Jail and Jesus

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY (September 8, 2009)

Jesus for President!” So proclaims a progressive Christian movement aiming to tweak the national conscience. Recent trend lines in the country suggest an even more provocative tagline for our consideration: “Jesus for Parole.”

That’s right. Jesus is imprisoned — at least in the view of an increasingly vocal set of Christians spurred into action by some deeply troubling truths about America and our bursting-at-the-seams prison system.

The concern seems as well placed as it is challenging. The United States has crossed, for the first time, a dismal threshold: One out of every 100 American adults is in prison, according to the Pew Center on the States. Five states have reached the point where they are spending as much or more on corrections than they do on higher education systems. To place it all in perspective, consider that America has approximately 5% of the world population but about 25% of the world’s prison population.

The fact that violent crime, according to the Justice Department, has dropped over the same three decades of surging prison-population growth poses a complex tangle: Is less crime the product of get-tough enforcement and sentencing, or are we just incarcerating more low-level offenders who don’t need to be in prison? Probably some of both. But whatever the case, the situation is enough to chew on the conscience of any follower of a religion that emphasizes compassion and redemption. Multitudes of Americans are languishing in prison — and it’s all suggestive of something deeper afflicting the soul of the nation.

Given Christian teachings and the enormity of the problem, it’s no surprise to find many in the Christian community reaching out to prisoners, including high-profile figures such as Super Bowl-winning football coach Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Watergate conspirator Charles Colson and his well-known Prison Fellowship.

But as heartening as these and many similar examples might be, one has to ask: Will the nation’s faithful take their compassion for prisoners far enough to fully address the factors that cause so many released prisoners to end up back in jail? Will they dare take their cause deep enough to effect the kind of change that can help keep people from becoming prisoners in the first place?

They’re Jesus
Andrew Skotnicki
is a former Catholic priest and ex-prison chaplain with a challenging proposition for the nation’s religious believers: Those 2 million men and women in America’s prisons? They’re Jesus, he says.

Skotnicki, author of the book Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church, is not suggesting that convicts are all misunderstood angels who should be let loose. He sees great value in penitence — the process of transgressors’ removal from society followed by reflection, reform and acceptance back into the community. But our prison system falls appallingly short of that ideal, he believes.

Now a religious studies professor at Manhattan College in New York, Skotnicki notes the many ways the Bible elevates the plight of prisoners: Jesus was a prisoner before his execution. The apostle Paul was a prisoner, too, as was John the Baptist and St. Peter. Many of the church’s early saints spent their time caring for prisoners and working for the release of those unjustly incarcerated.

“The Scripture’s pretty clear,” Skotnicki says. “There’s a real affinity for the imprisoned. God hears the cries of the imprisoned throughout the Scriptures. Whether the prisoners in question are in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, whether they’re mass murderers, sex offenders — whoever — Jesus says that when you visit a prisoner, ‘you visit me.’ ”

Commendably, more moderate and progressive Christians are calling attention to larger social problems that contribute to the USA having the world’s largest prison population. Any short list of those factors has to include the gaping educational disparities that handicap Americans who choose their parents poorly. Related to that are poverty and its contributions to crime, and get-tough sentencing guidelines that lock up many who don’t need to be in prison and that tend to land hardest on minorities.

Some, such as conservative columnist George Will, dismiss talk about larger social forces as liberal nonsense. In emphasizing personal responsibility in this and other policy conversations, conservatives are at least partially right. Whatever the circumstances, committing crime always involves a choice.

Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, also washes his hands of the deeper social problems underneath our burgeoning prison population. Let’s be clear: Much credit is due to Colson and the estimated 40,000 volunteers who have taken part in his organization’s Christian ministry operation in prisons in this and 100 other countries. Colson, who served seven months in prison after Watergate, models redemption and service in compelling ways. Praiseworthy, too, is the way he and Prison Fellowship have addressed poor prison conditions and certain inadequacies in our society’s approach to criminal justice. Yet their failure to address more structural causes comes through loudly in what they say, and don’t say, about the big picture.

The need for deep solutions
In a 50-page report on crime and punishment published earlier this year, Prison Fellowship makes no mention of poverty or race as factors in the creation of criminals. Colson did bring up poverty in an online newspaper column last year, but only, seemingly, to absolve Christians of responsibility for working toward deep solutions. Christian volunteering to help the poor and downtrodden is different, he wrote, “than believing that the world’s biggest social problems — poverty, disease, homelessness — can be cured by well-intentioned religious believers. That is the sort of utopian dreaming that constantly gets social planners in trouble.”

Progressive Christian leaders such as Jim Wallis show what can be undertaken by believers moved by social injustices. Raising a prophetic voice, engaging in acts of moral suasion, calling people to conscience — surely these are not beyond the capabilities of committed Christians, whatever their political persuasion.

As the Unitarian-Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell writes on her blog, mainstream Christians often get fidgety when the talk turns from individual behavior and salvation and toward systemic injustices. As Sewell writes, “Churches are made of mostly pretty comfortable middle-class people, people who want to ‘help the poor’ but who don’t want to take a hard look at their own privilege” — or change our society to be more generous to those in need.

Is the world’s No. 1 “Christian nation” ready to acknowledge the humanity of prisoners and follow the courses of action that might logically follow — including work on those aspects of “the system” that have contributed to America becoming the world leader in incarcerations?

If not, count on prison ministry remaining a very active front. Because the nation’s believers are going to have a lot of Jesuses to visit behind those prison gates.

Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He is working on a book about Christianity in professional sports.