taking the words of Jesus seriously

Jesus was arrested, given a trial, tortured, and then crucified on a cross — a criminal’s death. This should remind Christians that societal systems of justice are imperfect — and can be systematically oppressive, cruel, and intentionally unjust.

The early church was well aware of this, often being criminalized under Roman rule, and these first Christ-followers viewed martyrdom as a sign of virtue and faith rather than a failure to “respect their governing authorities.” The irony for modern Christians — especially those who are white — is that despite knowing that the factors of bribery and greed, religious influence, a lust for power, and socio-economic politics were all key factors as to why Jesus was killed, they still fail to recognize these same pitfalls within their own justice system.

It’s not right to label someone as a “criminal” if the people, institutions, and processes that criminalized them are unjust. A person’s legal status can be an inaccurate label of someone’s morality, especially when the law itself is flawed and America has constructed criminality based upon partisan power and populist fear rather than actual criminal behavior.

Sadly, much of American Christianity (especially white evangelicals) have accepted inaccurate tropes about crime: black, inner-city, poor, violence. A widespread acceptance of Trump’s nativism and fear mongering rhetoric only reinforces these opinions.

Without taking the time to research, learn, or dialogue, many churches have embraced a dismissive attitude toward a national crisis. They’ve assumed that justice-related systems — and those who enforce them — are always good, while those convicted of crimes have received their rightful due.

Instead of addressing police brutality, unequal sentencing, excessively punitive legislation, mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, for-profit-prisons, and widespread racial inequity, lots of Christians have refused to address such “political” topics.

To make matters worse, it’s not uncommon for predominantly white churches to view urban areas (or other areas where there are larger populations of people of color) as “places of need.” Ministries, volunteer opportunities, and mission trips will be taken to “help” and “save” these locations. Furthermore, predominantly white Christian universities will boast an array of “Urban Ministry” degrees and programs, but have a conspicuous absence of “Suburban Ministry” or “Rural Ministry” programs — the implication possibly being that people of color are more in need of spiritual saving.

Pew Research recently did a study that found “79% of blacks – compared with 32% of whites – said the way racial and ethnic minorities are treated by the criminal justice system is a very big problem in the United States today.” The large differences in thought between whites and blacks were reflected across a broad spectrum of criminal justice issues.

Pew Research went on to add that “Blacks were much less likely than whites to say that police in their community do an excellent or good job using the right amount of force in each situation (33% vs. 75%), treating racial and ethnic groups equally (35% vs. 75%) and holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs (31% vs. 70%). Blacks were also substantially less likely than whites to say their local police do an excellent or good job at protecting people from crime (48% vs. 78%).”

The NAACP notes that “African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites” and “Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.” They go on to point out that “If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.”

Because people of color are often disproportionately targeted by our nation’s justice system, many white Christians have no idea how oppressive it really is. For example, each year millions of felons are disenfranchised, which means they lose their right to vote. Since racism and partisan politics heavily influence who gets criminalized (and who gets a felony), this is an important human rights issue.

While recent reforms have helped, stats from 2016 showed that African Americans of voting age who couldn’t vote due to disenfranchisement were four times higher than whites. In Kentucky alone, according to a report released this year by The League of Women Voters, 1 out of every 4 African American adults in the state cannot vote.

Wealth is also a huge factor is deciding who gets criminalized within our broken justice system. The Equal Justice Initiative writes, “In many jurisdictions in the United States, people who are arrested and do not have money to pay bail are jailed while awaiting trial. While some people are denied bail because they are at risk of flight or illegal activity, most are detained solely because they are too poor to pay bail. Pretrial detention interferes with employment, payment of bills, and care giving, and can inflict extraordinary psychological damage. Even for minor offenses, people who are detained pretrial are more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to receive a longer sentence.

At the state level, the LA Times points out that “the typical U.S. jail is about 60% filled not with convicted criminals but with people awaiting trial, stuck behind bars not because of their guilt or innocence or their risk to flee, but because of their poverty.” For those who can afford the fees, bail, and good attorneys, “justice” is often awarded based upon their wealth.

As Christians, we believe that Christ is perfect, yet we know that the churches, pastors, organizations, and people that represent Him definitely aren’t. In fact, many people and things that identify as “Christian” do horrible things. In the same way, although we value and strive for justice, we shouldn’t equate the systems, institutions, and individuals that represent it with the perfect ideal of justice itself. Yet, many Christians have idolized our society’s officers, judiciary, laws, and justice systems as if they’re “justice” itself, when in reality they’re imperfect at best — and oppressive, corrupt, racist, and evil at worst.

Just as Christianity itself has needed reckonings and reformations, we must demand similar changes to our justice system. If we claim to follow a loving God who values justice (“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” — Isaiah 1:17), it’s our responsibility to pursue this within the society we live in and the systems we financially, legally, and socially affect.

Some will suggest we should respect the governing authorities and laws already in place, because God is in control. But this excuse isn’t valid when you organize, vote, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying in order to create and change the laws according to your preferences. People who reference Romans 13 and other Bible verses would be wise to remember that carnal laws can never trump the commands to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).

Those who suggest a deference to government systems only do so to support their preferred opinion, because this reasoning typically can’t be universally applied as a theological concept. For example, if someone says “illegal” immigrants should be deported because they’re breaking the law, then these same accusers should also respectfully accept the legal right to be pro-choice and sanction gay marriage (spoiler: they don’t).

Governments and their respective legal systems aren’t pursuing the same goals and agendas of Jesus — but Christians should.

Throughout history, our justice system has failed time and time again, legally allowing the oppression of indigenous people, slavery, internment, segregation, and countless other evils. Today, major reforms are still needed, and we must do our part.

Isaiah 61:8 declares, “For I, the Lord, love justice…” God loves justice, but do we?

About The Author

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Stephen Mattson is the author of "The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ." Follow him on Twitter (@mikta)

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