You are looking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I should boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I shall not be put to shame, 2 Corinthians 10:7-8
We humans have a habit of assumption. We assume that the moral standards our parents and caregivers instilled and surrounded us with are solid. While they vary from household to household- what kind of work or benefit is acceptable and what is unacceptable, we are usually sure our teachings were right. When we fall short, we feel it-like the prodigal son and the moment he really felt his moral failings as measured by his work tending the pigs and choosing uncleanly work. Yet, there are assumptions of others we make that are universal: if you landed in jail, you were there because you made a wrong choice or broke a law. Rarely do we ask the deeper questions, such as “Does the punishment fit the crime?” or “Have we created a system that favors one group of people over another?” Even worse, have we considered that perhaps we have perpetuated a criminal justice system that is anything but just to the poor, the very people Christ calls us to protect and lift up?
A few months ago, two gentlemen from our town spoke at our Sunday School. They are ‘returning citizens,’ a term to denote their re-entry into society following incarceration. Both served time for drug possession and intent to distribute. Both have worked diligently to restructure and change their lives. They talked about their past and their present and then challenged us to learn more about a topic called Mass Incarceration.
Mass Incarceration is a term that defines this country’s extremely disproportionate number of prisoners that are people of color. Raised in poor neighborhoods, frequently convicted on drug charges, these non violent offenders receive astonishingly lengthy sentences and, once released, falter under the weight of court costs that, in left unpaid, will land them right back in jail. Compounding this situation is a society that is hesitant to hire an ex-offender, let alone rent one an apartment. Their white counterparts are offered rehabilitation programs, lighter sentences and are generally given the opportunity for a second chance at life, something rarely afforded to convicted criminals of color.
In my own lily white family, I have relatives that have been or are currently incarcerated. They arrived there by their own accord and choices. They were given opportunities for probation, which they inevitably violated. I am not painting those who break the law with one brush. I am, however, noting that we have a problem with race in this country and it has led us as an American penial system to incarcerate so many people that we spend more on prisons than education– and that speaks volumes about our values as a country.
We decided to learn more. We watched HBO’s documentary on mass incarceration, began a book study and we have invited our returning citizen friends back to discuss. This system we have is broken and we act as though that is acceptable because it doesn’t effect us. However, injustice to one is injustice for all, and Christ calls us to lift the oppressed and treat our brother as ourselves. According to Paul, authority is meant for building up, not tearing apart. Would you want your brother locked away for life for a minor offense? I challenge you to learn more, so that everyone has the opportunity to change their lives for the better.