Lutherans Adopt 'The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries'

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), with 4 million members and nearly 10,000 congregations, meeting in churchwide assembly August 12-17 in Pittsburgh adopted a Social Statement, "The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries" by an overwhelming 882-25 vote.

The vote comes in the midst of recent national debate on racial inequities in the criminal justice system, racial profiling in stop and frisk policies, and mandatory maximum sentencing. The ELCA has been engaged in a broad, thorough study beginning in 2008, emerging from a concern among ELCA members over the "massive levels of incarceration in the United States." Cynthia Osbourne, chair of the ELCA task force said, "We knew the enormity of this topic when we first convened." "We took those first few years to study, listen and learn from both outside experts and from one another - our list of what must be addressed just grew stronger."

The statement affirms the fundamental principles of the U.S. criminal justice system, such as due process of law and the presumption of legal innocence, and it also recognizes serious deficiencies -- overly harsh sentencing and persistent inequalities based on race and class. It asks members to recommit themselves to visiting the prisoner; correct the flawed criminal justice system; participate in God's work with hands and hearts.

Linda Manson, a member of the task force said the statement, "confronts how racism has shaped the criminal justice system." "It pinpoints how people of color experience higher rates of contact with police, even when other factors like age and economic status are taken into account. It points out how African Americans are more likely to be detained and statistically more likely to be convicted and to be incarcerated."

The churchwide assembly went on to approve a series of implementing resolutions with an 891 to 22 vote. There were 11 recommendations approved, some amended:
Some of the 11 recommendations called the ELCA to:
+ call on ELCA members through prayer, discernment, ministry efforts and public action to hear the cries, offer hospitality, accompany and advocate on behalf of those whose lives are caught up in or committed in service to the criminal justice system;
+ call on the expressions of this church and other related ministries and organizations to advocate for system reform;
+ encourage ELCA congregations to work with victims, victim advocates and victim support organizations to grow in sensitivity and response to the harm caused by crime and to grow in awareness to restorative justice practices;
+ hold in prayer the ministry of ELCA chaplains and pastors serving in all correctional facilities or serving with law enforcement agencies and to support prison ministry;
+ develop additional liturgical resources for those involved in the criminal justice system;
+ direct ELCA advocacy ministries to coordinate efforts to develop a social investment screen on private prison operations;
+ encourage congregations to consider becoming sites of ministry and action for the incarcerated and their families;

Floor debate was vigorous, but not so much against the Social Statement as to how to be more actively engaged. For example, an amendment was offered in the above implementation resolution to replace "to consider becoming sites" with "to intentionally becoming" noting that in most congregations "we already have" people who are or who have been incarcerated and their families.

"We are a church of the resurrection. We are rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection," said David Swartling, ELCA secretary. "We also are a church of the reformation. And the reformation is not only an historical event; it is an ongoing process...We are a church of reconciliation. The theme of the assembly was "Always being made new."

Over the past 25 years, the ELCA has adopted 25 Social Statements.

Separately, the assembly voted (828 to 40) to advocate for the adoption of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that supports an earned pathway to lawful permanent residency and eventual citizenship; ensure humane and just enforcement of U.S. immigration laws; protect families from separation; provide resources and protections to ensure the successful integration of refugees, asylees, survivors of torture and trafficking, unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable migrants; and to ensure the protection of U.S. citizens and migrant workers.

Addressing community violence, with a 834 to 41 vote, the assembly moved to encourage ELCA members, consistent with their bound consciences, to contact their elected officials and advocate for passage of legislation that promotes universal background checks, prevents gun trafficking and requires the reporting of lost or stolen guns to law enforcement so that violence in our communities might decrease. In its action, voting members also moved to lift up the ELCA social messages on suicide prevention, community violence, and mental health and to call upon congregations and synods to engage their members on ways to prevent suicide.

With an 812-45 vote the ELCA committed itself to supporting a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine and took measures to ensure that commitment through awareness-building, accompaniment and advocacy.

The 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly approved nearly unanimously to continue the Book of Faith initiative which empowers its 4 million members for deep biblical engagement that approaches the Bible as the written Word of God using a variety of methods so that they become fluent in the first language of faith - the language of Scripture - and to be renewed for lives of witness and service.

I conclude this blog with the news which is dear to my own heart. For the first time, the ELCA will have a woman leading the church body. The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod, was elected ELCA Presiding Bishop succeeding Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson.