In Jesus’ inaugural sermon, he identifies his mission by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord . . . has sent me to proclaim release to the captives . . . to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). And while I am not, technically speaking, a biblical literalist, I have come to take these words from Jesus quite literally.
Many leaders in my county (Douglas County, Kansas) seem convinced that the only way to address our overcrowding problem at the local jail is to add more cells—to expand our capacity to lock people up. I am part of an organization trying to get them to invest in services, system reforms, and alternatives to incarceration instead.
You probably saw “Kansas” and thought, “Oh, well, of course. That’s a conservative, tough on crime, community.” But we’re not. We’re a college town that prides itself on being quirky and liberal. And the arguments for expanding the jail aren’t about punishment, they’re about having a safe jail environment and providing services to inmates. Which can be an alluring argument for well-meaning white liberals who don’t have to think too hard about what it means to be locked up in a jail—even a nice one.
The thing is, though, that Jesus didn’t say he had come to “proclaim a more therapeutic environment for the captives” and to “let the oppressed have more green space.” Of course we want humane conditions in our jails and prisons, but we should first and most desperately want people to remain in our communities and not be locked behind bars. Jesus proclaimed release and freedom. It seems pretty straight forward.
One problem, of course, with taking the Bible literally is that our cultural context today is far different from that of Jesus’ day. I’ve heard it noted that Jesus was not intending to release cold-blooded murderers onto the streets. Prisons in the first century were primarily debtors’ prisons—places where people were put when they didn’t have enough money to pay their debts.
The reality is, our cultural context is much closer to that of Jesus’ day than we would like to admit. I’ve sat in on a few “first appearance” hearings at our local courthouse. The vast majority of people who came before the judge were given a court-appointed attorney—which means they have a low level of income. And some of the charges themselves were, quite possibly, a direct result of not having enough money: unpaid fines, expired tags, no proof of insurance.
The number one reason people are booked into our local jail is for failing to appear for their court date. Which might be because they are being intentionally disobedient to court instructions. But is most often because they don’t have a ride or can’t miss work or they forgot and didn’t get the reminder call because they couldn’t afford to pay their phone bill.
Here in the United States we don’t actually have places that we call “debtors’ prison,” but anyone paying attention knows that plenty of people in our jails and prisons would not be there if they had more money.
People might also say that we don’t need to take Jesus’ “release for the prisoners” literally because we have due process. We have a system set up to respect people’s rights and make sure that only the guilty end up incarcerated.
Of course, there are plenty of studies that show how the “justice” system is too often anything but just. There are the economic biases mentioned above. And also racial biases, and the system’s inability to deal with people who suffer from various types of mental illness and developmental delays.
But even if we could make the trial process 100% accurate and fair, here is something I’ve learned recently: Jails are different from prisons. Most people in jail are pre-trial. We say “innocent until proven guilty,” but these presumed innocent people can be held in jail for days, or even months before a judge even sentences them.
So even though Jesus was speaking against the backdrop of the 1st Century Roman justice system, I am still going to take him at his word: He came to proclaim release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. And we, who are his followers, should echo his proclamation in whatever ways we can.
*For those who want a quick and concrete way to add your voice to this proclamation, consider supporting the Black Mama’s Bail Out Action.
Rev. Joanna Harader serves as pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kansas, and as co-chair of the alternatives to incarceration research team for Justice Matters. She blogs at Spacious Faith.
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