For about a year now, my church has been asking questions about the criminal justice system and what God might be calling us to do to create meaningful change.
Before getting to the action part, we have spent a lot of time listening and learning about how the criminal justice system works, the causes of mass incarceration, current reform efforts, and how our local system functions here in Beaufort County.
We have done interviews with a Christian nonprofit, a prison chaplain, a South Carolina ACLU attorney, and a USC law professor who started a restorative justice nonprofit.
By the time this article is published, we will also have completed a three-week criminal justice community conversation series in which we invited local leaders to share an overview of their duties and responsibilities, and answer our questions, including the Beaufort County sheriff, solicitor, and a state senator.
All of this learning begs two big questions for me as a Christian who takes the biblical call seriously to do justice and to love my neighbor and my enemy who are made in the image of God: How do we shift from a focus of retributive justice (punishment) to restorative justice (healing relationships and restoration to community)? And how do we shift from talking about “criminals” to talking about people who have been trapped in cycles of poverty, addiction and abuse?
From my reading of the Bible, God is a god who yearns to restore the world and relationships; this is epitomized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as God came in the flesh to do just that. It is also through Jesus that we see the breaking-down of stereotypes such as the poor, hungry, sick, and imprisoned: The Bible says that when caring for such people, we are actually caring for Jesus (Matthew 25).
And then Jesus takes the imprisoned figure even further – he is arrested, imprisoned, mocked, convicted, and given the harshest sentence of the day. It might be uncomfortable to imagine Jesus as a person of color behind bars in an orange jumpsuit, but that’s exactly who Jesus was, and whom he calls us to care for.
How would your views of the criminal justice system and those in prison change if you saw them as Jesus? Would you want them to receive the harshest punishment, or be given the tools for healing and restoration? Would you still forget about them, “out of sight and out of mind”?
I’ve come to the conclusion that regardless of what actions come from this criminal justice initiative, the starting point is and must be identifying those who are imprisoned with Jesus himself. So next time you hear about someone who has been arrested, who has been awaiting trial for three years, or who has been sentenced to life in prison, I pray that behind the orange jumpsuit you see the face of Jesus, and from that be convicted to do justice.
Stephanie Dion is the associate pastor at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton. LowcountryPres.org