James Logan. Good Punishment?

James Logan. Good Punishment?: Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment. Eerdmans, 2008.

This is an important and timely book.  Logan, a Mennonite who teaches at a Quaker school (Earlham College in Indiana) has provided a clear and devastating critique of the American criminal (in)justice system.  In careful, even understated prose, he details layer upon layer of social devastation–to the convicts who are treated like pieces of trash, to the victims of crime who are shunted aside by the system, and to the broader society that finds more and more resources being poured into a more and more ineffective (even counter-productive) prison-industrial complex.  A strong sense of humanity, grounded in his Christian faith, underlies Logan’s analysis.

By far the strongest part of the book is the first half, where Logan lays out the problems. He is quite persuasive in helping us see the social consequences of our society’s linking the violence of retributive philosophies and practices that takes already damaged people (convicted criminals) and damages them even further through dehumanizing punitive practices together with a powerful trend toward privatizing prisons and making them serve corporations’ lust for profits.

Logan writes this book as a theologian. He seeks to develop a case for what he calls “good punishment” where violations are taken seriously but become an occasion for seeking to heal the damage done rather than an occasion to unleash the forces of vengeance and (now) capitalist extraction of profits from human misery. He draws especially on the work of the pacifist Methodist theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas in this constructive effort.

I greatly appreciate Logan’s attempt to respond to this terrible crisis theologically. Indeed, the churches and the larger society are in dire need of such responses. The Dutch law professor, Herman Bianchi, makes the evocative statement that since the western theological tradition has so much responsibility for the crises we find ourselves in, one important step in a positive direction would be to apply some “homeopathic” therapy where we draw on this same tradition for resources that might heal the damage it has done. Logan’s work is an important effort at such homeopathic therapy.

Nonetheless, I found myself somewhat disappointed with the constructive theological proposals Logan makes. One problem arises from his use of Hauerwas as his main interlocutor. Hauerwas has a disconcerting tendency to take concrete ethical issues and mush them up with opaque theological jargon and abstract and vague thought experiments. So, Logan inevitably moves in the same problematic direction by relying on Hauerwas. He makes some perceptive criticisms of Hauerwas’s tendencies in this direction, but they pale in relation to how he nonetheless lets Hauerwas frame a theological response.

Logan’s main constructive proposal is to develop the notion of what he calls a politics of “ontological intimacy”–an unfortunate term that does not really help very much in providing clear directives for a theological, ethical approach to transforming the retributive and corporatist system we suffering under today.

When I picked up this book, knowing that Logan is a Mennonite and with the title “Good Punishment?”, I expected more engagement with the work of John Howard Yoder.  Yoder wrote a set of essays under the rubric of “good punishment” that have never been published (they were written in 1995 and are available online here [this page has many of Yoder’s unpublished writings, scroll down a ways to find the set of lectures calls “The Case for Punishment”]). I thought Logan might be taking Yoder’s creative work as his jumping off point. He does refer briefly to Yoder; however, by letting Hauerwas set the agenda instead of Yoder, he misses an opportunity to make a more significant theological contribution to these important issues.

It is probably true, as Cornel West says in a blurb for the book, that “Logan’s book is the most sophisticated theological treatment of the prison-industrial complex we have.” And Logan deserves our strong appreciation for producing this “treatment.” In the end, though, I still find myself looking for more.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

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