I wrote briefly about two things in my initial “Behind the Bars” column: the call from our faith “to remember those in prison as if you yourselves were suffering” and an aspirational reason for punishment, restoration
For a little more background, I also said we ignore those in prison and have conceded our role and our voice in criminal justice policy to politicians and bureaucrats. We’ve just washed our hands of it.
When’s the last time you or anyone in your church visited a prisoner? Are we really “remembering” them as if we were with them?
And, like anything the church just washes its hands of, the world and governments have done a pretty bad job of managing it.
If you want the data on how poorly the criminal justice system is performing in our country, it’s not hard to find. I’ll not take the space here to report it. We have forgotten our obligations.
But what should we do when we remember? It’s probably a little more than just thinking about the captives.
“Remember” in this context means for us to consider the captives’ plight. And just which captives? While some commentators opine that Hebrews 13:3 references persecuted Christians, the verse doesn’t support that.
Those interpretations belie a bias favoring those deserving of, contrasted with those undeserving of, our remembrance. I just don’t know how to draw that line faithfully.
If we shouldn’t draw that line, we’re talking about all captives. That’s a hard saying.
They’re the drug dealers from those parts of the city that we don’t visit, the rapists who rend the body and the soul, the murderers who take life and decimate families and communities, the scam artists who take money and security, those yet to be convicted or acquitted or released awaiting trial who can’t afford bail, those unjustly accused or convicted because of circumstance or the color of their skin, those prisoners of war across the world (even in places like Guantanamo Bay and others of whom we are unaware), those taken against their will, broken down and held by the prison of human trafficking, and yes, those persecuted for their faith.
So, if our universe of who we should remember is expanding, just how should we remember them? Here are seven ways to do so.
- We should think about their captivity – and that’s uncomfortable as we live in our freedom. We were not created to be imprisoned; we were created for freedom. And we love our freedom, so much so that even thinking about those in prison hurts.
- We should consider how they arrived in their circumstances – and that’s not always within their control or their fault. They may be legally guilty, but for those of us who were born on third base and thought that we hit a triple, that may be quite an effort. We should shelve our judging and see each one as a person for whom Christ died. They all are worthy of that.
- We should empathize with them on a deeply personal level, literally sharing the same feelings as they have. It can be a difficult task, emotionally and intellectually, but without putting that work in, we’ll never have an impact. Studies show that many prisoners have gross developmental deficits in the ability to empathize. They need that model.
- We remember them by teaching them a better way. Prison ministries like Houston-based Bridges to Life take prisoners in many states through a semester’s worth of faith-based material focusing on restoration, attempting to restore relationships among the offender, victims, their families and communities. Volunteers, most of whom, at least in my experience, have been victimized by crime themselves lead prisoners in a behind-the-walls course that teaches them about honesty, empathy, confession, repentance, truth, reconciliation and restoration.
- We visit those in prison. Yes, that can be scary. If you commit to doing that, be ready to drive into an institutional setting consisting of razor wire, walls, guards and snipers. Be ready to pass through a metal detector and to be patted down. Be ready for risk and to see things that you’d rather not see. Remember that you spend an hour there, but they live there.
- We pray for them. Paul tells us he thanks God for every remembrance of his brothers and sisters in Christ. Do we really live that out? Do we thank God for those who enrich our lives? Do we take that further step and thank God for those whose lives we enrich? Are they worthy of that?
- And we remember the father, the mother, the wife, the husband, the son and the daughter left behind by the captivity. We remember the impact that captivity has on families, education, employment, health and life expectancy. And we remember God so loved the world – not just those on the right side of the bars.
David Balkum is a lawyer, author, professor, husband, father, prison volunteer and member of Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.