Jesus' moral agenda is summarized in Luke 4:18-19.
"We're going backward, not forward" in terms of the prison issue in the United States, former President Jimmy Carter told EthicsDaily.com. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
Unfortunately, U.S. Christians in general and Baptists in particular have neglected it, especially the part about prisoners.
That was the observation of former President Jimmy Carter in a video interview with EthicsDaily.com last week at the Carter Center.
"I don't think there is any doubt but that Luke 4:18-19 describes Jesus' moral agenda," said Carter. "That part of Luke best encapsulates in a very brief way the entire thrust of Jesus' ministry."
"I think of all the several facets describing Jesus in Luke 4 about his own moral agenda, the one we have neglected most, and violated most, is the release of the captives, that is prisoners," he said. "We're going backward, not forward" in terms of the prison issue in the United States.
He lamented the nation's "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" approach to punishment.
"Unfortunately, led by some Christian leaders, our country has gone from a basic philosophy of rehabilitation of a prisoner to a punishment only – and the more severe and extended the punishment," the better it is, he said.
"And this has resulted in the massive increase in America exclusively of the number of people serving prison sentences," said Carter.
Writing in a June 2011 opinion editorial in the New York Times, Carter noted the massive increase in the number of Americans incarcerated.
"At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million," wrote Carter. "There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole – more than 3 percent of all American adults."
Not only is a larger percentage of U.S. adults in prison, but the recidivism rate is sky high and prisons are busting state budgets.
The Pew Center on the States reported last year that 43.4 percent of released prisoners returned to prison within three years.
In "State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons," Pew said: "Total state spending on corrections is now about $52 billion, the bulk of which is spent on prisons. State spending on corrections quadrupled during the past two decades, making it the second fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid."
Seeing both the biblical imperative to care for the prisoner and the broken nature of the criminal justice system, Carter also sees a convergence of commitment around the issue among Baptists involved in the New Baptist Covenant (NBC) movement.
The NBC initiative brought together some 15,000 racially and ethnically diverse Baptists in early 2008 around the Luke 4 passage to seek reconciliation and to advance the common good. Subsequent NBC meetings were held around the country in 2009 and 2011.
At an April planning meeting for the 2014 NBC gathering, EthicsDaily.com proposed producing a documentary on what goodwill Baptists were doing on the prison ministry and prison reform fronts. Carter and other planners expressed strong support for the documentary and commitment to a central programming focus on restorative justice.
EthicsDaily.com interviewed Carter for its forthcoming documentary.
"I think one of the things the New Baptist Covenant can do – and any other Christian, who thinks about the teachings of Christ – is to reduce the punishment and emphasize the rehabilitation and forgiveness and love that we need to extend to people in prison," said Carter.
"When the black Baptist leaders speak out and say what do Baptists need to do, the main issue they have brought out is we need to do something about the abuse of people in prison who happen to be African-American or other minorities or mentally ill," he said.
"They have convinced me at least that this is maybe the most vivid remaining demonstration or essence of racism," said Carter, who observed that a disproportionate number of those who are incarcerated are poor African-Americans.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.