Our Collective Failure

During the past year of the pandemic, as social lives changed and the everyday interactions we so often took for granted disappeared one by one, it has been interesting, and at times painful, to watch what has changed and what has stayed the same. In the months and years to come, I hope we all take some time to reflect on the good, the bad, and the indifferent in our lives that changed and stayed the same.

One thing that didn’t change, and it really should, is the abhorrent way which we in the US treat those who are incarcerated. From uncontrolled and unmonitored spread of Covid throughout prison populations, to the illness and death of those awaiting trial (this is essentially a state murder of someone who has not faced trial), to the unjust distribution of vaccines, to the general forgetting of those in jails and prisons that most of the US population does on a regular basis, Covid has revealed, once again, that this is not a Christian nation. My, oh my, how can I say such a thing! (This is when you clutch your pearls if you’re that type.) I can say this because Jesus said it first. But I’ll come back to that.

It is a failure in much of human history, I realize, to treat those who have committed crimes, those who have been convicted of crimes, and those who have been swept up in unjust incarcerations (these are not all the same populations) are treated badly. In Jesus’ day, going to prison often involved living in a dank hole, being deprived of decent food, and being beaten, but really what has changed? The prisons and jails I have visited for various reasons often have limited natural light (The number of natural light Lumens that prisoners receive through windows and skylights is regulated in this country. There’s a minimum, especially for those in solitary confinement, and that minimum is shockingly low.), the food was bad, some are as clean as a hospital and some are just plain gross, and I’ve met more than one person who has told me of the beatings they received from guards and other prisoners. Can things really not improve for prisoners in 2000 years?

Now you might say to me, “Rob, these people are in prison, they’re getting what they deserve.” to which I reply, “Really?!” By the logic above, Jesus got what he “deserved.” These are thinking, feeling, living, breathing people, made in God’s image, and we hole them away to be forgotten. In a secular culture the poor treatment of prisoners would be bad enough, but since we claim to be a Christian Nation, this cruelty flies in the face of decent society and God’s Word. Let’s roll the tape and see what Jesus has to say.

In Matthew 25.31-46, we get a story about the end of the age and the judging of all people. It’s a parable, not a foreshadowing of the actual final Judgment, but let’s look at the relevant passage to see what Jesus says the righteous, or just people of the world, do to enter the kingdom: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (emphasis added) Seems fairly clear to me.

Jesus, in this story, tells us what we need to be doing with our time on this earth to bring the kingdom now, and that list is caring for those whom he later calls “the least of these who are members of my family” which includes those in prison. It’s not a list of creeds, beliefs, rituals, or rules; it is a list of those who need us who follow Jesus. There are legitimate times when people need to be removed from society for our safety and for theirs (but let’s be honest, prisons are being super over used right now), but when that happens, those people become dependent on us for their care and even their nurture. We become their guardians and caretakers as a society and we must treat them as full and equal citizens and, more importantly, human beings. We must keep them connected to society, and help them to reenter and reintegrate when their time of incarceration is over. It’s not me saying it, it’s Jesus!

Don’t get me wrong, I am really glad that there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for this particular pandemic, but make no mistake: there will be no true end to the pandemic until there is just distribution of vaccines to all who are in prison, there is accountability for the unnecessary deaths in jails and prisons especially of those awaiting trial, and until we recognize and uphold the humanity of all who are in our prisons and jails. Jesus requires it, and so should we who walk in Jesus’ ways.

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