Some of my first memories consist of visiting a loved one in jail. From a young age, I was troubled by the authorities, and by age 13 a social worker was assigned to me. By 15, I served a very brief stint in a maximum security juvenile facility. And for the next decade, I was in and out of jail for various reasons, finally serving time on drug charges in a South Korean prison before being deported. It was that last stint when I began to again seek Jesus—or, rather, found Jesus in the jail cell with me.
The U.S. attorney general has ordered the first federal executions in decades.
Compared to all the countries in the world, the United States has the highest percentage of its population in prison. More than Russia, more than Iran and more than China (three countries the United States consistently targets as abusers of human rights). The United States currently imprisons 0.65 percent of its population. That’s a lot of people. (Source: International Centre for Prison Studies)
Are Americans just more prone to criminal behavior than people in other countries? Or perhaps the privatization of U.S. prisons and their lobby groups in D.C. have something to do with the mass incarceration.
Add race to the equation, and the system is seen as utterly corrupt and broken. According to Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi:
“If Black people make up 13.2% of the US population, then Black people should make up somewhere close to 13 % of the Americans killed by the police, somewhere close to 13% of the Americans sitting in prisons, somewhere close to owning 13% of U.S. wealth. But today, the United States remains nowhere close to racial parity. African Americans own 2.7% of the nation’s wealth, and make up 40% of the incarcerated population.” (page 1, Kendi)
As a pastor and theologian, I wonder where we might find Jesus in the complexities of the U.S. prison system? Surveying the Christian Scriptures we see that Jesus consistently identifies with the criminal and imprisoned. In Luke 4, when Jesus lays out his ministry, he says:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And again Jesus clearly states with whom he has chosen to identify (Matthew 25:31-46): “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.” Later in this passage, Jesus frames this saying in the negative: “I was in prison and you did not visit me.”
We are confronted with the stark reality that we must choose a side. Do we side with Jesus and the imprisoned, or the self-righteous and those who prefer punishment over mercy and the possibility of transformation?
Jurgen Motlmann’s book The Crucified God begins to give language to the public execution of Jesus of Nazareth. This term awakens us to the brutality of Christ’s suffering and death, and particularly how Christ’s teaching and experiences relate to those currently incarcerated in the prison system. Not only do we, followers of Jesus Christ, worship a crucified God, we also worship the incarcerated God, and the God who suffered a state-sanctioned, legal, execution.
Several years ago I was part of a prayer vigil outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center on Varick Street in Manhattan. As we prayed, Alexie Torres-Fleming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, prayed these words: “Jesus, you said that we would visit you in prison. We are here, O Lord!”
We need to ask ourselves: If God sides with the criminal and imprisoned, shouldn’t those of us who follow the way of Jesus also be deeply concerned with those in prison, as well as the prison and criminal justice system? Shouldn’t we too be visiting Jesus behind bars, and working to transform the prison system, and put an end to state-sanctioned executions? Shouldn’t we be standing with Christ, who promises life, rather than in the crowd clamoring, “Execute him! Execute him!” (Luke 23:21)?
Jason Storbakken is pastor at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, and author of Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, Revolution (Orbis) and the forthcoming Bowery Mission: Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street (Plough).