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Christians and Mass Incarceration

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The United States leads the Western world in our reliance on incarceration. Slowly, there seems to be a growing awareness that we are spending billions, limiting freedoms, and creating racial disparities through an over-broad approach to imprisonment as the primary tool of criminal law. While incarcerating people may have the positive effect of incapacitating truly dangerous people (especially in relation to violent crimes), too often we lock up those who don't present a high level of danger to others. As states and the federal government consider moves to correct this imbalance, Christians should be leading the way.

It's not hard to trace the causes of this problem. First, we over-reacted to narcotics trafficking and incarcerated wide swaths of low-wage labor in that business -- workers who were easily replaced. This was a project that proved wasteful and pointless. Second, our society too often fosters a "lock them up and forget them" mentality towards those who have committed crimes, and this allows us to accept lengthy prison terms as normal. Little thought is given to what happens when a man or woman crosses the threshold into prison.

For Christians, this system violates the basic rule of compassion and balance that infuses the morality of the faith. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, in particular, bar any role for mercy. This result is utterly inconsistent with Jesus's teachings and actions, which emphasized mercy in our dealings with one another.

However, it is the second of these impulses that should be especially repugnant to Christians. In Matthew 25, Jesus issued one of his clearest directives: That when we visit those in prison, we visit him. It's a stunning and troubling mandate, given that it came without qualification -- an explanation that we are to visit the innocent in prison, or those who are particularly sympathetic. It is a clear countermand to our "lock them up and throw away the key" ethic.

Given the clarity of Christ's teachings, we should expect Christian groups to be in the forefront of those opposing mass incarceration (as some already are). One stumbling block may be the moralism which often goes with faith -- the instinct to draw bright lines. We don't see those bright lines, though, in the life of Jesus, who stopped an execution that was required by the law of Moses. He saved the adultress described in John 8 by challenging the moral right of those about to kill her: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." No one challenged bright lines like Jesus.

Finally, criminal law should be a key issue for Christians simply because of who Jesus was. Many of us believe that the events in Christ's life did not happen randomly; rather, his story was crafted to teach us what was eternally important. He was born into poverty, and each year we recreate that scene in our homes and remember how great things can come from the impoverished. Similarly, doesn't it matter that so much of what we know about Jesus is in his role as a criminal defendant? God intended him to be prosecuted, even executed, and that must mean that these things are important.

Criminal law in the United States rests unsteadily on the backs of the multitude of Christian legislators, prosecutors, judges, and academics. It is time to unsettle that realm, and the moral wrong at its heart.