Knock, Knock: Revisiting America's Moral Conscience

"I'm convinced," said Martin Luther King Jr., "that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-centered' society."

Dr. King, like many other leaders throughout history who strove to affect change, had the daunting task of appealing to the moral conscience of society. Ensuring that the moral arc of the universe continues to bend toward justice is now the responsibility of this generation, for "the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality." Albeit, the complexity of the issue has seemed to grow, the fundamental adjuration is still to recognize and respect the humanity of one another. As a nation we are still making strides toward not judging by the color of one's skin, but by the content of one's character.

Racism, America's original sin for which she has yet to repent, began as an evil ideology, but has now blossomed into an even more sinister institution still controlling the minds and the hearts and the bodies of millions. The embodiment of this is now most noticeable in the prison system. It has been called, "the new Jim Crow" — the disproportionate mass incarceration of Black and brown people in this country. 

Americans make up about five percent of the world population while twenty-five percent of the world's inmates have been incarcerated here. The rate of recidivism is so high in the United States that most inmates who enter the system are likely to reenter within a year of their release. Despite what the general population might believe, the expanding prison population in the U.S. is not a symptom of increasing crime rates. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, crime rates in the United States peaked between the 1970s and early 1990s, but have steadily declined since with rates approximately the same as the 1960s. Crime rates have decreased while incarceration rates have increased. There are many more statistics I could quote here, but the bottom line is this is simply unacceptable and must change immediately. In his book, The Fall of the Prison, author Lee Griffith writes, "Prisons are self-defeating because they foster the very behaviour they purport to control. They generate the hatred and hostility they claim to correct."

As Christians, we must be at the forefront of the movement to end mass incarceration and to abolish prisons not just because of what the Bible says about justice, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration, but also because of what it says about prisons and prisoners and our responsibilities toward them. 

"Scripture records some of the worst crimes and most heinous violence the world has ever known. But nowhere in scripture do we find a divine endorsement of prisons," writes Mark Olson. Hebrews 13:3 states, "Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." Here the word remember is loaded. We are called to do more than merely think about those in prison. We are called to care for them and share in their suffering.

If we are to care for those who are incarcerated and for those targeted by the prison-industrial complex then we must also critique "society's increasing reliance on prison as a strategy for social control," says Dr. Christopher Marshall of Tyndale Graduate School of Theology in Auckland, New Zealand. He goes on to say, "Even if we cannot subscribe to a complete prison abolitionist agenda, the direction of biblical teaching, and the logic of God's self-revelation as the One who sets prisoners free (Psalm 102:19-20), should surely drive all Christians to stand against every attempt to expand the prison system." We must fight to move beyond retribution to restoration and healing as the latter is more in tune with biblical justice. 

As Christians and as a society we have been quick to forget and cast aside those incarcerated. We demonize and often look down upon anyone who has served time. We act as if major figures in the Bible, that we now study and love, were not guilty of violent crimes. Where would we be as a faith group if they had not received God's(and society's) grace, mercy, and forgiveness? How can we get people to see the humanity in those who are so vilified? Not everyone in jail or prison is a murderer, rapist, or kingpin drug dealer. How can we appeal to the moral conscience of fellow Christians to garner support for this movement? What would it look like if the outward expression of justice, mercy, forgiveness, peace, hope, and love defined our walk as Christians? 
"I call on the young men [and women] of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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