The first public speech of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, an adaptation of Isaiah 61:1-2, declares his calling to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners.”
In one of his final public speeches in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself with, among other groups, people in prison – “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
While each gospel frames its narrative in a unique way, when reading both together, there is a sense in which Jesus’ ministry begins and ends with a call to minister to people who are incarcerated.
Both texts were cited by interviewees in “Through the Door,” EthicsDaily.com’s 2014 documentary on faith and prisons, as a basis for their ministries to people during incarceration and upon release.
I asked several Christian leaders to share a few biblical texts and an explanation of how they could be used in sermons and midweek Bible studies.
My hope is that this will encourage congregational leaders to preach and teach about the biblical basis for ministry to people who are in jail or prison and for pursuing a truly just criminal justice system.
Genesis 1:27, Micah 6:8 and Galatians 3:28 were suggested by Guy Sayles, a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and an EthicsDaily.com board member.
Genesis reminds us that “each human being bears an ineradicable reflection of God’s image and, for that reason alone, has surpassing worth and dignity,” Sayles said. “Clear-eyed realism about wrongs people commit must be paired with vision magnified by love.”
“The challenge of seeking justice and showing mercy transcends but includes the arenas of criminal justice,” he wrote regarding Micah 6:8’s connection to criminal justice. “In that context, showing mercy involves, at the least, an exploration of possibilities for ‘offenders’ to experience meaningful rehabilitation, to make meaningful efforts, when feasible and workable, toward restoration, and to have the opportunity, where possible, to society and to begin life anew.”
Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:28 demands that “we must face the truth that such distinctions are far too powerful in our culture and that our biases about such distinctions misshape U.S. justice systems,” Sayles said. “Poor people and young black males are victims of caricatures and prejudices, which make it far more likely that they will be arrested, charged, tried and incarcerated.”
He suggested Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” article and Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” for further reflection.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim, an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, cited Deuteronomy 31:8 and Luke 4:18.
“Some of the inmates are wrongly convicted with no one to come to their assistance. In such harsh realities, we need to support the wrongly convicted and help them secure their freedom,” she said. “As Christians, we are called to bring hope and peace of mind and heart to those who are in prison, as Jesus came to set the captives free.”
Kim lamented that “in the U.S. justice system, blacks are incarcerated five times more than whites. The statistics show that blacks and Hispanics are 32 percent of the U.S. population but comprise 56 percent of the incarcerated population.”
Larry Eubanks, pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland, suggested Romans 13 (and surrounding texts), along with the Hebrew prophets, as relevant texts.
“As a general statement you can say that the Bible is more concerned with what is just rather than merely legal,” he said, noting that Paul’s Romans 13 statement about respecting authorities is surrounded by texts that touch on legality versus justice.
“Immediately following these verses in Romans 13, Paul brings up the Ten Commandments,” Eubanks notes. “The command about bearing false witness deserves greater scrutiny. This isn’t merely about lying; it is about lying in a legal setting. It isn’t even about perjury per se or lying to avoid conviction. It’s about corruption in high places, using the legal system to rob someone of their life, their liberty and/or their possessions, but to do it ‘legally.’ If the rich and powerful make the laws – and they do – then it’s to be expected that they would make legal the things that further enrich and empower them. It’s legal, but it’s not just.”
He continued, “Immediately before Romans 13, Paul tells the believers to live in harmony with one another, to not repay evil with evil, and to forsake vengeance. This is part of a larger biblical theme against retributive justice. It’s not just that revenge is ultimately unsatisfying, whether personal or legal; it’s that it makes the problem worse.”
The sheep and goats are separated, Jesus reveals in Matthew 25, based on ministry to the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and sick, and the imprisoned.
How often are we preaching and teaching on these matters in light of such a weighty proclamation?
And, more important, how often are we translating our biblical knowledge into action by seeking a truly just criminal justice system and engaging in tangible ministries to the incarcerated?
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on criminal justice. Previous articles are:
The Keys to an Effective, Impactful Prison Ministry by Chris Smith
3 Things Your Church Needs to Know About Prison Ministry by Travis Collins
A Different Lens: Seeking Biblical Ethic on Incarceration by Colin Harris