The “thesis statement” of the Bible, for Christians, can be found in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the focus of the Lenten season. Jesus, himself, said this of his purpose:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
But what does it mean to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor in a season of Lent set in the midst of a COVID-19 viral pandemic?
Our faith and Scriptures invite us to respond by doing more than just washing our hands. They invite us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), especially our most vulnerable neighbors.
At least one site of vulnerability remains largely invisible to our collective focus on the Coronavirus: the U.S. prisons and jails that house approximately 2 million souls.
Incarcerated people, their families, advocacy groups and public health experts have all been loudly sounding the alarm: the conditions of incarceration are ripe for rapid viral spread, particularly endangering especially vulnerable groups, including those people in prison who are elderly, immunocompromised, pregnant or already sick. While to my knowledge there have yet to be confirmed cases in prisons and jails within the United States. Though it seems, unfortunately, that this is just a matter of time. If tragedy strikes, it will have been predictable.
Whether we are in prison or not, whether our loved ones are in prison or not, our call in Christ is clear:
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3)
As Christians, we can remember those in prison as if we were together with them by helping turn our collective conversations towards those places of vulnerability and moving to action—now.
Rather than waiting on the first news of an outbreak, when containment will be difficult at best, there is an immediate preventive action step that can and should be taken right away: identify those people who are currently incarcerated, pose no threat to public safety and are at heightened personal risk of COVID-19—including elderly, pregnant, sick and immunocompromised individuals—and release them now. Doing so will improve these individuals’ personal safety, dramatically, reducing their chance of viral exposure. It will also improve the safety of the rest of the incarcerated population by reducing crowded conditions in jails and prisons.
Where it is possible for state governors to use their executive authority to act to provide clemency and compassionate release, let them do so and do so quickly.
Where district attorneys, prosecutors and judges can show proper judgment and consider carefully the health risks to medically-vulnerable defendants in charging and sentencing, let them also take up their work and do it well.
Where it is possible to implement legislative reforms, let’s do that with all the speed state governments can muster. (To my home state, I’m looking at you, New York: Elder Parole Senate Bill 2144/Assembly Bill 9040, Fair and Timely Parole Senate Bill 497 and Assembly Bill 4346 are on your desks and have been for months thanks to Release Aging People in Prison’s [RAPP] work – move them through now.)
Everywhere I go—from social media to the city bus—I am exhorted to wash my hands. And I do. But all that handwashing press, combined with the liturgical season of Lent, has got me thinking more and more about that most famous handwashing scene of Scripture:
“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’ Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (Matthew 27:24-26).
Let us be clear: if COVID-19 should come to our nation’s prisons and jails, hitting hard a community that is already marginalized and targeting especially those who are most medically fragile within that community, then we can do all the washing we want, but their blood will still be on our hands.
It is on us, friends—all of us. Now is the time to act. Go on and wash your hands – but after a good scrub, let’s turn our energy towards a worthy goal and help free our most vulnerable incarcerated siblings before it’s too late.
Let’s seek, even today, the year of God’s favor. Let’s set the captives free.
United Methodist Women joins with advocates and directly impacted people across the country in calling for immediate release of vulnerable, incarcerated individuals who can be safely released as a necessary public health measure in response to the global pandemic of COVID-19.