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Redemption Song: 'Jesus Loves the Prisoner and He Was One’

Today more conservative Christian leaders question the price of mass incarceration. This is a huge — and positive — development.

Published: March 10, 2014

As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe in the redemption and reconciliation of all things, rather than retribution. This includes the prisoner and broken systems. This is the essence of the gospel.

-Christian Churches Together press release, February 2014

It is not exactly news that some of the nation’s religious leaders are preaching a gospel of redemption rather than retribution in the nation’s criminal justice systems. Many voices from these popular denominations, and some of the loudest ones, too, have been urging such reform for decades. What makes statements like the one above truly notable, however, is that today more conservative Christian leaders, including those who pushed decades ago for some of the harshest penalties for convicted criminals, now question the price of mass incarceration. This is a huge — and positive — development.

So when I read a sentence like: “Jesus loves the prisoner and he was one,” which was including in the statement issued by progressive church officials last month, I thought immediately of Pat Robertson, the longtime darling of the religious right who still wields enormous political influence in this country. For years now, largely under the radar of the mainstream media, Robertson has been candidly speaking out against mass incarceration. In 2012, for example, he said this on camera on his television show:

 I just think it’s shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they had a possession of a very small amount of a controlled substance. I mean, the whole thing is crazy. We’ve said, “Well, we’re conservatives, we’re tough on crime.” That’s baloney. It’s costing us billions and billions of dollars. Now think of California. California is spending more money on prisons than it spends on schools. I mean, there’s something wrong about that equation, you know? There’s something wrong.

Of course there is something wrong about policies that incarcerate so many for such non-violent crimes. And the more often that people like Robertson say that something is wrong the more people come to believe it to be so. The Bible can say many different things to many different people. It says retribution to some and redemption to others. But the tension that exists in that book, and in religious dogma in general, does not preclude wise and just policies that see criminals not as monsters to be put away but as fallible human beings.

So when I read in the CCT’s statement last month that: “Mass incarceration is not just an issue. It is first and foremost about people created in God’s image with lives, families, hopes and dreams ensnared with a web of personal struggles and choices” I thought immediately of the work of filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose haunting documentary, “The House I Live In,” poignantly revealed what these words actually mean to the millions of Americans whose lives are touched by America’s cruel justice systems. Bryan Stevenson, the brilliant head of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, often says essentially the same thing in a different way: virtually everyone is better than the worst moment of their life. And, if that is true, redemption should always be an option and so, too, should be forgiveness and rehabilitation. Just ask Bob and Lola Autobee, who this week successful sought forgiveness for the man who murdered their son.

Or ask Inimai Chettiar, the Brennan Center’s Justice Program director, who has written about how her own faith motivates her work in this area. "Many Christians, both progressive and conservative, are coming to realize the moral wrongs of mass incarceration,” she told me. “Walking the path of Jesus means loving God and loving others — particularly by working to help the most vulnerable among us. Those suffering in prison, and then continuing to suffer the collateral toll that lingers well beyond prison, need strong advocates.”

As I was writing this piece Friday morning, and thinking of Pat Robertson and Eugene Jarecki and the Autobees, I heard Texas outgoing Governor Rick Perry, whose position on the death penalty has been nothing short of scandalous, tell his fellow conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “locking people up and never giving them a chance at redemption is not what America is about.” Indeed, the fact that the CPAC would even devote an entire program to the topic of criminal justice reform, and that presidential hopefuls like Gov. Perry would urge Republican voters ways to end mass incarceration, tells you how much new and deep traction this issue has now with religious conservatives.

Still, amid the optimism, we must remember that retribution — punishment for punishment’s stake — still is the formal policy in virtually every criminal justice system in America. And we must remember, too, that the word “redemption” can and does mean many different things to many different people. What are we to make of this? I put the question to Robert Ferguson, author of Inferno, An Anatomy of American Punishment, an indispensible new book about crime and punishment in America. His response was one of cautious optimism:  

I agree with the Christian Churches Together position on mass incarceration, but I think the word “redemption” might explode in the wrong direction when applied in penology. In much of Christian thought redemption comes from an outside agent. It is something offered by a higher authority. As such, it could quickly become something imposed through the requirement of a confession, one of the problems in many parole hearings now. The restoration of a person in prison should take place through an inner development and understanding of one’s situation and one’s need to approach life in a different way. How one gets to that point is a vexed issue, but it is the goal.

A goal that today seems closer than it has seemed in decades. America can indeed redeem itself from decades of self-defeating incarceration policies by easing its relentless obsession with retribution and by embracing more redemptive law enforcement priorities. Democrats are on board. So are a growing number of Republicans. Bipartisan measures are wending their way through the Senate. But there is more work to be done. In all toil, the Bible says, there is profit.

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