America’s addiction to locking people in prison for interminable periods of time began in the 1970s. Prior to that time a relatively small number of criminal offenders were incarcerated. Today America’s mass incarceration of large numbers of poor persons is a scandal, disproportionately affecting black and latino young men. This outrage is the result of a badly conceived “war on drugs, ” mandatory sentences and “3-strikes laws”, and other “get tough on crime” policies stemming from a politically manufactured fear of crime.
The politicization of crime has occurred largely with the quiet complicity of some white Christians and the active support others, especially by the Religious Right. The expansion of criminal justice “solutions” through harsh punishments is evidenced by Al Mohler’s recent call for Christians to support the expanded use of executions. Death penalty is not the only draconian social policy advocated by many Christians. For instance, predominantly white Christians have called for harsh laws against abortion and have demonstrated a paucity of redemptive efforts for prisoners. Some have exported their advocacy of death to homosexuals to Uganda and elsewhere.
The significant efforts of churches to minister to offenders and their families are found largely among African American Christians. Perhaps this is because black folks bear the brunt of the crime policies of recent decades. For sure, the redemptive theology found in many urban black churches is steeped in Bible texts that point toward liberation, release to the captives, reconciliation, and redemption. The Bible strongly speaks to the oppressed, and oppression is the experience of many families in African American churches who have been on the receiving end of criminal justice practices.
How has so much of the rest of the church lost sight of the plight of prisoners? From whence comes the over-emphasis on primitive law codes which predate Jesus? Why the manic support for “10 Commandments” displays in the public square and the neglect of Christian passages in the Bible? The Bible calls us toward redemption and away from retribution.
The Hebrews writer stated, “Remember those who are in prison as though you were there with them.” Well that writer understood the pathos of imprisonment, and readers from Israelite or Christian heritage, people of the Book, have resonated with those words through the ages. “Remember them….as though you were there with them.”
We remember the prisoners of the Old Testament. Joseph who was cast into a dry well by his 10 older brothers and later sold into slavery. Joseph, who was falsely accused by Potipher’s wife and locked up in the state prison. Joseph who turned the tables on those same brothers by locking them up before the great reconciliation, an early example of what goes around comes around.
In the Bible we see blinded Samson chained to a grinding mill at Gaza, pushing the wheels, dreaming of a day of revenge. We celebrate his growing hair, his prayer of destruction for his tormentors.
Remember the beaten Jeremiah chained by the chief officer of the temple for unpopular prophecies, then later confined to a community-based correctional facility, a courtyard prison where he transacted a real estate deal. Think of Jeremiah, locked in an underground cell beneath the court secretary’s house for “a long time, ” begging Zedekiah to return him to the courtyard prison because the conditions underground were so terrible, served a loaf of bread a day. Jeremiah, finally cast into a dry well where he sank down to his armpits in the mud where he would have died had not Ebedmelech rescued him, and then had him transferred back to that courtyard prison.
We remember Zedekiah, blinded after watching his sons killed before his eyes, and then locked up for the rest of his life by Nebuchadnezzar. Think of Jehoiakim, a prisoner of Evilmerodach for 38 years before being released to the king’s table for the rest of his life.
Remember Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego) thrown into a furnace for refusing to deny the Living God to worship an idol of gold.
Who can forget Daniel, cast into a pit of lions by Darius, and after his release saw his own accusers cast into that same pit? Remember Micaiah thrown into prison by Ahab and given only bread to eat, and Manasseh imprisoned by the Assyrians.
The readers of Hebrews are told, “Remember those who are in prison as though you were there with them!” But Hebrews is a New Testament book, and the readers New Testament readers. Our story is found more in the New Testament where everybody did time. If you were a New Testament Christian and did not spend some time in prison, your orthodoxy was in question. And if somehow you escaped imprisonment, the Hebrews writer cajoles, “Remember them…..” And, who could forget?
Do you not see John the Baptist locked up by Herod awaiting decapitation? Can you not share his longing for companionship as he receives his disciples as visitors, and sends a plaintiff message to Jesus, the One who proclaimed “release to the captives!” saying, “Are you the one?”
Or think of Jesus. Jesus, arrested in the Garden, then subjected to enhanced interrogation all night, beaten, kept unjustly while Barabbas was released, and finally put to death.
Remember Peter, jailed along with John in the temple jail, beaten and then released. Peter, locked up by Herod after James had been executed, chained to guards in the Tower of Antonia from which he escaped.
And, Paul. Who can forget Paul “a prisoner of the Gospel”? Paul who himself had imprisoned many believers before his Damascus Road experience. Remember Paul in stocks beside Silas in the jail at Philippi, suffering the effects of the “many stripes” put on them by whips. Paul, kept in chains in the Tower of Antonia and later locked up in Caesarea’s praetorium of Herod for two years. Remember how he was interviewed first by Felix and Drusilla, then Agrippa and Bernice, and finally by Herod himself. Think of Paul being transported as a prisoner by ship to Rome, cast overboard and shipwrecked. See him under house arrest for two years, and finally confined in the Mamertine Prison, the lower dungeon of Tertullian where prisoners condemned to death were kept in their final days. See Paul the prisoner writing letters, counseling, witnessing to guards and fellow prisoners, asking his friends for help, and keeping the faith.
Finally, do not forget John, a prisoner on Patmos, where he experienced the most wonderful Revelation. The Bible starts and ends with prisoners.
Yes, let us remember those who are in prison, today as well as then.
But, some may reply, “But those prisoners we remember in the Bible were good people. They were not like the evil doers of our modern age. Surely, it is not the same injunction for us as it was for Hebrews.”
Have you forgotten that the first family in the Bible suffered a most heinous murder, that Cain smashed his brother’s skull and left Abel to bleed to death on the ground? And, arguably the two greatest men in the Old Testament, Moses and David, were both murderers.
Moses killed a cop! If any one of us were to intervene with deadly violence in police action, no matter what that action may be, we would face certain prosecution, imprisonment, maybe even death. Moses knew he had done wrong, regardless of his noble motivation. He fled to avoid prosecution. Forty years later as God was talking him from a burning bush trying to convince him to go back down to Egypt, Moses was no doubt thinking in the vein of the Country and Western singer and songwriter R. Dean Taylor, “Egypt? Egypt wants me! Lord I can’t go back there! I’m a wanted man!”
David, a man after God’s own heart, remember, first used his considerable power to take the wife of his military leader to his bed, and then upon her pregnancy David put in motion a dastardly plan to have the husband Urriah the Hittite abandoned on the battle field to be killed. Murder, in any law code.
Remember criminals like the thief on the cross, Onesimus and his victim Philemon, and Barabbas. Think of Jesus the lawbreaker, brushing up against the legal system of his day, breaking the Sabbath, socializing with white collar criminals like Zacchaeus, associating with law violators of many kinds.
The words of the Hebrews writer still ring in our ears, do they not? “Remember those who are in prison as though you were there with them.”
The only difference between Bible times and now is that we have so many more people to remember, so many more people locked up.