Christians and Mass Incarceration: Brief Theological Reflections

The Places of Greatest Pain

Christians know that it is not given to us to avert our eyes from the places of pain and suffering. Scripture records that at the start of his ministry, Jesus looks upon the masses of poor people in his society who were suffering horribly and, “moved by compassion,” he begins to heal and restore these same people. The story of incarnation is not simply that God enters human life as a one who suffers like us, but God enters specifically to minister those who suffer most. None of us can doubt that mass incarceration in 21st century American inflicts tremendous suffering upon those incarcerated and also upon their family members and friends. This is the place of pain that is calling to us to be God’s agents in a ministry of solidarity.

Meeting God in Those Same Places

Tradition also teaches that we will meet Christ among the lost and the least, the people whom we otherwise might pass by. Isaiah says that God’s messiah will not be an attractive dinner party candidate – that he will be physically repellent, despised and rejected. Jesus himself came not from high society but from the first century equivalent of Arkansas – from Galilee, whose people had “hick” accents. That God operates on the margins – and embraces the margins – is also clear from St. Paul’s writing about God choosing “things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all” and using these same rejected ones “to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (I Corinthians 1:28).

Rejected, But Not Abandoned

The open-hearted Bible reader cannot help but by struck by how little use God has for human hierarchies. God is constantly picking “losers” to be God’s messengers and unlikely leaders, making (for example) second son Jacob the bearer of blessing (“I will give to you a new name”) and ensuring that covenant blessings extend to those treated harshly by flawed humans (thus, to Hagar, when Abraham puts her and her infant son Ishmael out on account of Sarah’s spite: “Do not be afraid…I will make of him a great nation” Gen. 21:15ff.) If we should turn our backs on the incarcerated, might we not also be turning our backs on some of God’s messengers in our time?

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

The important Sabbath/Jubilee core of scriptural teaching makes it crystal-clear that many people who fall under the total control of powerful others (e.g., slaves and prisoners) are in desperate straits because of economic injustice: they are victims of the slow strangulation that so often accompanies extreme poverty and debt. Accordingly, the jubilee call for liberation (one echoed by Jesus in Luke 4) makes an explicit connection between getting people out of debt and getting people out of jail. We need to be realistic about this. Not everyone who is incarcerated is there because of poverty, but those who suffer extreme poverty are far more likely to end up in jail than those who live in relative comfort.

Burden of a Blood-Stained History

American Christians can not be unaware of the extent to which a corrupted Christianity has been used to buttress white supremacy and racial oppression in North America for almost 400 years. Today, as Michelle Alexander and many others teach us, white control of Black and brown bodies is mainly expressed through a superficially race-neutral system of mass incarceration. It’s far too easy for white Christians to seek cheap grace by saying “that’s none of my affair.” In reality, the only way to repent of America’s original sin (white racism) is to actively oppose the continuing oppression of people of color that mass incarceration represents. In the words of James Baldwin, “there is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation The challenge is in the moment: the time is always now.”

A Theology of Friendship

Twentieth-century theological giant Howard Thurman developed an important strain of theological thought that he described as the theology of friendship. What Thurman meant, in part, is that we tend to forget that Jesus himself was more than “prophet, priest, and king” (the traditional offices assigned to him) but also wanted to be understood as the friend of struggling human beings. If there is one thing incarcerated persons and the families of incarcerated persons need from us, it is simple friendship: attention, respect, and care. It is the least we can give.

From Death to Life

No scriptural/theological theme is more important to Christians than God’s victory over death in Christ’s resurrection, prefigured in the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:38-53). Many of those who suffer extended terms of incarceration begin to consider themselves to be socially “dead” – entombed while still living – but Christians firmly believe that God can still turn ashes of mourning into garlands of joy. We, like the disciples in John’s gospel, need to stand ready to “unbind” the living dead in our prisons and jails and set them free.

Unjustly Sentenced

Christians can also never forget that Jesus himself was unjustly condemned–“framed,” we might say–and sentenced to an ignominious death by corrupt Roman authority.
In our own setting we must never, ever assume that people are only locked up because they “deserve it” or because they “have it coming.” If we open our eyes, we will see how very flawed the sentencing process has become–with those lacking adequate legal counsel often forced to take terrible plea bargains, with mandatory sentencing creating grossly unjust punishments, and with the specter of white racism hanging over the whole process.

“Neither Do I Condemn You”

The famous story of the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8) says a lot about God’s sense of right and wrong, especially in relation to women. The law of the time required unfaithful women to be stoned to death. The authorities wanted to test whether Jesus would uphold their vengeful version of justice. What he does instead is challenge them: “Let any of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” The accusers shrink away. Jesus then asks the woman, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.” He then concludes: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now, and amend your ways.”

Many lessons can be drawn from this story, but the main one seems to be a strong appeal for restoration and reconciliation, not retribution. This is very much in keeping with Jesus’ basic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:43-45)

The Return of the Prodigal Son

One of the best-loved New Testament stories is the Prodigal’s Return in Luke 15. Jesus uses this parable to teach that God’s love is boundless, that God is always in search of the “lost sheep” and wishes to see that person fully restored and welcomed home, even if it this restoration creates a bit of discomfort for the “good son,” the one who never gets into serious trouble. This parable provides yet another example of how God’s compassion is so much far wider and deeper than our own–and that those of us who wish to be faithful God-followers must also follow into the realm of deeper compassion and a transformed vision of how ultimate justice necessarily makes room for ultimate mercy.