Martin Henry | The Church and crime fighting
Today, which is marked as Easter Sunday by many of the churches which make up diverse Christianity, is a good time to join the pastor of the Ocho Rios Baptist Church, the Rev Johnathan Hemmings, in the unpopular view that the Church is not a crime fighter. We're not even certain how welcome Rev Hemmings might be back in the pulpit of his home congregation after his exploits over in crime-ridden St James when he stunned a packed funeral congregation with his declaration that "the church's place is not in crime fighting". Visiting preachers are fond of saying as they wax warm that they might not be invited back to preach again, but they will be delivering the tough truth.
I am not blessed with the full text of Rev Hemmings' shocker sermon, but a veteran journalist who is committed by trade to telling the truth, in a front-page newspaper story, stated that the pastor said, "I take issue with the people who are asking, what is the Church doing about crime fighting, as if they expect that the church should be involved in crime fighting?"
Pushing on, the clergyman declared, as members of the quietened congregation exchanged uncomfortable, questioning glances, "the Church's place is not in crime fighting."
But then Hemmings delivered a body blow to his unfolding argument that had grabbed the attention of the funeral congregation in the Granville Baptist Church where he had previously served as pastor. The Church's place is not in crime fighting, because "we are not trained for it", the preacher tendered as explanation. Well, training can be provided, if that's the only issue!
But the fundamental issue at stake is whether it is the business of the Church at all to take on the role of crime fighter. Something that Christians have had to wrestle with for 2,000 years without any final resolution is how annoyingly silent Jesus, the Christ was about social activism by his followers, Christians, to fix the ills of society. And yet He was boldly clear that the Gospel would transform society wherever it was allowed to take root.
His parable of the good Samaritan offered the perfect opportunity to launch activism to make the Jericho Road safer for travellers. But the Rabbi only bothered to draw a lesson of neighbourly love from the actions of the despised Samaritan who had assisted a Jewish victim of violent robbery on the Jericho Road.
Rev Hemmings anticipated controversy. In his sermon preamble, he served notice that he wasn't seeking to be controversial but, at the same time, he wasn't afraid of being controversial, clearly anticipating that his declaration that the Church was not a crime-fighting machine wouldn't find favour with many - including a couple of letter writers to the paper after the news story was carried.
We Jamaicans regularly engage in a dialogue of the deaf where we shout at each other in rising decibels without pausing either to listen or to ascertain what exactly we are disagreeing about. We can boisterously disagree on what we, in fact, agree on in quieter moments.
What do we mean by "crime fighting"? We may be shouting at each other over different meanings attached to the same label.
I didn't read Rev Hemmings saying that the Church has no role in building a peaceful, law-abiding society in which crime would not flourish. In fact, when the Church succeeds in its primary mission of transforming people's lives, crime and lawlessness fade away. Mission stories have been recounted over and over of small, self-contained societies, like Pitcairn Island years ago, when after a high degree of voluntary Christian saturation, no murder occurred in a generation, the jail was unused, and even misdemeanours like being drunk were few and far between.
A critical conundrum that we face is that people don't want to accept either the authority of the Church to direct them or the transformation that the Gospel promises. But they want the benefits which they think the Church can and should provide. Without any of the commitments.
Rev. Hemmings explains himself: "The church's place, rightly, is in peace-making. When it is faithful in leading the nation to peace-making [if the nation is willing to follow!], there will be a reduction in the need for crime-fighting."
Launching a frontal attack on a popular involvement by elements of the Church, he argued that crime-fighting was more than signing peace treaties or staging peace marches. Peace treaties, as I have long argued, bury crime, not cure it, only to have it resurrected in due course, and peace treaties undermine justice, which the Church is ordered by Her master to uphold as one of its most sacred duties.
Speaking at the funeral service of a former political representative, ex-Councillor Clifford Cunningham, Rev Hemmings seized the golden opportunity to advise that political leaders have a wonderful opportunity - indeed, a duty - to be peacemakers by virtue of their offices and to exert themselves to secure justice and mercy for the weak and vulnerable - indeed, for all.
We as citizens in a secular democracy, under that famous Social Contract articulated by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, etc, have surrendered to the State the responsibility for security, protection, public safety, law and order and the dispensing of justice. Unless we are proposing state power for the Church, which a large number of Christians looking back to an earlier age are longing for, the Church can have no front-line role in crime. An earlier age filled with the crimes of persecuting dissenters.
Even non-believers like letter writer Glenroy Murray (self-declared) of the Equality for All Foundation feel a great sense of entitlement to advise the Church on its crime fighting role. "Churches can do more to fight crime beyond praying, fasting", his letter was headlined.
At the end of his nine-point plan, Murray conceded that many churches are doing some, if not all, of these activities, which include providing support groups for victims and witnesses of crime, challenging the 'informa fi dead culture, providing counselling services to reduce domestic violence, engaging gangs and vulnerable young people for violence reduction, and providing conflict resolution services and legal services.
But casting green eyes upon the alleged millions in tithes and offerings he demands that "it is full time churches everywhere put those contributions to real work and fix the ailing nation they keep praying for."
Believer Ouida Williams chastises Rev Hemmings and calls for even more fasting and prayer. The Christian Church, armed with the divinely conferred power to root out, pull down, pluck up and destroy, must stomp out the existing practices of crime to bring about peace, she declares and decrees. The Church, it seems, will be needing its own police force, jails and courts.
No one can disagree with Miss Williams that the individual Christian believer must be a model of law-abidingness and non-corruption. But what about those non-believers who are not prepared to accept the "spiritual transformation" and the deliverance from demonic possession which Ms Williams proffers as Church crime cures?
When the Church seeks to take, "by force, this monster of crime through fasting, repentance, and declarative prayer to subdue it in this nation", will it not need the long arm of the State for law enforcement? Or does the Church propose to provide its own?
A critical gap in the engagement by the Church for crime fighting, peace building and justice is its failure to confront civil leaders with both their sins and their responsibilities. In biblical theology, which most foot-stomping, hand-clapping Christians care little about today, the king, appointed by God, has far greater responsibility than the priest or the prophet for the welfare of the people and the well-being of the nation.
The Church, much as it would like to do so, cannot repent for unrepentant civil leaders who, by negligence or/and commission have caused crime to flourish in the land on a scale that the founding fathers and the writers of our National Anthem/prayer could not have imagined.
The Church has salvific obligations to even criminals, obligations which any sacrifice of neutrality could jeopardise.
We, believers and non-believers alike, citizens all, should stop the shout back and give the controversial Rev Johnathan Hemmings a keener hearing in his pronouncement that the Church is not a crime fighter.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator.