Category Archives: Crime

The Sanctity of Life in the Heidelberg Catechism: the Sixth Commandment

In his comments on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” John Calvin writes, “The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each.” As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to do whatever is required to “defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.39).

Calvin’s explanation highlights what the Christian tradition has often referred to as the commitment of “solidarity.” The sixth commandment, according to Christian teaching, does not merely prohibit outright violence. It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life. Calvin puts it quite strongly: “if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law” (2.8.40). Note Calvin’s use of the word study. This is not simply a casual obligation. Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.

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The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same interpretation of the sixth commandment in Lord’s Day 40. The prohibition of murder not only means that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also requires that I love my neighbor as myself, being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to him,” and that I “protect him from harm as much as [I] can.” I am neither to harm or “recklessly endanger” a person made in the image of God.

In short, the catechism calls us not merely to be reactive against threats to the sanctity of life. We must be proactive in fostering the conditions necessary for life. We do this only when we stand in solidarity with one another in love, mercy, and friendship.

The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that these obligations do not merely fall upon human beings as individuals. On the contrary, government is armed with the sword for this very purpose: “Prevention of murder.” It is striking that the catechism does not merely say – as some Christians have said – that government is given the sword to punish those guilty of murder. It calls the government to use its power to prevent murder from happening in the first place. Government, too, is called to be proactive, not merely reactive. Indeed, protecting and promoting the sanctity of human life is the primary reason why we have coercive government at all.

Catholic theologians have described Christian teaching as protecting the sanctity of life as a “seamless garment” from conception to the grave. Protestant ethicists have emphasized the need for Christians to hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” This has several important implications.

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“The great crime decline continues. No one is sure why” – The Economist

Why is crime declining in the United States, especially violent crime (38% decline since 1992)? For years Christian Right warriors like Jerry Falwell pointed to rising crime rates as the direct result of America’s abandonment of God and Christianity. Do falling crime rates suggest that America is becoming more faithful to God?

What makes the statistics all the more surprising is that crime has continued to fall in the difficult economic years since 2008, defying expectations and predictions. Liberals should be just as surprised as Christian conservatives. Is it possible that increasing income and economic hope is not the only way to reduce crime?

The Economist notes the various theories:

Everything from the removal of lead from petrol to the increased prescription of psychiatric drugs has been credited with the decline. A controversial theory proposed in 2001 by two academics, Steven Levitt (of “Freakonomics” fame) and John Donohue, which attributed half the previous decade’s drop in crime to the legalisation of abortion in the 1970s, still has fans. Today there is growing interest in the role of video games and social-media technologies in providing young men, who are responsible for the lion’s share of violent crimes, with alternative ways to spend their time.

Other analysts look to structural or demographic explanations. Jack Levin, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, acknowledges the success of policing strategies, but notes that an ageing society like the United States should expect to experience less violent crime. Immigration also matters, he says: studies have repeatedly shown that cities with large immigrant populations experience lower rates of violent crime.

Then there is the awkward issue of incarceration. America continues to lock up a scandalously large number of its people: around 1% of the adult population is behind bars at any time. But, says Mr Levin, “the relationship between the incarceration rate and the violent-crime rate is not very strong.” New York has not followed the national mania for imprisonment, and yet the decline in its crime has been among the most impressive. Indeed, in states with a particular fondness for imprisoning citizens, such as California, the policy may have done more harm than good…

However we explain it, of course, this is great news for America. But it still makes one wonder, what’s going on? And what does this phenomena do to liberal theories about the relation between economics and crime, or to Christian Right theories about immorality and the decline of America?


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