An Introduction to Mass Incarceration, part 2

This is the 2nd in a series of 5 posts discussing mass incarceration.

Yesterday’s post provided an introduction to mass incarceration, along with some stats and information that I’ve found to be compelling reasons to question the current incarceration system. These are not the only reasons that I am concerned about this issue. As a Christian, I bring my faith, theology, and the Bible to the table when considering different issues. On this issue, I believe there is a lot that the Bible and Christian theology have to contribute.

Genesis 1

When thinking about mass incarceration, it can be easy to get lost in statistics. We must remember that the statistics are representing people, and that people play a fundamental role in looking at the issue. In Genesis 1, God creates humankind in his image. Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R., while discussing immigration, says that “The creation of all persons in the image of God must be the most basic conviction for Christians as they approach the challenges of immigration today.”[i] I believe that this statement holds for any issue concerning people, including mass incarceration. We must begin by understanding the value and worth of the people involved in the system. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.[ii]

The Quartet of the Vulnerable

Throughout the Bible, we see God’s care for a group that is known as the quartet of the vulnerable: the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. People are punished or blessed throughout scripture for the way that they treat people from this quartet. In addition to this group, there is also special care given by Jesus to prisoners, as seen in the announcement of his kingdom in Luke 4 and the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.

Mass incarceration is obviously linked with prisoners, but is also linked with the quartet of the vulnerable. Children are growing up without parents, wives are without husbands and husbands without wives, the poor are stuck in a system that they cannot get out of, and immigrants are complexly wrapped up into the prison system. To work to change a system that is currently hurting the quartet of the vulnerable is to do work to protect a group the God cares deeply about.

Romans 13

We come now to Romans 13, a text often cited in discussions about government or about breaking the law. We do not start with this text, because the conversation begins and ends with the question, “Did the person break the law?” This is an important question, but starting with it fails to give time to the people involved, to understand how the system was developed, and to understand the relationship between the people and the system.

Romans 13:1-5 is a call for everyone to be subject to governing authorities and submit to governing authorities because there is no authority except that which has been established by God. This can be cited without consideration for the system of government we have, how laws have been developed, and whether laws are just or not.

As we saw in yesterday’s post, the system of mass incarceration has been developing over the last 35 years. It has not been around forever, and has only been a part of American life for a short period of time. There have been serious questions as to whether these laws are ethical or just, questions that need to be considered while reading Romans 13. Unjust laws and actions, and laws and actions that violate the care of the quartet of the vulnerable are severely punished throughout the Bible, and this precedent must be taken into account when we read Romans 13.

We must also remember that the laws and system in question were in large part created by elected officials. It is important to remember that American citizens play a role in the government that was not present when Paul wrote to the Romans: we elect our officials, and therefore play a significant role in government. We play a role in laws that are passed, and we have the ability to help change laws that are bad or unjust.

Engaging Culture

It is important as Christians to allow our ethics and faith and theology to be connected. Our faith, theology, and the Bible should inform everything we do and believe. These are also thing we bring to the table when discussing issues. It can be easy to hold to something a political party says because it is easy, or because we have not considered it through our lens. However, we cannot choose to think as Christians only when it is convenient.

Additionally, even though our society and government are not inherently Christian, we can and should still interact with our culture as Christians. To echo the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, “Christians should actively model the countercultural politics of Jesus as a contribution to the societies in which they live.”[iii] We must also be ready to interact with non-Christians in this work, and be able to find ways to agree on what can be done. I spoke with Marcus Weaver, a social worker in Denver who works with people coming out of the prison system, about this. He said that, while churches are not currently leading work in this area and are in large part not engaging at all, they still have the power to be a catalyst on this topic. They must, though, be willing to partner with others, because they will not be able to do the work alone.[iv]

This post has not been exhaustive, but serves as a place to begin thinking about Christian ethics and engagement with mass incarceration. Overall, I have found very few resources that discuss mass incarceration from a Christian ethical standpoint. Christians need to be involved in this issue, and need to be understand how our theology and the Bible should lead us into the conversation.

[i] M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2013), 47.

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2tOp7OxyQ8

[iii] James Samuel Logan, “Prison and Prison Reform,” Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. Joel B. Green, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 626.

[iv] Personal Interview with Marcus Weaver, May 13, 2015

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3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Mass Incarceration, part 2

  1. Courtney Eppler

    Erik, I really appreciate your engagement on this topic. I think that prisoners are often the most vulnerable and hardest to love because we see the crime (often horrific) they committed more than the human being behind the crime. I appreciated that you didn’t state that people should not be held responsible for their actions. but instead, highlighted that our own view needs to be based on our Christian lens which includes people being made in the image of God. I hope that this is a catalyst for Christians to ask deeper questions about this issue and search for a holistic response.

  2. Erik, this is great. To often people think that because the government says it should be so and Romans 13 says God establishes government, then we shouldn’t challenge or question the government and status quo. I love that you mention that our election process is so different than the way government was handled in the ANE during Jesus’ and Paul’s day. Our government, established by God, is based upon our vote so we are empowered to speak out and vote against unethical practices because that is the whole point of how our government is run! Well done.

  3. I am deeply compelled by that phrase “quartet of the vulnerable.” I agree with Erik that if followers of Jesus want our political voice to be genuinely Christian, we’ve got to prioritize the quartet of the vulnerable as much as the Scriptures do. That doesn’t mean we’ll always agree on policy prescriptions, but it means we’ll be voting not in our own interest, but in the interest of those whom God prioritizes.

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