Friday, July 4, 2008

Environment, Human Agency, or God's Plan?

During my orientation with the North Carolina Division of Prisons, Chaplain Betty Brown, Director of Chaplaincy Services, gave me a book to read called The Female Offender: Girls Women and Crime by Meda Chesney-Lind. Let me share some of what I learned from the first two chapters:

In 1991…

• 32% of women in prison had been abused either physically or sexually before the age of 18, often by a family member or intimate acquaintance. (4)

• 58% grew up in homes without both parents presence and in 34% of these homes the adults abused alcohol and drugs. (4)

• 1 out of 5 spent time in foster care. (4-5)

• 43% by adulthood had been victims of sexual or physical violence (by spouses, boyfriends, and friends). (5)

• In 1990, 61.2% of girls in the juvenile justice system had experienced physical abuse. Reporting the abuse caused no change or made it worse. (26)

• “…Many young women are running away from profound sexual victimization at home, and once on the streets, are forced into crime to survive.” (27)

Meda Chesney-Lind, wanting to make her point clear, states, “To say that a person has had a set of experiences (even very violent ones) is not to reduce that person to a mindless pawn of personal history, but rather to fully illuminate the context within which that person moves and makes ‘choices’.” (30-31)

Chesney-Lind’s insights into the context of female offenders brings about a very important question: how much do we attribute crime to the situation in which these women find themselves and how much do we attribute crime to their personal agency or choices? People who work in the prison system have varying opinions, but I think we must wrestle with both the women’s life situations and their agency and choices. Which one has a greater impact on crime? I really don’t know. But I do think that as Christians, we must work to bring about healing and change within situations of abuse, violence, and poverty, and at the same time, we must examine the role of human agency and sinfulness. When I say “sinfulness,” I am not only alluding to acts of crime but also to our acts of neglect that have led to abuse, violence, and poverty.

At the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, I have discovered that the theology of many of the women plays a major role in how they process their crime. Time after time I have heard women say that God brought them to prison for a reason, to teach them a lesson, to allow them to minister to other women, etc. While I don’t doubt their ability to minister to one another, I have to wonder what role responsibility for one’s actions plays when they believe that God micromanages their every move, even their crime, for reason or to teach them a lesson. It often seems that some of these women release their own responsibility by attributing their crime to God’s plan. What kind of theology has allowed for this thinking? What is my role as a chaplain in responding to women who voice this theology? I’m trying to listen to their stories before I talk too much. And at the same time, I gently offer a different perspective, mostly through probing questions instead of declarations of my belief. As I continue to be present, I will keep pondering the roles of one’s environment, one’s agency, and one’s theology in the act of crime.

(Meda Chesney-Lind, The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997)

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