As the 2016 presidential election cranks up the issue of mass incarceration is taking center stage. There is surprising bipartisan support for reform with everyone from Rand Paul to Hillary Clinton taking a stand. They may have different reasons for touting change — from economics to social justice — but there is consensus that something is wrong with the fact that: “Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 20 percent of its prison population” (New York Times, “2016 Candidates Are United in Call to Alter Justice System,” April 27, 2015).
Given that the debate about criminal justice will be in the headlines in the weeks and months ahead, what can disciples of Jesus Christ add to the discussion? This issue of the Outlook challenges us to view crime and punishment through the lens of Christian faith. What are the theological and biblical truth claims at stake? How do we minister to all those impacted: perpetrators, victims, families, law enforcement, communities?
I believe we have powerful and necessary words to speak in the midst of a charged and critical time in our nation. As Christians we are called to speak, in word and deed, about forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation.
Early in my ministry I corresponded with a man in prison, the husband of a church member. We wrote back and forth for about six months. I sent him several books, Augustine’s “Confessions” among them. It prompted this question: Is forgiveness real?
How would you have answered him?
Is forgiveness real? Of course, I answered, offering my best theology of atonement, citing verses, quoting Jesus. But as I mailed the letter I wondered if my answer would seem hollow to him, someone who would serve his time but never again be allowed to vote, someone who would be released from prison but forever struggle to find employment.
Is forgiveness real? Is forgiveness real when juveniles are sentenced to life in prison and often three strikes mean you are out, forever? Beyond forgiveness, what about mercy? Is there a role for the mercy Jesus desires or are we bent on sacrifice? Beyond mercy, what about reconciliation? Is that possible?
Digging even deeper, do we really believe that transformation happens? Our canon is filled with less-than-perfect people (murderers included) whom God has chosen and used. Moses and Paul stand out. Do we believe God still calls and transforms people? If so, do we recognize it when it happens? Welcome those disciples to work along side us? Invite them to worship with us?
These are charged topics. There are no easy answers. There are many impacted who need to be heard. There are systemic problems and individual stories. In this issue we have tried to offer a variety of voices and perspectives, knowing that there is still much left to be said and points of view that are not included. Recognizing that limitation, I encourage you to consider seriously the ideas that are represented.
Scholar Christophe Ringer links the militarization of police forces with idolatry. Public defender Jeanne Bishop tells of a man locked up since he was a teen. He has been rehabilitated but a mandatory sentence keeps him behind bars. Retired pastor George Wilson shares how prison ministry was transformative for him. Brian Merritt of Mercy Junction and Kara Tragresser, a convicted felon, interview each other. He asks about her experience in prison. She wants to know how to get people to see felons as human.
Some of what you read in these pages will surely make you uncomfortable, perhaps even angry. You may agree or disagree, but regardless, I hope you will be moved: moved to think deeply, moved to pray fervently, moved to learn more, moved to enter the discussion, moved to act.
Candidates for political office will have much to say about crime and punishment, incarceration and security. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I am grateful these issues have come to the forefront of the national debate. However, I think as people of faith, as followers of the one who proclaimed release to the captives, the one who said to those on his right, “I was in prison and you visited me,” we have an obligation to participate in the discussion. And our words need to include justice, forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation and even transformation.
Grace and peace,