Sentenced to Church

Emma Jean Oliver, a single mother of four, stood before a Texas judge awaiting sentence for a minor drug offense. By law, she could get three years in prison, with fines up to $250,000. But when the judge banged his gavel and pronounced the sentence, Emma Jean gasped. She wasn't going to prison after all; instead, she was sentenced to five years' probation. And then came the real shock: As a condition of probation, Emma Jean and her four children would have to attend church every Sunday. Whoever heard of anyone sentenced to church? The ACLU and liberal members of the press are muttering grimly over possible violations of the First Amendment. But Emma Jean is elated. She's a Baptist and feels that more consistent church attendance might be just what she and her family need. Besides, think what the alternatives are. Would the ACLU prefer to see Emma Jean locked up? Remember that this was a first-time minor drug offense. Emma Jean wasn't even involved in any drug deals; she merely allowed a friend to store illegal drugs in her home. It would be ludicrous to throw her behind bars alongside hardened criminals. What's more, if Emma Jean went to jail, her four children would go to foster care. In essence, the judge would be imposing a double sentence, tearing the children away from their family and neighborhood. For minor offenses, it makes much more sense to use community-based alternatives to prison. And yes, even church-based alternatives. In sentencing Emma Jean to church, the judge was giving expression to a growing conviction among Americans that our society is being destroyed by moral decay. Especially when it comes to the problem of crime. America has tried just about every known solution. We've passed tougher laws. We've built more prisons, doubling our prison population since 1980. Conservatives have used prisons for deterrence, and liberals have used them for rehabilitation. Yet violent crime continues to rise. Our streets are no safer. Out of desperation, people are beginning to realize that crime is not a malady that can be cured by public policy; it's a sickness of the soul. And the cure has to be sought in the deep wells of spiritual and moral tradition. When we see news items like a judge sentencing a lawbreaker to church, it's a sign that the American people are finally turning to spiritual answers to our social disorders. This is a critical time for Christians, and we need to seize the moment. Three recent polls all show that Americans are more worried than ever about the direction our country is heading. And the reason they're worried is a sense of pervasive moral decline: They cite crime, drugs, a loss of family values. This is an opportune time for us to make the argument that moral renewal comes from spiritual renewal. Historically, the Christian faith has been the foundation of our moral standards. Only faith gives people the motivation to change their lives from the inside out. And that's why people like Emma Jean don't belong in a building surrounded by barbed wire. Instead, they belong in a building with a steeple on top.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary