justice system

What Are We Willing to Do?

modera761101 / Shutterstock.com

modera761101 / Shutterstock.com

When we discuss the gospel of Jesus Christ, we realize that it is a revolutionary message asking us to love our enemies, to do good to those who curse us, and even harder, to turn the other cheek. The gospel is going beyond that. It is asking us to receive, stand, advocate for the poor, incarcerated, and those living in the margins who have been pushed out by the institutions of our society. Jesus took many risks at times during his ministry, and when he started turning over tables and exposing the priests’ racket of selling sacrifices, it did not work out so well for him.

I’m not asking people to go and get themselves killed, but just ask yourself, “How much of the gospel am I willing to perform?”

Racial Reconciliation Demands Christians Reconsider the Death Penalty

Photo via California Department of Corrections / RNS

San Quentin death chamber. Photo via California Department of Corrections / RNS

A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative documents in horrific detail the nation’s widespread practice of lynching and points to a link between lynching and a practice that persists today: capital punishment.

In the Jim Crow South, lynching declined as officials turned to executions as an alternative method for killing blacks in disproportionate numbers.

This report challenges us to confront our nation’s legacy of racial violence. Sadly, too many Christians were complicit in this violence, which has prompted Christian denominations to apologize and emphasize racial reconciliation. Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention held a two-day race summit in which it urged pastors to do more to diversify their churches.

These are important steps.

But they only mark time if important actions don’t follow.

Possibility of Escape

'Freedom beyond the window,' Giggietto / Shutterstock.com

'Freedom beyond the window,' Giggietto / Shutterstock.com

That is also us, the possibility of us, if the wonderful accident of our birth had taken place elsewhere: you could be the refugee, I could be the torturer. To face that truth is also our burden. After all, each of us has been the bystander, the reasonable person who just happens not to hear, not to speak, not to see those people, the invisible ones, those who live on the other side of the border. - Karen Connelly, The Lizard Cage

It was a little over two weeks ago that Marlo entered Atwood Hall here in Lexington federal prison. Nearly all the women here are nonviolent offenders. When I first saw Marlo, her eyes seemed glued to the tiled floors as she shuffled along hallways. I guessed her age to be 25 or so. A few days later, she came to a choir rehearsal. She was still shy, but she looked up and offered a quiet smile when she joined the soprano section. The next time our choir gathered, Marlo raised her hand before we ended our rehearsal. "I got something to say," she said, as she stood. "When I first came here, I can tell all of you now, I was terrified. Just plain terrified. I have 70 months, and I felt so scared." The intake process for this, her introduction to the prison system, had badly frightened her, but before sundown that same day, a second intake process had occurred, with several inmates finding her, reassuring her, and getting her beyond that first panic.

During my four stints in U.S. federal prisons, I've witnessed long-term inmates' unconquerably humane response when a newcomer arrives. An unscripted choreography occurs, and the new prisoner finds that other women will help her through the trauma of adjustment to being locked up for many months or years. Halfway through a 3-month sentence myself, I'm saddened to realize that I'll very likely adapt to an outside world for which these women, and prisoners throughout the U.S. prison system, are often completely invisible.

Traffic Cameras, Domestic Drones, and Mandatory Sentencing

Rendering of a small police drone, Glenn Price / Shutterstock.com

Rendering of a small police drone, Glenn Price / Shutterstock.com

At first I had no problem with domestic drones joining the plethora of surveillance cameras to “keep us safe.”

Big Brother — keeping his eye on me from above in stores, in traffic and everywhere else — would find my personal reality show boring. As a pastor, I’m used to living in a fishbowl. Besides, as John Calvin said, if you fear the eye of a human more than the eye of God, you have spiritual issues to address.

But then, there may be another problem with increased surveillance and flooding our nation’s skies with drones. Let’s take traffic cameras as an example.

What If It’s Not the Prisoner Who Needs Forgiveness?

Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor

Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor

We started making our new documentary “Redemption of the Prosecutor” for the same reason we always do: someone told us a story.

Bill Mefford works in the social justice office of the United Methodist Church, and he called us last August to say he’d just seen an amazing talk. The talker was one Preston Shipp, a devout Christian and former prosecutor from Nashville who went into a local prison to teach. When Preston heard the inmates’ stories, he began to realize how unjust the system was. He was especially torn up about an inmate named Cyntoia, who was Preston’s star student and had received a life sentence as a juvenile. Preston underwent a spiritual crisis that boiled down to a fundamental question: “How can I reconcile the job I was being asked to do as a prosecutor with my faith in Jesus, who proclaimed release for prisoners?” We won’t give away the ending, but there’s a surprising twist that left us saying this is a story that needs to be told in churches across America.

An Incarceration of Silence

Hands behind bars, Dan Bannister / Shutterstock.com

Hands behind bars, Dan Bannister / Shutterstock.com

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; one third of those incarcerated are serving long-term sentences for petty, non-violent crimes. One out of three African-American men will serve some sort of time under present law enforcement practices and the current criminal justice system. In Washington, D.C., that number jumps to an estimated three out of four. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

More than 50 people gathered at Emmanuel Church of God in Christ in southeast Washington, D.C., on Sunday afternoon to hear the Rev. Louis Hutchinson remind them of these facts. Rev. Donnell Smith called the trend: “legalized discrimination.”

Q Conference: Restoring the Justice System

Photo via Wiki Commons (http://bit.ly/IqqTaf)

Bryan Stevenson delivering a TED talk in California last month. Photo via Wiki Commons (http://bit.ly/IqqTaf)

 

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 23 million behind bars. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, speaking from the Q Conference on Wedensday, said this high rate is inextricably tied to poverty, age, mental illness and race.

“In this country, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice,” said Stevenson, a law professor at the New York University school of Law. “If we’re going to be concerned about ending poverty, we must be concerned about justice.”

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