, or don't buy a t-shirt at all. Regarding the former, if you can afford to buy a new, justly made t-shirt, is it right to take a t-shirt of the shelves of a thrift store that a less affluent person might need? Are you driving up the price of thrift store t-shirts by increasing demand, therefore creating an undue burden on the poor? Is it better to give money to charity than to spend it on a $100 t-shirt? Maybe. But maybe not. If the t-shirt is made justly, its purchase may lead to a greater social good than a gift to the charity (unless the charity is College Mennonite Church, of course). And the choice to not spend at all maybe a choice to hoard. What's the difference between frugality and stinginess?

We could apply similar kinds of thinking to cars. I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. Is it more just than $100,000 Italian sports car? A Cadillac Escalade? The cost of these three will depend on a variety of things, but the value added by well paid labor in the Italian sports car suggest it could be as just a purchase as the Civic. Or the Escalade? What if I drive my Civic 20,000 miles a year, but you drive your Escalade 2,000 miles a year and take public transportation the rest of the time. We would be loathe to call a Ferrari or an Escalade simple living purchases, but we can make a case that they are as just as a Civic.

This points to some of my concerns about "simple living." Often I think simple living is a meme we use to buttress our own sense of superiority rather than use in an effort to be more faithful Christians.

After reading The Big Short, I was struck by something Warren Buffet said about Wall Street culture. We have become a trading culture, he said, instead of an investing culture. Investing cultures can reflect on just ways to use wealth, trading cultures are focused on what brings the most short term gain.