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A Different Lens: Seeking Biblical Ethic on Incarceration

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Incarceration is, by definition, a problem because its reason for being is a response to behavior outside the legal norms of a society.

It is also an arena for many “problems within the problem” because of the challenges inherent in its application and management.

Studies show the clear and well-known correlation of such factors as poverty, educational deficiency, racial differences and general social dynamics with the demographics of prison populations.

Other studies demonstrate the influence of money, social status and political influence on the likelihood of a given offense resulting in prison time.

Consider these familiar observations:

  • In the U.S. context, we are told that with just under 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.
  • With some regularity, we hear of the release after many years of someone wrongly convicted of a crime.
  • The potential for abuse in this complex system of political and economic entities is clear. It is not a perfect system.

These realities face any effort to think through an ethical response to this feature of our common life, and there is clearly no quick and easy solution to the problem of dealing with the patterns of human behavior that make incarceration necessary.

Faith communities address the challenge on the basis of their particular theological understandings of life in community, and significant efforts are directed at every level of the problem – from individual ministry to advocacy on state and federal levels for policies that minimize abuse and protect the rights of persons who happen to be incarcerated.

Through the Door,” an EthicsDaily.com documentary, is an inspiring and resourceful portrait of a number of such efforts.

Seeking a biblical ethic to guide a faith perspective and response to incarceration leads us to an interesting evolution in the testimony’s response to human frailty and behaviors that violate accepted norms.

At the beginning of the covenant narrative, we see banishment from the garden for the offense of acting on a desire to know as God knows.

We see annihilation by a flood for the wickedness of the human race. We see a fire-and-brimstone shower on Sodom and Gomorrah for the breadth and depth of wickedness there.

The message is clear: “Do right or the punishment will be severe (says the Lord).”

Subsequent proscriptions, such as we find in the law codes of the Torah, temper the harshness of these ancient perspectives by adjusting the penalty to the crime in the direction of the “lex talionis” – an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

Some severe penalties remain, however, such as death for cursing or striking one’s parents (Exodus 20:15,17) and for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

The classical prophets’ passion for justice led them to numerous pronouncements of God’s judgment on the corruption, injustice and idolatry that pervaded the covenant community down to the time of the exile.

Incarceration did not seem to be a feature of the punishment that was dealt until the biblical journey approached the New Testament period, when the culture of Greece and the political structures of Rome became a part of the context.

We learn of the imprisonment of John the Baptizer for incurring the disfavor of Herod, and of Paul and his colleagues, charged with creating disturbances.

However, incarceration of the kind and magnitude that we experience is not reflected in the biblical testimony.

So, we must look through a slightly different lens to find a biblical perspective on incarceration.

As is often the case, “being biblical” here does not mean looking at what the Bible says and applying it to a given circumstance or feature of life.

Rather, it invites us to look at what the vector of the biblical testimony is pointing to (sometimes beyond itself) as a way of looking at life and its challenges.

The gospel accounts of the teaching of Jesus offer us a rather clear portrait of how the life of faith responds to those who have fallen prey to their own “lesser natures.”

Grace, forgiveness, second chances, encouragement to live according to what one might become rather than in terms of what one has been – these are the themes of the perspective of living under the mantle of the “Kingdom that is among you” (Luke 17:21)

The evolution that we see in the covenant testimony from a punitive to a redemptive perspective does not dismiss the reality of the destruction that can be rendered or the accountability for it that must be held.

Rather, it responds in terms of the possibilities that still await the person who has “missed the mark,” instead of keeping him or her in the shackles of the consequences of past mistakes.

An ethics of incarceration, then, would seem to include:

  • A belief in the possibility of every person to make better choices and to follow them.
  • A realistic but creative and hopeful perspective on the challenges of recovery from a less-than-wholesome past.
  • A willingness to “be present” to and with persons who are in need of encouraging companionship.
  • A courage to speak and work for systemic reforms to a system that is vulnerable to abuse and exploitation at the expense of the recovery of those in its charge.

Those who engage in prison ministry on any level provide an incarnation of these principles and become agents of the transformation of lives. May their tribe increase and continue to bear fruit.

For a continued reflection on the relation of theology and the ethics of incarceration, see this review of Dominique Dubois Gilliard’s “Rethinking Incarceration.”

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series focused on criminal justice.