Last month my wife and I visited Alcatraz with our good friends from Indiana. It was a first. For Californians, especially those in the Bay Area, Alcatraz is often a common field trip, but for a Virginia transplant, simply saying the name “Alcatraz” is interwoven with the mystery of the Island’s legend.
The frigid water bounced up and down the side of our ferry, occasionally revealing the large hull on its underbelly. Nevertheless, the ride was tame. Stepping onto the Island brought a strange confluence of sadness and commodification. Both were manufactured. The commodification manifested in the gift shop, tour guides, and mass of people. The sadness in the tattered buildings, steal bars, and isolation of a prison. I couldn’t ignore the remnant of sorrow that filled the space. I sat in a cell, closed the door, and waited. I could see nothing, feel only the cold of the floor. It was not the quiet of meditation in which one feels the presence of God, it was a isolation of one who is utterly alone.
Hospitality to the prisoner is an absolutely counter-cultural idea. But in Matthew 25, Jesus does not give conditions to visiting the prisoner. There is not an addendum that says only visit those who were arrested unjustly, are being politically oppressed, or that only committed an act of negligence.
We are asked to visit the prisoner; bar no conditions. That means the murderer, the gang member, the embezzler. The willingness to visit, comfort, and restore the imprisoned is part of what differentiates those following Christ and those who are not.
Perhaps Jesus highlights this issue and gives this expectation to his people because he knows that, in our incomplete sense of justice, the prisoner will not simply be “punished” for their transgressions, but stripped of their humanity. Perhaps Jesus realizes that in our wrongheaded adoration of safety, we imprison those who are most in need of reconciliation.
Redeemed is a word common in Christian circles. We use it often when we talk about God’s grace in our lives and how we are freed from sin. In the Old Testament redeemed referred directly to the buying back (and freeing) of those who had ben imprisoned and enslaved. The idea of the Kinsman-Redeemer in the book of Ruth highlighted the concept of regaining what was lost or forsaken especially when connected to tragedy. The objective of redemption was to utilize judicial means for relational goals. Too often we stop at ‘being redeemed” and over-emphasize a dualistic status of being in the right and in the wrong. But Redemption is never an end to it self, it is a step that requires reconciliation to fully lead us to love.
Last week NPR had a show on the difficulties of older prisoners acclimating back into society once they are released on parole. The reality is many life-long prisoners become “institutionalized” and can’t adjust back into society. Things have changed, people have moved on, they have changed – in it though. As I listened, I was reminded of Brooks from Shawhank Redemption. Brooks was a lifer and received parole as an old man. However, he was not able to make it through his adjustment:
I have trouble sleepin’ at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway so they’d send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I’m too old for that sort of nonsense any more. I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.
Brooks hung himself.
Brooks is a fictional representation of the real anguish that happens to many institutionalized prisoners. Many need intentional relationships to transfer them back into society, because behind prison bars they become a different type of human, one that begins to fear freedom.
And to fear freedom is to lose some capacity to love or to be loved. The person who learns to live under subjugation only learns to transact with those around them. Everything is an exchange.
Unfortunately this fear is not limited to the lives of individuals, but can impact entire communities. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Doug Massey’s American Apartheid highlight the communal impact of incarceration of African-American males. These young men are often forgotten. Few reach out to them while they are in chains and they return to their communities fearful of life and with a diminished humanity and a limited capacity to love their neighbors, their family, themselves.
John Wesley was a strong proponent of prison reform. He took at least 67 visits to preach in prisons and fellowship with prisoners in just a spa of 9 months. Rooted in his work was the core belief that God’s grace is freely given to all humanity and that the freedom of that gift requires us to accept the responsibility of his grace and thus his love. Through the eyes of Wesleyan theology, the dehumanization of the prison system is not in the fact it is punitive, but that it diminishes the capacity of one to be free and for one to love.
If God’s love is so central to the Christian faith, then we are called to reveal and restore that love. The prisoner is not only captive by walls and steal, but captive to the hell of isolation from God. We steer clear of the prisoner because she/he reveals too much about us.
Our piety gets in the way of allowing our selves to become “incarnated” with the other, with the outcast. We accept Jesus’ incarnation, but find it difficult to emulate. Cultivating the Kingdom of God may be richer if those who belong to that kingdom use their time, talent, and treasure to “be with” those imprisoned and seek a justice that returns, humanity, and ultimately redeems love.