Justice that Restores

Written by Charles Colson Reviewed By Dewi Hughes

There are probably very few people better qualified than Colson to write about justice from the perspective of the criminal. Imprisoned himself for eight months in 1975 for his part in the infamous Watergate affair, he has since devoted his life to the Christian service of prisoners and their victims through Prison Fellowship Ministries. Prison Fellowship International now has branches in eighty-eight countries, as a result of which Colson has visited over 600 prisons in forty different countries. This intimate experience of those that have been caught up in the web of the justice system ensures the intensely human, rather than theoretical perspective of the book.

The book’s four chapters were first delivered as the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity for 1999 and retain the flavour of the spoken word. The underlying conviction of the lectures is that it is ‘only the biblical worldview … that can produce … a truly just public order’ (8). So, in the first lecture, ‘The Basis for a Just Society’, he argues for a return to a more objective view of the basis of law in the will of the Creator, which was the foundation of the idea of ‘natural law’. There is a salutary warning in this chapter that the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights in the context of a non-authoritarian view of justice could lead to the exaltation of the opinion of individual judges and the degradation of Parliament as the supreme lawmaking body in the UK.

The second chapter, The Roots of Crime’, emphasises the reality of the fall in the context of the prevailing optimistic opinions that the criminal justice system is either meant to reform or deter criminals. He makes a powerful case for the rediscovery of responsibility. Unfortunately his case is somewhat spoilt by a right-wing interpretation of history that can see no good in the movement which led to the French revolution, and puts the very Christian prison reformer John Howard in the same class as Jeremy Bentham and his utilitarian followers.

In the third chapter, ‘Redemption’, he deals with the need for moral reformation and makes the case that it is only Christianity that offers a genuine new beginning that makes this possible. In this context he argues that the right question to ask is not, ‘What causes crime?’ but ‘Why do people not commit crime?’ or ‘What causes virtue?’ The fact that there is a proven correlation between the prevalence of Christian teaching, such as through Sunday Schools, and a diminished level of crime strengthens his case.

In the final chapter entitled ‘Justice that Restores’ we are given a vision of what could be based on his experience through Prison Fellowship. He makes an impassioned plea for greater Christian involvement with the criminal justice system so that it becomes a means of restoring relationships between criminals and God and also between criminals and their victims. There are some moving tales in this chapter, as well as examples of Christian alternatives to the senseless practice of locking up more and more people in prisons where their criminal propensities are strengthened.

There is much in this volume that those involved with the criminal justice system would do well to heed and that could make any Christian a better citizen.

Dewi Hughes

Theological Advisor, Tearfund