Last week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America witnessed many significant moments in its churchwide assembly held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The delegates of this assembly elected its first female presiding bishop, who will be the spiritual shepherd of 4 million Lutherans (ELCA) Notwithstanding to this; the highlight of the assembly was our overwhelming endorsement of the social statement concerning criminal justice.
Although, the journey for this affirmation has been quite long, we believe that Christ gives us the resources to handle those who are incarcerated in the "prisons" of life mentally, physically and spiritually. It bears repeating: The church does not have a mission. It is God's mission in the world that has (or has not) a church. Mission is what God does. God is already active in the world. God will not be without a witness. The gospel is at work in the world today. The job of the church is first of all not to put forward God and the gospel but to discover and recognize the work of God and the gospel that is already going on in the world.
To achieve this, we affirm the model of accompaniment in our recent social statement that guides our mission focus. We believe that the systemic realities of racism has been a contributing factor for so many non-Anglo persons being incarcerated, harassed by law enforcement and given inhumane treatment within institutional facilities. We as leaders of our church believe that relying on the criminal justice system as it stands is not enough but we have a responsibility in standing up to the system of powers that give rise to injustice. I believe that we can be advocates of our new found social statement by continuing our faith in two biblical examples of prison positions. This will give us solidarity to those who are locked up as caged animals because of the association of being "guilty".
The first prison position is that of the weeping prophet Jeremiah kneeling in the mire (Jeremiah 37-38).
Jeremiah was "thrown" into this prison, into a mire pit, dug out of limestone rock and consisting of a narrow neck perhaps three feet across and three or four feet in depth opening to a larger underground cavernous vault. Jeremiah had no space either to rise up or to stand or to sit down or to lie down. All he could do was kneel. It was impossible to climb out.
This filthy, dark pit of a prison had no water in it (if the cistern had not been empty, Jeremiah would have drowned). There was only mud, muck and mire everywhere into which Jeremiah sank and would not have survived long. It was an Ethiopian (Cushite) named Ebed-melech, a black palace servant, who begged the king to save Jeremiah from dying in that mud of suffocation, exposure or starvation. Later, this Ethiopian's life was spared because of his kindness to Jeremiah (39:15-18).
Jeremiah's prison position is in the posture of prayer, of kneeling in the mire. We are called to keep this posture of reflection as we make this social statement a living document of social change.
The second prison position is demonstrated by Peter sleeping between the soldiers (Acts 12:1-19). In this masterful story, Peter was put in jail by Herod, who killed James, the brother of John and Peter's own brother-apostle. Herod wanted to wait to kill Peter until after the festal period of the seven days of "unleavened bread" was over. So he locked Peter in prison and secured him by an around-the-clock, 16-man guard, four guards at a time, two at his cell door, two handcuffed to either side of him.
What is amazing is how relaxed Peter remained. He was within hours of death. Yet how did he spend his last night on earth? He luxuriated in the providence and goodness of God and the prayers of the community. He just went to sleep, the sleep of confidence and trust in God, and would have slept through his last night on earth had not a messenger of God, the angel, awakened him.
How could Peter have slept so soundly? Peter realized that we are never alone in Christ. Rather, we are always together in Christ. Prayer was being made at the church for Peter without ceasing. Even though Peter was asleep between two soldiers, bound by two chains on his feet, he was nevertheless awake to the Spirit. Paul had a community praying for him, a community that was "stretching forth" its hands unto God in prayer for him. Many battles of our everyday life are won or lost on the praying fields of the church. Peter rested in the knowledge and awareness that the effectual fervent prayer of righteous people "availeth much". This social statement will allow leaders of our great church to take an active role in dismantling the chains of oppression through being clergy and lay-jurist that are privy to the stream of injustices in the law by addressing the needs of those incarcerated in their spiritual quest for wholeness.
As leaders we must take these two prison positions in knowing the prisons destroy and prevent spiritual growth; prisons destroy the sense of selfhood through endless regimentation; and symbolic, repressive violence; for example , the "club carrying" of prison officials. Justice includes; injustice excludes.
Legal justice cannot be given only to those who have passed the bar in a given state but to the whole community in fighting the pervasive issues of an unjust criminal justice system. That's why I am so excited for our church the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to adopt the communal biblical view of justice as found in these two examples of a new position requiring all of us to bring harmony to the community through the establishment of right relationships that was made possible by the sole work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Christ that made justice possible in all its forms.
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