This week marks twenty years that I have served as chaplain to inmates in Skagit County Jail. Embodying and communicating God’s grace and love to prisoners in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers through one-on-one visits, advocacy, Bible studies, and worship services needs to grow in quality and reach in North America and around the world. At the same time, I see the need to expose and counter the lie that incarceration is necessary or redemptive the way we now practice it.
Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and around the nation express outrage fueled by racial profiling and mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of color that has been systemic in the American justice system. Gang activity thrives in prisons and is exported to the streets here and abroad. The fruits of imprisonment are resentment, hatred, vengeance, and exponential violence and death.
Now America is reaping what we have sown nationally and around the world. Recent news that seventeen of Islamic State’s top twenty-five leaders were imprisoned together by US captors in an Iraqi prison in southern Iraq (Camp Bucca) reveals how prison provides an ideal environment for nursing hatred, organizing resistance, and plotting revenge.
The execution of Western hostages by Islamic State demonstrates the wound of shame inflicted by the United States’ post-9/11 incarceration and war-making policies. Western hostages were dressed in orange prison uniforms and handcuffed at their executions, evoking Guantanamo Bay prison clothing and treatment.
The recent release of the CIA torture report documenting the use of clandestine prisons and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) gives us a glimpse into the evil practices underlying widespread hatred against the United States. These practices have continued in more sterile form. The extensive use of drones by the Obama Administration to target and kill America’s enemies is leading to hatred and revenge killings now, and it will lead to an increasingly bitter harvest of chaos and death in the future.
I am continually struck by the clarity of Jesus’ agenda regarding prisoners and enemies. Jesus offers no apologetic for incarcerating, interrogating, torturing or killing. He came to proclaim release to the prisoners (Luke 4:18), echoing his Father’s commitment throughout the Old Testament to bring the oppressed out of slavery and into freedom. Jesus came to save us for our sins, not to punish us. Freeing rather than incarcerating prisoners requires a vast commitment to holistic transformation.
Last week we met with the Skagit County jail chief and lieutenant to discuss ways that Tierra Nueva’s jail ministry can have more access to inmates. We were encouraged by the jail chief’s plans to include rehabilitation programs and greater pastor access to inmates in the new jail. We clearly need to reform our current jail and prison systems.
In the face of a recent poll showing that 59% of the American public supports the use of torture, I feel called to pray and work for true justice and peace, for God’s Kingdom to come, and for a movement of faith-based reconciliation. Now is the time to proclaim Jesus’ mission of forgiveness and love of enemies, as well as his offer of abundant life for all, including offenders. Now we must seek to not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).