General Synod Statements: Mass Incarceration

In 2014, the General Synod’s Commission on Christian Action (CCA) offered a report on mass incarceration in the United States, which concluded with the following:

Why is this issue important to the church? It’s important because it’s an issue of justice—an issue of human rights, public health, and racial and ethnic disparity. It’s important because it’s an economic issue that holds one class of people in a posture of “less than” and puts an immoral strain on the economics of this nation; it’s an issue of social management of human lives, and above all it’s an issue of compassion, forgiveness, and honoring the imago Dei in all of God’s human creation. It’s an issue of God’s love for all men and women, even the least among us.

We are instructed in Scripture to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Our criminal justice system and mass incarceration have proven to be unjust and unrighteous in their dealings against a class of people who live on the margin and are oppressed by society. As we read Scripture, we learn that Jesus took the side of the oppressed. Jesus ate with the oppressed, liberated the oppressed, and actually was oppressed himself, for in Scripture we encounter Jesus as the one who was criminalized and executed. And yet, as he hung dying for our sin, he found it in his heart to be merciful to each of us in his prayer of forgiveness to the Father on our behalf. It was his work of redemption that provided a way for eternal life for all.

Mass incarceration leaves little to no room for redemption. Life without parole screams out to us that a life so precious to the Lord Jesus Christ is considered so unworthy by humankind. Outrageously lengthy prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses deny the mercy of God toward those who so badly need mercy. Mandatory minimum sentences serve the very opposite of the Lord’s teachings about restoring our brother or sister who has been found in sin. They serve to dehumanize both those caught in a web of destructive self-behavior and those who punish severely rather than love and forgive seventy times seven (Minutes of General Synod 2014, p. 190).

 In response, General Synod adopted the following resolutions:

  • To work with Christian Churches Together to take an active role in developing guiding principles for the church related to issues of mass incarceration.  
  • To work together with Formula of Agreement partners and CCT faith families to educate, advocate, and take direct action related to prison reform and mandatory sentencing reform.
  • To form a coalition among the Commissions on Christian Action, Christian Unity, and Race and Ethnicity, and any other commission interested in participating, to engage in a deeper study of the issue of mass incarceration and to develop a collaborative response to present to General Synod 2015.  
  • To urge RCA congregations to initiate conversations about how faith communities can work toward healing fatherless generations, understanding that fatherlessness is a critical consequence of mass incarceration.
  • To direct the General Synod Council to examine RCA investments to ascertain whether the RCA has any investments in private prison corporations
  • To direct the Commission on Christian Action, in consultation with the Commission on Theology, to develop a paper on God, justice and compassion for those who are incarcerated, victims of incarceration, families of the incarcerated, and returned citizens that addresses the church’s role in being the beloved community of God.  
  • To encourage New Brunswick Theological Seminary and Western Theological Seminary to continue to actively develop curriculum that trains future graduates in the realities and practicalities of social justice issues in general and mass incarceration in particular, grounded in a Christian response.  
  • To direct the Commission on Christian Action to develop a resource list of books, articles, documentaries, training, workbooks, and resource people that can be utilized to raise the level of awareness and educate congregations about the issue of mass incarceration (MGS 2014, pp.192-193).

The 2015 General Synod’s CCA presented a follow-up report on the previous year’s resolutions, which led to the adoption of these additional resolutions:

  • To direct the coalition of Commission on Christian Action, Commission on Christian Unity, Commission on Race and Ethnicity, and Commission for Women members working on the subject of mass incarceration to submit a report on its work to the General Synod for the next three years.
  • To direct the General Synod Council to create a page on the RCA website containing resources, data, and training opportunities related to mass incarceration using information provided by the Commission on Christian Action and/or the coalition of commissions studying mass incarceration.
  • To direct the appropriate Transformed & Transforming initiative to seek out churches and individuals already engaged in learning and advocacy around mass incarceration and to create learning communities and/or advocacy groups around specific issues related to mass incarceration, e.g., children of incarcerated parents, women in prison, reentry following imprisonment, prison reform for the aged, juvenile justice, or family visitation (MGS 2015, pp. 164-165).

The Commission on Theology also appointed one of its members to be a liaison to the CCA and to co-draft a paper on God, justice, and compassion for those who are incarcerated, victims of incarceration, families of the incarcerated, and returned citizens that addresses the church’s role in being the beloved community of God (MGS 2015, p. 240).

In 2016, at the recommendation of the Mass Incarceration Coalition, General Synod adopted the following resolutions:

  • To direct the General Synod Council to host a meeting of people interested in the study and work of mass incarceration as the beginning of a learning community (MGS 2016, p. 234).
  • To encourage the church to use the document “The Church and Criminal Justice: A Brief Exhortation”  as a liturgical resource, and further; to direct the General Synod Council to make the document available to the church (MGS 2016, p. 239).
  • To direct the General Synod Council to add screening language to the RCA’s investment policies, particularly as it relates to for-profit prisons (MGS 2016, p. 239).