The Church and Criminal Justice: A brief exhortation
In the spirit of the Psalms, these things we lament:
We lament the cries of suffering and despair rising from the criminal justice system—from victims in and outside of prison, from the incarcerated, their families and communities, the wrongly convicted, returned citizens, and those who work in the system.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).
We lament the social harm incarceration causes.
“We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows” (Lamentations 5:3).
We lament injustices that remain unnoticed and unaddressed.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
We lament the overuse of incarceration; we lament punishment as revenge or retaliation.
“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!” (Isaiah 10:1-2).
We lament the evils of racism and the harm it perpetuates in individuals, in communities, and in systems of power. We lament that racism infects the whole system of criminal justice in our time. We lament the inequities that result in an unequal meting out of justice and incarceration.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11).
“But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9).
We lament incarceration as a profit-making industry.
“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight” (Proverbs 11:1).
We lament the spirit of fear that can inform our view of enemies, strangers, and policy-making with regard to crime.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).
We lament any imagination that informs our view of the accused as “other” or the guilty as evil people, and we recall that we are a people marked by the cross and a savior who was himself viewed as a criminal.
“When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’” (John 8:9-11).
We lament that the reentry process into society for returning citizens is an oppressive process leading to stigmatization; to difficulty finding employment and housing; and to poverty, marginalization, and recidivism.
“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right…” (Isaiah 10:1-2).
We lament the lack of the Reformed Church in America’s awareness and involvement in this critical issue of our time.
“Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear” (Jeremiah 5:21).
These things we affirm:
We affirm the biblical witness to God’s rich vision of love and justice for all humanity.
“…For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:3-4).
We affirm that there is nothing we can do to place ourselves out of God’s providence.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
We affirm that Jesus himself was in the prison system.
“…I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).
We affirm the mark of the cross on our lives, where Jesus himself was treated as a criminal, and we affirm his charge to tend to the cries of the most vulnerable among us.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
We recognize the need for a criminal justice system, even as we affirm the need to strive for a system that is humane, fair, and appropriately limited.
“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4, NIV).
We affirm that as Christians our entire outlook on life and our role in being the beloved community of God—including issues of justice and incarceration—is one shaped by the prodigal grace and mercy of God in Jesus and the recognition of our own sinfulness and proclivity to do evil.
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. … So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:12, 17-18).
We affirm that we are called upon to remember and pray for those in prison. We affirm the work of individuals, congregations, and organizations ministering to, for, and with prisoners, families of prisoners, and returning citizens.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).
We affirm the invitation of Scripture to identify with the incarcerated like Joseph, Jeremiah, John the Baptizer, Peter, Paul—and Christ himself. We affirm the gift of persons such as Guido de Bres, A.J. Muste, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other followers of Christ who have been imprisoned.
We affirm and proclaim the good news of Christ:
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:18-21).
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners; bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate, and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen (From the Book of Common Prayer).
Finally, we affirm the good work of those in the Reformed Church in America who are already working in various ways within the current prison system and with those affected by it, as well as those working to rectify current injustices. We invite the Reformed Church in America to join together in this work, to continue confessing in word and deed the role of the church in being the beloved community of God, and in praying for a day when justice will “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). For we affirm in Christ that the final work of God is ultimately toward restoration, reconciliation, and healing.
“I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
I will lead them and repay them with comfort,
creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips” (Isaiah 57:18).
“See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).