Topics Christians Should Discuss: Mass Incarceration (Part 2)

January 25, 2023

If you missed it, begin with Part 1 of this two-part essay in our ongoing series “Topics Christians Should Discuss.”

In applying our Reformed faith to the crisis of mass incarceration, we can appeal to five main principles to direct our action.

Unwavering Worth of Human Life: 

God created humanity in his image, and we are contingent upon him for our very breath.1 Therefore, as God gives life, so it is his responsibility to take.2 Understanding that human life is a gift of God and an expression of himself, we are not content to simply “not kill,” but we strive to protect and enrich every life around us.3

This principle gives meaning to Christians’ concern for mass incarceration. However, when dealing with offenders, especially those convicted of violent or perverted crimes, it becomes difficult to view the humans in question as image-bearers. Defendants and prisoners often have families, homes, spiritual beliefs, and reflections of all the things that we ourselves hold dear. Recognizing that God is their creator and judge, our hopes for their lives should be what we hope for our own: reunification and mended relationships with family, smooth return into careers and neighborhoods, and spiritual healing and support.

“Recognizing that God is their creator and judge, our hopes for their lives should be what we hope for our own…”

This conviction should lead the church to view incarceration not as a venue for retribution, but rehabilitation and restoration.4 Justice and shalom form the biblical framework for prizing each human life. Justice makes believers restless at the corrupt realities of crime and the prison system, and shalom is the wholeness we desire for all implicated. This goal of restored life motivated by intrinsic human worth frames the application of the following four principles. 

Care for the Vulnerable and Freedom for the Oppressed:

Human lives adversely affected by imbalances of power demand more of our effort to flourish. Whether these imbalances are caused by systematic problems or individual circumstance, God declares that our actions to eradicate inequality indicate our devotion to him.5

Mass incarceration preys upon vulnerable persons both in form and direction. United States prisons grew immediately after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, intensifying penal labor and thereby forcing African Americans into a second slavery.6 Our response to mass incarceration should therefore be informed by revulsion to chattel slavery, and we should consider our work to be urgent steps toward liberation. 

“Human lives adversely affected by imbalances of power demand more of our effort to flourish.”

We must also be aware of practices preying upon persons before conviction. While mourning the impacts of brutal policing in impoverished, often ethnic minority neighborhoods, we should not push for police absence, but rather “accountable and effective policing.”7 Financially accessible legal aid for defendants is also in short supply, with 80% of defendants too poor to seek sound counsel.8 Such lacks make countless vulnerable to coercion, leading many to plead guilty to inaccurate charges for fear of receiving a longer sentence. Christians must champion policies that ensure defendants are informed of all accompanying effects of felony conviction, giving them agency and knowledge to advocate for their needs in their charged situation.9

Admiration and Cultivation of Beauty:

God has “set beauty in our hearts,” so habitually pausing before beauty positions us in submissive reverence to him, reminding us what it means to be human.10 We can also bear the image of God the creator by cultivating beauty, imagining and making with deference to his just design.

The atrocity of mass incarceration is the freedom that it denies millions of individuals, freedom to live healed lives filled with beauty. Retributive prison systems are adverse conditions to remedying addictions and mental concerns.11 Regularly, prisoners exit with intensified mental health issues from inadequate living conditions, unethical punishment or labor, and abuse from prison guards or fellow prisoners. Convicts cannot be expected to “change their ways” and smoothly re-enter society under such circumstances.

Further, it is incredibly difficult for former prisoners to create sounds lives after release. Well-paying jobs are rarely granted to recorded convicts, and welfare benefits are often withheld on the grounds of drug charges. Nearly all states ban felons from voting, thereby withholding from many the chance to invest in society.12 While advocating for revisions in policy, Christians can also operate on a smaller scale, partnering with prisoners upon release through non-profits. Being in—if even a solitary—connection for an individual can support them into a creative, valuable, whole life.

Power to Truth and Truth to Power:

Truth is essential to God’s character and is the foundation of trustworthy relationships in the body of Christ.13 If we love the truth, we will graciously insist that those with influence in our society recognize the weight of their words.14 Exploitation cannot dwell where truth reigns.

Perpetuating through the church is the lie that criminal infractions deserve identically unforgiving responses from the church and the state, as Christians are given the state as a weapon to wield God’s judgment. The church’s task in truth-telling “to” mass incarceration is to undo the this lie of meritocracy, the assertion that we are superior to our neighbor because of our legal standing. While engaging in the political realm as earlier stated, the church must recognize that seeking shalom is inherently different than enacting divine punishment. Shalom involves rewriting narratives that cement racial prejudice and financial idolatry. It includes refuting assumptions that criminals are subhuman, hell-bound, or could “never be like us.”

“Exploitation cannot dwell where truth reigns.”

Speaking truth to power is an axiom to apply both to governmental leaders with and prominent Christian voices. These critiques take different shapes, but they imagine the same just reality. Governmental leaders must be pressured to abolish private prison ties, while Christian leaders must be forced to confront the damage the church has caused by remaining silent.

Communal Responsibility:

By simply being present, our neighbors earn our respect; we draw from the ever-flowing stream of Christ’s grace to be gracious to our neighbors. However, we cannot simply view others as recipients of our benevolence. Christ’s body is formed of equally crucial parts, and we “love our neighbors as ourselves”15 by allowing them to use their gifts.16

Undoing mass incarceration must be done both by and for communities. Victims and perpetrators need support structures—to seek justice on behalf of the former and ensure that the rights of the latter are not denied in the process, to mediate between parties, to recognize that crime and imprisonment shatters relationships and societal rules. Citizens on the upper hand of a power imbalance, namely the wealthy and/or white, must speak on behalf of minorities and financially vulnerable populations whom the legal system preys upon. However, what the crisis ultimately needs is balanced power, for national policies and postures to be shifted that minority communities have their own voices be heard, steering the discourse to suit their experience.

All targets articulated beside these five principles contribute to healthy relations between races, classes, and from law enforcement to citizens. Lessening the flow of persons, especially Black males, into prisons and assisting in the transition out of systems has healing power for the family unites that these men belong to, undoing one step in the vicious cycle of crime, conviction, and communal destruction.

While mass incarceration in the United States is built into the modern fabric of the nation and has consequently affected several generations and millions of individuals, the church can have hope that we are not without tools to approach this crisis. Through these Reformed principles, we remember that our faith has direct bearing on our interaction with the world, especially at its ugliest. While our ethics may have different political or social manifestations than those of other Christians, we are encouraged that we view the same person of Jesus, and that our actions may collectively point to him. Emboldened by this knowledge, it is time for us to make some righteous and just noise.

What do we talk about? In Christian circles, some topics receive little attention or thoughtful conversation because of difficult subject matter. We hope this iAt series “Topics Christians Should Discuss” provides meaningful content for you to ponder, and we encourage you to begin or continue hearty conversations as a result of what you read. Leave a comment if there is a topic you’d like us to address.

Dig Deeper:

For Further Reading

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. UK: Penguin Books, 2020.

Anderson, Lucas. “Kicking the National Habit: The Legal and Policy Arguments for Abolishing Private Prison Contracts.” Public Contract Law Journal 39, no. 1 (2009): 113–39.

 Crutchfield, Robert D., and Gregory A. Weeks. “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 1 (2015): 46–51.

Gilliard, Dominique Dubois. Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores. Westmont, IL: Ivp Books, 2018. 

Lee, Hak Joon, Tim Dearborn, Mark Labberton, and Joshua Beckett. Essay. In Discerning Ethics: Diverse Christian Responses to Divisive Moral Issues, 218–38. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020. 

Marshall, Christopher D. Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 

Sanders, Bernie. “Abolish For-Profit Prisons.” Edited by Inimai Chettiar, Priya Raghavan, and Adureh Onyekwere. Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders. Brennan Center for Justice, 2019.

Smedes, Lewis B. Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: William B, Eerdmans Pub., 1996. 

Wagner, Peter, and Daniel Kopf. “The Racial Geography of Mass Incarceration.” Prison Policy Initiative, 2015.

About the Author

  1. Genesis 6:9  

  2. Psalm 104: 29  

  3. Exodus 20:13  

  4. Joshua Beckett et. al, “Mass Incarceration,” Discerning Ethics: Diverse Christian Responses to Divisive Moral Issues, (Downers IVP Academic, 2020), 236.  

  5. Amos 5:21-24, 2 Peter 3:13.  

  6.  Bernie Sanders, “Abolish For-Profit Prisons,” 4.  

  7. Robert D. Crutchfield, and Gregory A. Weeks, “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color,” Issues in Science and Technology, 47.  

  8. Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 85.  

  9. Crutchfield, and Weeks, “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color,” 50.  

  10. Psalm 33:8  

  11. Crutchfield, and Weeks, “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color,” 48.  

  12. Crutchfield, and Weeks, “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color,” 50-51.  

  13. Titus 1:2  

  14. Ephesians 4:25  

  15. Galatians 6:2  

  16. 1 Peter 4:10  

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