Setting the Prisoners Free: The Book of Acts and Mass Incarceration

The Book of Acts is the story of the early Christian movement after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Right after Jesus ascends into heaven, the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. The disciples, filled with this new power and energy, begin performing signs and wonders and preaching that the crucified Jesus is risen. They are thrown in jail and told not to stir up the crowds with their speech.

In Acts 5 they are arrested once again, having ignored warnings to stop preaching. Usually, growing up in a white evangelical environment, I have heard these stories in Acts as challenges that I too should fearlessly preach to the skeptics and cynics! Theologian Willie James Jennings draws some points from this I had never thought of before:

“The prison, like the couple, claims a God-given right to exist. It claims a right to establish order and control as a fundamental tool of worldly authorities and governments. God at this moment in the drama will again take back what God has given. The power to incarcerate will be trumped by the power to be free. The power to free people from bondage is of the new order just as the power to imprison is of the old order. As such incarceration is shown in all its horror as a tool of interests – political, economic, social, religious, and deployed in the arbitrariness of law and policy, threat and jealousy. If the apostles in prison represent social malcontents, disruptively bad people, then the angel of the Lord comes to such people. That we know that these apostles are good people is beside the point. The true hearts of the incarcerated are hidden behind the mechanisms that locked them away, and only when we follow the angel of the Lord into those spaces of captivity will we see what has been hidden from us: a system that kills, steals, and destroys lives while claiming to keep order and protect the innocent” (Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 61-62)

I have learned about mass incarceration in the past and have long recognized that issues of injustice such as this are deeply connected to my faith. Yet to see this connection in the book of Acts was eye-opening. Sure, in Acts 2 and 4 the early church shares all things in common. But it still seemed that Acts reinforced the idea that our primary purpose as Christians is to tell people to believe in Jesus. The point isn’t that we should not invite others to become disciples though. The point is that discipleship is much more than simply changing our beliefs about God in order to move across some line that separates “saved” from “unsaved”.

God’s dream for the world is much richer than merely dividing all of humanity into two groups in order to save some.

In one of those coincidences that is probably not really a coincidence, I had recently bought Angela Davis’ short book Are Prisons Obsolete? It was like $1 on a Kindle sale and looked interesting. At under 100 pages, it was not a long read. But Davis packs A LOT into this short book.

Davis connects the mass incarceration we are experiencing in our country today with America’s history of slavery and racism. She sheds light on why the prison industrial complex has grown up to the leviathan it is. A large part of this is cheap labor prisoners offer as well as all the cheap products prisons buy. Add in the disturbing reality of private prisons and its a recipe for lots of money making.

It’s also deeply unjust.

There are so many ways the prison system is unjust. As I was reading, I saw a story of a prisoner in Virginia kept in solitary confinement for two years! Davis writes of how prisons were created for the purpose of rehabilitating prisoners; they could earn degrees and return to society reformed and ready to contribute. Over time prisons have lost this purpose and now they just essentially hold people. The punishment has shifted from restorative to retributive.

Davis also talks about the racism inherent in the system which leads to black people being disproportionately imprisoned. She even challenges the notion that we should abolish the death penalty and just keep people in prison for life, an argument I’ve made. But, Davis argues, keeping people imprisoned for life just reinforces the prison industrial complex.

I don’t think we should abolish prisons completely, in the way Davis argues. But way too many innocent people are in prison, the law is often enforced unfairly, and too many in prison need mental help rather than incarceration. Whether you agree with all her conclusions or not, its worth a read.

If you come across this book, pick it up. And if you are interested in learning more, check out:

Criminal Justice Facts

Or watch the documentary 13th.

Jesus came to set the captives free. In some way, we are all captives to something. There is truth in saying our greatest captivity is to sin and brokenness and Jesus sets us free from that.

Yet there is a danger in too quickly spiritualizing these things. When we jump right to otherworldly application we prove Marx right and make religion truly an opiate of the people. When we jump too quickly to the spiritual and afterlife, we enable ourselves to ignore injustice in this life.

The truth is, Jesus came to set the captives free. We can debate whether this means abolishing prisons (as Davis suggests) or reforming them as well as reforming how the law is enforced so less people end up in prison. But the undeniable truth is, God cares and has always cared about injustice!

May we care too.

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