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Who Would Jesus Incarcerate?

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Evangelical activist and author Jim Wallis recently framed debate about our nation’s debt as a potential “moral default:”

This national debate about our priorities and, indeed, our character, is far from over. When all is said and done in any final deal, the faith community will be watching to see if the most vulnerable are being protected or savaged for the financial sins of the rest of us. If low-income people are not exempted from deficit reduction, the result will be a fundamental moral default.

While it is true that Wallis and many of his fellow evangelicals do not speak for all Christians on such issues, as a Baha’i I have found the way they have provided prophetic vision and voices to the debate truly inspiring. An effective strategy for mobilizing moral and spiritual energies to defend the most vulnerable has been The Circle of Protection initiative. The Circle of Protection is a diverse, non-partisan coalition of Christian leaders dedicated to ensuring that efforts at financial responsibility by our government are balanced by social responsibility towards the poor. The principle statement of this group which articulates its values and priorities includes the following:

Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. They should be made as effective as possible but not cut.

A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth. Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.

As laudable as efforts like The Circle of Protection are, they are incomplete if they do not address the fact that many people in America are unable to access poverty reducing programs or decent jobs. As Michelle Alexander has described in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, once you are labeled a felon, you can be legally discriminated against in the very areas that Wallis and others are fighting for. Surely the circle of protection is large enough to embrace the largely black and brown men who are being incarcerated at rates unheard of in American history, condemned to civic death and internal exile, and locked in a condition of racial caste by law and custom. Efforts to protect the poor must include addressing mass incarceration, which not only contributes to poverty but primarily targets the poor. As the saying goes, the rich get richer and the poor get prison. In a study of the relationship between incarceration and poverty, the Justice Policy Institute put it this way: “Poverty does not create crime, nor is limited wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system; however, people with the fewest financial resources are more likely to end up in prison or jail.”

Many faith communities are already deeply involved in advocacy to reform the criminal justice system and minister to those impacted by the prison industrial complex, however much more needs to be done. As Alexander and other scholars have noted, mass incarceration is being largely driven by the War on Drugs. In order to turn the tide, this “war” must come to an end. Nothing short of a massive mobilization of concerned citizens will accomplish this task. It is time for people of all faiths who care about the least of these to confront the drug war head-on as a spiritual crisis just as important as the federal budget.

The opportunities for a new kind of interfaith, anti-war movement are profound.
As they have done so well regarding the budget debate, people of faith can transform the discourse about the drug war and crime and punishment generally. They can open minds, soften hearts, and sharpen vision. They can inspire, mobilize, an canalize collective compassion. They can create politically educated and engaged communities. They can nurture an emerging generation of prophetic leaders while deepening the wisdom of veteran spiritual warriors.

Video related to the NAACP’s historic call to end the War on Drugs closes with participants gathered together in prayer. In this spirit, I’d like to close with a Baha’i prayer written by Baha’u’llah the Founder of the Baha’i Faith:

My God, Whom I worship and adore! I bear witness unto Thy unity and Thy oneness, and acknowledge Thy gifts, both in the past and in the present. Thou art the All-Bountiful, the overflowing showers of Whose mercy have rained down upon high and low alike, and the splendors of Whose grace have been shed over both the obedient and the rebellious.

O God of mercy, before Whose door the quintessence of mercy hath bowed down, and round the sanctuary of Whose Cause loving-kindness, in its inmost spirit, hath circled, we beseech Thee, entreating Thine ancient grace, and seeking Thy present favor, that Thou mayest have mercy upon all who are the manifestations of the world of being, and to deny them not the outpourings of Thy grace in Thy days.

All are but poor and needy, and Thou, verily, art the All-Possessing, the All-Subduing, the All-Powerful.

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About Phillipe Copeland

  • For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

    “Then the righteous will say to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you something to eat, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or see you naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

    The king will answer them, ‘I tell you with certainty, since you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.’

  • WWJI? I’m thinking of Sheriff Andy Taylor putting Otis Campbell up for the night in the Mayberry County jail ’til he sleeps it off.

    As for the more hard-core criminals (this being just my opinion) I see Christ being involved in more effective rehabilitation efforts than many in the privately owned for-profit prison industry –not to mention those in the judicial system getting kickbacks from them — have motivation to be. Then he’d send the successfully rehabilitated ones out the door, and say, “Go and sin no more,” and they probably would sin no more, i.e., recidivism rates would be lower.

    I can’t see Jesus putting people into jail for smoking pot any more than I can see him putting them into jail for imbibing the wine he made at the Wedding Feast of Cana. I’m guessing he’d sentence people doing or dealing drugs that could kill or render the users dangerous to others — but he’d rehabilitate them, too. A lot of them are self-medicating because they can’t afford psychiatric care. I’m guessing Jesus would heal them, miraculously, or send them to the guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, who was a doctor.

    I’m wondering about all the church people raising a ruckus about same-sex marriage. What? There’d be a lot fewer divorced people in churches if the divorce laws were less lenient than the Bible’s are, and since when did God tell us to coerce people into living by Christian laws before we gave them Jesus who gives people the grace to obey them? Christian laws that are also human rights laws are the only Christian laws that belong in the legal code.

    Yes! to what Kevin wrote. People who believe in Jesus THESE days are supposed to be his hands and feet. If all those people who fasted and prayed during the fast Governor Perry called August 6, had, instead of asking God to change everyone ELSE into what they wanted them to be, had asked God to change THEMSELVES into who God wanted them to be, folk who visit prisoners, for instance, training them in a trade, or tutoring them while they got their GED’s, what a difference that would make in the state of Texas!

    Philippe, thanks for the article, and for the prayer at the end — and for asking the question!

  • the largely black and brown men who are being incarcerated at rates unheard of in American history

    The black man who used to help me with my yard and housework is now in jail on a serious charge. His daughter was informed on regarding the sale of drugs. In his fear and anger that his grand daughter would not have her mother available, he told the informant that he should ‘kick his ass’. The police took him in and he did not shut up and ask for a lawyer, instead he ‘was honest’, thinking they were a) not his enemies, b) were ‘guys’ and would understand that ‘guy thing’ about kicking-asses that seems to permeate the entire culture, and c) would understand that he never has , nor would actually kick anyone’s ass and it was an emotional reaction rather than a threat. He is now incarcerated on the same charges that a mafia guy would get for threatening to give a state witness concrete shoes and will not be allowed to have bail because he is not employed and is considered a flight risk.

  • He may be superfluous, but at least now he won’t be counted as unemployed!