On the U.S. Prison System and the Church

You tell me Jesus forgives me, how come your church never does?

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.

Matthew 25

[This is the 3rd post in a series highlighting portions of The Truth About 13th.]

Throughout the hour-long discussion, the LRJ panel reflects on the experience of people who are in prison and their families. In the clip above, Rev. Blake tells a story about a friend who was formerly incarcerated asking him: “You tell me Jesus forgives me. How come your church never does?”

It’s a startling question. What would it mean for us, as a church, to express forgiveness of people who have been in prison? I’ve not thought of it much until seeing this, but surely it would involve actively welcoming them into the life of our congregations and seeking the well-being of their families.

Chaplain Schwarz advises that, “you don’t just incarcerate an individual, you incarcerate a family.” (I’m not sure it’s mentioned in the video, but in the live chat several people recommended supporting Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree ministry as a tangible way to love families with a parent who is incarcerated.)

Later, Rev. Lattimore reflects on the difference between punitive justice and restorative justice. Our criminal justice system is focused on punishment but as Christians our life’s work is to seek restoration.

I have not specifically highlighted a section where Jacq Wilson speaks, but hearing him tell about his brother’s time in prison and the feeling of helplessness in the face of the criminal justice system is powerful. He calls it dehumanizing. He talks about the risk of becoming hopeless. He testifies to the power of faith in Christ to keep hope alive even in that overwhelming circumstance.

Please take time to watch part or all of this discussion. It is worth your time.

On Critical Race Theory

Should we be afraid of critical race theory?

“In the church when we talk about any issues around race or criminal justice it brings up the question of should we be afraid of Critical Race Theory? Could you give us a working definition and talk about that idea?”

I had never heard of critical race theory (CRT), and then suddenly I heard it and now it seems to be everywhere. As the question quoted above reflects, sometimes Christians express fear of critical race theory, believing, I think, that it draws people away from the gospel. CRT is a way of describing how racism works in the United States, how deeply embedded it is in many systems. It was first developed by legal scholars and now informs scholarship in many areas.

The Southern Baptist Convention has been in a relatively high profile debate over CRT. President Trump issued an executive order banning diversity training rooted in CRT.

Every Christian social justice leader I follow has addressed critical race theory in about the same way: “I’d never heard of CRT until someone ‘accused’ me of using it. Then I looked into it and realized, hey, this describes what I’ve been seeing!”

I appreciated how the LRJ panel addressed this topic. Dr. Koehlinger and Rev. Lattimore both address the question from their different perspectives – academic and theological.

When Rev. Bolling picks up the discussion later, he addresses the connection between a theory (like critical race theory) and a concrete experience (like the criminal justice system, which disproportionately punishes people of color). He compares it to the theory of gravity and a child’s ice cream falling on the floor. Whether or not you are willing to discuss the theory of gravity, the effect of gravity happens: ice cream on the floor, inedible. We can refuse to discuss CRT, but it is just describing an actual experience people are having in the world. With or without the theory, the experience remains.

The panel’s discussion here met a need for me and I am thankful for it.

Coming next: On the U.S. prison system and the church

Frontline Explores Poverty

Public Television’s Frontline has produced two excellent documentaries on the experience of American families living in poverty. The first came out in 2012 and followed three families in the wake of the 2008 recession. In September of this year, another documentary followed three different families coping with poverty, COVID, and the foregrounding of racism in our national life.

Both of these films are available online for free. I encourage you to watch them.

Perhaps, like me, you prefer to have an opportunity for discussion with a group. We’d love to meet up with you on Zoom.

Who: Anyone interested in understanding more about the experiences of American families living in poverty.

What: Viewing and discussion of Frontline documentaries on poverty. We will use the tools from Bridges Out of Poverty to consider how families adapt to limited resources. (You do not need to complete Bridges training to participate.)

When:

  • “Poor Kids” documentary (2012) – Thursday, December 3, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
  • “Growing Up Poor in America” documentary (2020) – Thursday, December 17, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Where: Anywhere you can log on to Zoom!

Register for one or both events using this simple Google Form.