National Lutheran News

ELCA focuses on crime

Criminal justice on the denomination’s radar

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), since its inception in 1988, has created 11 social statements — documents intended to help church members make informed moral decisions in areas that impact daily life. The range of topics is diverse — abortion, the church’s role in society, the death penalty, the Christian’s responsibility in the economic sphere, education, ecology and the environment, health and healthcare, war and peace, race and ethnicity, sexuality, genetics.

This year the 4.5-million-member church body is on track to add still another statement to the list. Members in the ELCA’s more than 10,000 congregations have been studying a document focused on criminal justice. In Sunday morning adult forums, neighborhood meetings, breakout sessions at synod assemblies, and informal dialog, lay and clergy members have been digging into the complexities of how best to minister to people caught participating in criminal activities.

Following the adoption of the social statement on genetics by the 2011 churchwide assembly, the ELCA decided to hold off creating more social statements. However, the two documents already “in the pipeline” — criminal justice and a still-to-come study on women — were okayed to proceed accordingly.

The Rev. Hillary Freeman, center, leads a Minneapolis Area Synod review of the “Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice,” an ELCA social statement on criminal justice. Freeman is a member of the task force that created the draft statement. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Mandated by the 2007 churchwide assembly, the proposed statement on criminal justice was created under the guidance of a task force, two of whose members are Twin Citians — David Fredrickson, a Luther Seminary professor; and the Rev. Hillary Freeman, a member of Edina Community Lutheran Church. (Jack Munday, East Bethel, Minnesota, serves in an advisory capacity as a member of the ELCA Church Council.)

Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice” has gone through several revisions, much of the input for which came from “listening posts” held around the church. The “comment period” was closed at the end of October 2012. Written responses and suggestions for improvement came from virtually every state with significant ELCA membership (with one surprising exception: none came from Arizona, where a large elderly ELCA population is located.)

Later this month, the ELCA church council, meeting in Chicago, will recommend approval of the final draft. The final step will come next summer, when voting members gathered for their churchwide assembly will vote the proposed document up or down.

Many facets to criminal justice

The Rev. Erik Strand, who serves Edina Community Lutheran Church, was instrumental in getting a conversation about the proposed statement going in the Twin Cities. A discussion group met last October in Brooklyn Park. Freeman, who has worked to create a mentoring program in the Twin Cities for those being released from prison, led the discussion.

Strand admits social statements don’t always draw high levels of interest in the church (with perhaps the exception of the recent document on sexuality). “These studies are difficult to keep before people,” he admits, but says a number of his members read the draft, which runs to 70 pages. Says Strand, “These documents have an impact. Leaders use them to show [their members and the community at large] how the church is looking at an issue. They can be useful for pastoral care, and are often helpful for advocacy purposes.”

“The proposed statement is pretty strong in a couple areas but weak in a third. There are three components to consider — enforcement (prevention), judicial issues (the court system), and corrections (prisons). This document doesn’t talk much about enforcement.”

One Twin Citian who has taken a good look at the proposed document is a second-career ELCA pastor who served for 25 years as a police officer (including chief of police) in Eden Prairie. The Rev. Dan Carlson has a unique call. The Minneapolis Area Synod has endorsed his work, providing ministry to law enforcement personnel in Hennepin County.

Carlson told Metro Lutheran, “The proposed statement is pretty strong in a couple areas but weak in a third. There are three components to consider — enforcement (prevention), judicial issues (the court system), and corrections (prisons). This document doesn’t talk much about enforcement.”

Officers trying to keep the peace need support and encouragement, says Carlson. “A lot of activity happens before an accused perpetrator ends up in court. We need to promote prevention, and to support the people who enforce the law.”

Carlson wants the church to find ways to “reach out to the cops and support them.” That’s a lot of what he does in his current calling. “I spend a lot of time in coffee shops, talking to cops,” he says. “Police often feel unappreciated, sometimes misunderstood. People either see them as heroes or villains, depending on what they’re experiencing. But these [officers] are our neighbors. They deal with high-risk, high-stress situations. We need to get to know them.”

The Rev. James Erlandson, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, finds the proposed document a valuable tool to help ELCA Lutherans face up to some stark realities. “[In our congregation’s discussion,] we focused on justice issues lifted up in the statement. There’s a high number of persons of color who are incarcerated. Sentences are weighted toward nonviolent crimes. Our prison system discriminates against minorities, especially people of color.”

Erlandson says his members affirm the document’s assertion that more needs to be done to promote restorative justice. “There need to be alternatives to incarceration. It’s shocking to learn that it costs as much to warehouse a prisoner for four years as it would cost to send him or her to Harvard University.”

How will “Hearing the Cries” be received by the ELCA Church Council later this month and by the churchwide assembly next summer? Given the lack of “noise” being generated around the church, it is possible the document will sail through without dissent.

And, if that happens, will the church, having spent tens of thousands of dollars to develop the statement, find creative ways to keep it in front of its members, as a useful resource for ministry?

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