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Prison Ministries: Speaking for Those Without a Voice

MARK 13:1-8 – Restorative Justice Sunday – November 15, 2009

Submitted for the John Hines Preaching Award by the Rev. Pamela Bakal

I recently came back from a Prison Ministry conference and one of the exercises that the participants were asked to do was, “Build the kind of prison that Jesus would want.” They gave us all wooden blocks and we worked together to come up with the ideal prison. We thought surely there should be a large worship space, and a place for multiple classrooms so that the inmates could learn job skills and education. We created an area for a garden so that the splendor of God’s creation would fill both guards’ and inmates’ souls with beauty and peace.  We constructed bridges so that the men and women could physically walk through the emotional changes and transitions they would be making in their lives. No matter what we tried the presenter kept shaking her head. And then it dawned on us; Jesus would have torn down the walls of the prison and set the captives free.

In a perfect world there would be no prisons. Building prisons is not the answer. If punishment really worked the recidivism rate would not be at its present statistic of more than 50%. The problem is so much more complex than using the crime and punishment formula. If we are going to solve the problem of our enormous prison population (There are as many in the prison population as there are Episcopalians – 2 ¼ million!) we are going to have to change the way we structure our prisons, and all work together to support our less fortunate neighborhoods.

How do we redesign a society that needs to put so many people in prison? That is precisely what the work of Jesus is about – changing the world and the way we understand it, so that all might be free.

Most of you have probably never seen the Essex County Jail, on Doremus Ave in Newark, New Jersey. Whenever I visit there I feel like the disciple who said to Jesus, “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”  (Mark 13:1) That jail is huge! There are 3200 inmates housed there!  And what is Jesus’ response…” Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Could this be the prison that was conceptualized in the Prison Ministry conference?

This Scripture passage is what we call apocalyptic Scripture. It is about the end time. It can create fear and trembling in some people because one way to read it is that the end of the world could be imminent, and when it arrives we will witness the terrible wrath of God. Those who are good and faithful will be saved, and those who are sinners will be damned forever. They say that when it comes to apocalyptic Scripture, there are two kinds of people; those who love to scrutinize it for symbols and hidden meanings, and those who pass over these texts as quickly as possible. For me apocalyptic Scripture passages contain tremendous hope. Apocalyptic Scripture tells us that God has a mission which God is in the process of fulfilling and perfecting. God is shaping our future, this world’s future, toward an end that is grace filled and loving. When we read and hear these scripture passages about “the end time,” we are challenged to bring them into a meaningful perspective of how God’s reign, God’s Kingdom will be brought in.

And who would not look forward to the end of a world that binds people and keeps them from living out their God given gifts.

Apocalyptic Literature has something in common with Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice is a process that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior, both to the victim and society. It is best accomplished through a cooperative course of action involving victim, offender, community, and government. Rather than viewing the current system of justice as reparations being doled out in dollars and cents, and the “penal” system as punishment for a crime, its focus is to be a system of healing for all parties concerned. These principles are the principles of Jesus: repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, healing. We speak of these all the time in church, and as Christians it becomes our mission to bring these values of Jesus into fruition in the world.

Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.” (Mark 13:5) Haven’t we indeed been lead astray by our retributive system of justice? Punishment is equated with revenge and revenge only multiplies anger and violence. These times look like the end time. We have “kingdoms rising against kingdoms,” (Mark 13:8) such as we might see in gang wars.  Violence is creating a vortex that drags our children into the criminal justice system, and any attempt to climb out only gets swallowed up as a tenuous earth cracks beneath them.

Ah, but these might in fact be “the beginning of the birth pangs”. (Mark 13:8) As we see that retributive justice does not work, we will begin the change. Jesus’ sense of justice asks us to respond to evil with love. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus extends grace to all; even those we do not think can be loved. Grace is unearned forgiveness and unearned generosity of spirit. Restorative justice allows a place for grace. To discover how grace operates in the justice system might just bring about the change and transformation needed. As we come to realize the old ways no longer work, as we tear down the old institutions, we allow for grace to enter in. Grace naturally focuses on the future and how things can be changed for the better, both for the victim and for the offender and the community.

Followers of Jesus do not need to fear such a time when all will be thrown down, or wonder what it all means. What might at first appear to be foreboding and anxiety provoking is now transformed into hopefulness and anticipation. We can face the troubles and anxieties of this age because we know that this is not the final state of things. We have reason to be excited that the salvation of the world draws near, and that we too can join with Christ in bringing in a time when the walls of our prisons will be cast down, and our prisoners set free. I thank God that the day is coming when Jesus will make all things new, all things right, all things just, all things infused with grace.

This is very good news.

 

The Rev. Pamela Brownlow Bakal is Rector of Grace Church in Nutley, NJ and President of Prison Ministry, Diocese of Newark.

Mark 13:1-8 (NRSV)

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” [2] Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

[3] When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, [4] “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” [5] Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. [6] Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. [7] When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. [8] For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

You Tube Music Video: Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

Risk: social justice

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December 26, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christianity, community, culture, faith, family, prisons, social justice | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gulags and Gitmos

For participating in an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Survey I received The Pocket World In Figures for 2009. Its filled with all kinds of interesting statistics to measure, compare and contrast economic and social indicators for countries of the world. Included in this useful little tome is the usual mundane statistical econometric measures like GDP, income levels, life expectancy, agricultural output and similar macroeconomic indicators. The Survey also includes many other quality of life statistical measures and one that immediately grabbed my attention were the entries concerning Crime and Punishment.

The Survey tabulates Crime and Punishment statistics in four areas; murders, death row inmates, total prisoner count and prisoners per 100,000 of a country’s population. Sadly the EIU Survey reports that the United States leads the list in two out of the four categories. Those include prisoner population and prisoners per 100,000 of total country population. The US holds the dubious distinction of the number two spot behind Pakistan in the number of death row inmates.

I find these telling statistical measures most perplexing and equally disturbing. The United States prison population of 2.253,000 is 30% higher then second place China with 1,566,000 inmates and third place Russia with 885,000 inmates. These numbers become more significant when measured as a percent of 100,000 of the country’s population. The United States again occupies the top spot with 751 inmates per 100,000 followed by Russia with 627 per 100,000. As a percent of total population the US incarceration rate is 17% higher then that of Russia. China which occupied the number two spot in total prison population falls off the list of the top 23 nations with the highest level of incarceration due to its large overall population.

One needs to ask what is it in the cultural, social, political and economic DNA that places the United States as the world leading gulag?

It has been long known that people of color comprise the majority of death row and prison inmates in the United States. The glaring racial and social class dimensions of imprisonment and how it is disproportionally borne by minorities and the working poor is a direct causal effect of the dismantling of the manufacturing base of the US economy. This has exacerbated the inequality of wealth distribution in the US economy. It has accelerated the deterioration of our urban economic zones thereby fostering the growth of illegal underground economic activities and petty economic crime.

The economic and social factors that contribute to crime and imprisonment are usually the central topics that take center stage in the debate between conservatives and liberals. Ironically this debate obfuscates underlying causal factors that can be ascribed to the political culture in the US. The preponderance of law and order candidates running for public office, the political clout of police and public safety unions, the emergence of industry sectors that build and manage prisons, the vibrant security and protection industries, the use of cheap prison labor and dramatic wealth disparity creates powerful market and cultural forces that incubate and sustain the growth of penal industries and the political sentiment that supports it.

Since 9/11 our political culture has been saturated with messages of fear, suspicion , demonization of “the other” and the pervasiveness of terrorism. This political climate has spawned two wars, the dramatic growth of prison privatization, suspension of some basic rights of privacy with the passage of FISA and the creation of special rendition prison camps like Gitmo that suspend habeas corpus and other internationally recognized standards of basic prisoner rights. The revelations about the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib has shamefully placed torture at the forefront in the political debate concerning appropriate practices and acceptable tools interogators can use in the fight against terrorism. The US is clearly in danger of losing the moral high ground in its self proclaimed defense of human rights as it continues to extol the righteousness of its law and order society by building and populating an ever expanding network of gulags.

Sadly our penal culture creates some horrific abominations. The US taxpayer conveys its eager willingness to pay up to $40,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner; while claiming that its good fiscal policy to balk at paying anything over $8,000 to educate a child in a public school.

This Sunday we will be marching in Newark NJ in Support of Solidarity Sunday. Our mission will be to join forces with those who are dedicated to ending violence and crime in our communities. We believe this objective can only be realized if we respond with unity, love, peace, hope and help.

Information on Solidarity Sunday can be found here.

It is our fondest hope and most fervent prayer that we will build more schools and factories and less prisons. We also pray that our fellow citizens and elected officials will find mercy in their hearts and proclaim 2009 as a Jubilee Year and grant amnesty and set free those who are worthy of freedom and have paid the price for their crime. We also pray that those who imprison others will recognize the humanity of their captives.

You Tube Music Video: The Midnight Special, Odetta

You Tube Music Video: Gil Scott Heron, Angola Louisiana

Risk: civil liberties, rule of law, Bill of Rights, social justice

November 26, 2008 Posted by | commerce, crime, culture, folk, jazz, prisons | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment