When considering prisoners, many people assume they are "getting what they deserve" and "doing their time." Our culture's understanding of the justice system is drenched with the notion that those who are accused are undoubtedly a criminal. Orange jumpsuits and pinstripes cause us to identify individuals once seen as fellow human beings to being part of a subspecies called 'prisoners.' Why then should we have any concern for these 'violators of the law', these 'menaces that threaten the social fabric'? Of all the people who need help on this earth, why consider those who are trying to ruin it? The answer lies with Jesus.
Jesus thinks differently about prisoners--differently than you or I tend to. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus tells a story about a great trial where the Son of Man judges the nations. In this story the Son of Man bases his judgment of whether or not a person knows him upon the treatment of a category of people he calls "the least of these." There are six classifications: the starving, the thirsty, the foreign, the unclothed, the sick, and... the imprisoned. While the last classification may surprise you, we see that Jesus identifies prisoners as being among the most needy people in the world. We have to ask why.
Scott Sherrod and I have been learning the answer to that question in our visits to a youth detention center in downtown Nashville. We are allowed a time, once a month, with 15-20 young men from the ages of 14-17. They are in the center awaiting their court dates. The young men are all minorities; African American, Hispanic, or first generation immigrants from Africa. They come from low income families and high crime neighborhoods, their arms are full of tattoos and their hearts are full of empty of dreams. It is said that one's teen to late 20's are the most formative years of a person's life. If that's the case, Scott and I are learning that whatever is forming these young men will eventually destroy them.
On one particular evening during our visit a young man raised his hand with sincere questions. His name was Reggie and throughout the night his head was down, and his fingers twisted the braided strands of hair that hung over his face. The two part question was sober, skeptical, and revealing: "how do I know what to believe? How do you know what is true?" Looking at him in his bright orange jumpsuit, angry, and full of disbelief, I could feel his spirit--one that had been in the early stages of becoming hardened. In the absence of truth young men like Reggie are left incredibly vulnerable to their environment.
He was sick of preachers telling him one thing and then another. Tired of sermons that didn't apply to his situation. So we offered Reggie and all the other young men in that detention center a way to discern truth. "If their words do not teach selflessness and humility, love and peace,” I said, “then don't listen to them." The group of men grew quiet and Reggie's countenance changed for a moment, he had received something he could use for the rest of his life--the voice of God, a little less difficult to discern than before our visit.
Scott and I talk to these young men about the kingdom of God, the hopes that God has for healthy families, and the consequences of human beings who never grow out of selfishness. We give them truth about God's expectations on their lives and dispel lies that God does not care for them. We tell them that Moses was a fugitive, that Paul was put in prison, that Jesus was tried and hung as a criminal. His last conversation was actually with a criminal who was assured acceptance in the same paradise Jesus was confident he was approaching.
As people striving to be like Jesus, we aren’t supposed to be unfamiliar with prisoners or their plight. The bible gives more examples of wrongful imprisonments than rightful ones. And even for those justly accused, we know a God who can redeem--they can find a new path. We go to the prison to let them know there is an option. They can live differently. They can choose good. God is good, and believing that for oneself, even sitting in a jail cell, can have miraculous results in the lives of these men.