Hear the cry
A social teaching document, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries, was passed by a vote of 882-25 at the 13th biennial Churchwide Assembly on August 17, 2013, at Pittsburgh. I find this to be significant because, in a search of an online Bible resource, 42 texts were listed when the request for “prisoner” was typed into the search box.
Do you find such a long list of texts about prisoners to be surprising? Present in both the Old and New Testaments, the theme is certainly a concern to the biblical authors.
The subtitle of the document, Hearing the Cries, is also significant. Take note of the following strongly worded texts:
* Psalm 102:20: “to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die”
* Psalm 146: “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free”
* Isaiah 61:1: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
* Hebrews 13:1-3: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 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.”
* Matthew 25:34-36: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
* Luke 4:17-19 (Jesus quotes Isaiah to initiate his ministry): “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.”
When my husband was in seminary, the students were admonished to follow the advice of Karl Barth, who has been described as “the greatest theologian of the 20th century.” They were told, “You have to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
“I was in prison and you visited me.”
We laypersons must evaluate how often newspaper articles or TV news segments are focused on crime or prisoners. Is it commensurate with the number of times you have heard a sermon focused on prisoners? Do we soften the texts to have a spiritual focus instead of the more difficult jail/prison focus?
Would we be more concerned about the criminal justice system if we paid attention to these texts with the same fervor that we “feed the hungry”? In the Northeastern Minnesota Synod, we have local criminal justice institutions spread throughout our area and prison ministries to support.
For those interested in more information, one copy of the ELCA statement (63 pages) is available for free by calling 1-800/NET-ELCA (638-3522). For study groups, bundles of five cost $1.25.
Judy Isaacson, an advocate for prison reform, lives near Finlayson, Minnesota.