Apostolic Letters from Prison
In the book Ministry with Prisoners & Families: The Way Forward, Madeline McClenny-Sadler writes
“What would the apostle Paul do if he heard about the mistreatment of brothers and sisters who return to our congregations and communities after being released from prison? I think we know exactly what Paul would do. Paul would write a letter!” (140)
Thus, McClenny-Sadler offers a “Letter to African American Churches Concerning the Saints Coming Home from Prison.” It uses “the hybrid style of a Pauline epistle and a scholarly article” as a call to action (ibid.)
Inspired by her letter, several PrisonLectionary.net contributors take up the same task. The first comes to us from “EB .”
I, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God. To the churches which are in the United States. Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. Notwithstanding I have somewhat against thee because thou has ignored the full and true meaning of the work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Therefore, be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die; for I have not found thy works perfect before God—your service is unfinished and incomplete—not pleasing to God though it is impressive to men.
Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. Remember, Jesus Christ our Lord when He began His ministry in Galilee, reading from the prophet Isaiah concerning himself, said:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Is. 61:1)
My beloved brethren, these things I write to you because there is a crisis in the criminal justice system, a crisis churches must not ignore. Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the prisoner is that they might be saved. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that you recognize that this must be the church’s work for two reasons:
First, the church is called to obey Christ’s word and to evangelize the world (Matt. 28:19-20). The church has the answers that will transform lives. As Simon Peter said our Lord “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”
Secondly, not only to contribute to the progress of Christ’s work of “opening of the prison to them that are bound,” but because religious faith contributed mightily to the genesis of the American penal system and its philosophy.
In the 1800’s the hope for change in incarceration—real spiritual change—gave rise to the creation of a new type of prison known as a “penitentiary,” in which inmates were sentences apparently to have time in solitude to contemplate the error of their ways and “repent.” Many Christians loaned their support to such a philosophy of incarceration. The focus in solitude and repentance became staples at the first major U.S. penitentiary, built in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia in 1829.
Soon, growing secularism saw repentance give way to rehabilitation, and the “penitentiary” became a “house of corrections.” Change was still the goal, but the change was no longer clearly related to religious or spiritual matters.
Therefore, brethren, because religious faith contributed mightily to the American penal system and its philosophy, the church should now mightily contribute in answering God’s call for a renewed vision and commitment—a return to God’s paradigm of Justice which seeks the restoration and transformation of the prisoner, that heals and restores the victims, and brings about shalom, the peace of community.
Brethren, beloved of God, the principal aim of all churches of the gospel of Jesus Christ should be to gather and build up a people for the glory and honor of the Lord.
When Christ preached the gospel of the Kingdom, He visited not only the great and wealthy cities, but the poor obscure villages (Matt. 9:35). The souls of those who are least in the world are as precious to Christ, and should be to every Christian.
There is no souls considered least in the eyes of society and the world than that of the prisoner; but Christ our Lord is clearly concerned for them also. (See Is. 42:7; 49:9; Matt. 25:36).
Prisoners are looked at as someone to be feared and ostracized. The fact that they have at some point committed bad acts supposedly makes them entirely unlike and fundamentally dissimilar to all other human beings.
The truth is that prisoners are not different from us. They are our children and our neighbors. There is someone reading this letter today who has a loved one in prison.
O foolish people, who hath bewitched you, that you should believe that you are any different from the prisoner—apart from the grace of God there goes you—as it is written “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
My beloved children, learn a lesson from the Beatitudes. Taking the first two: Blessed are the poor in spirit, and blessed are they that mourn. The first is the fundamental characteristic of the Christian, the citizen of the kingdom of heaven. It asks us to realize our own weakness and inability. It confronts us with the fact that we have to face God and His holy standards and miss the mark in word, thought and deed. Realizing our own sinfulness, our own true nature, realizing that we are so helpless because of the indwelling of sin within is and seeing the sin even in our best actions, thoughts and desires, we mourn, not only for our sins, but because we see the same plight in others, because of the very nature of sin itself, because we have some understanding of what sin means to God, of God’s utter abhorrence and hatred of it, because it has entered into the world and had led to these terrible results. We mourn over the state of the whole world as we see the moral decay and unhappiness and suffering of mankind. We realize the whole world is in an unhealthy and unhappy condition due to sin, and we mourn.
Christians should be more eager to loose than to bind, because forgiveness, not condemnation, epitomizes the heart of our Lord (Luke 9:56, John 3:17). Furthermore, we who live only by the mercy of God should restore him in a spirit of gentleness, realizing we too could be in the same situation (Gal. 6:1).
What shall we say then? Is there no justice with God? God forbid. For now God in His wisdom has chosen to restrain the fullness of divine vengeance. God is long suffering toward sinners and is giving them time to repent and seek forgiveness—as He has done with each of us. God has a time-table for His judgment. It will come, but it will come in His time.
There is certainly no sin in crying for justice, but for now there is a higher cause than vengeance to plead for—forgiveness and reconciliation.
The problem for most Christians is that they have a misconception of God’s justice, not fully understanding the long suffering of God. Remember brethren, beloved of God, how God told Abraham that he would be a stranger in a land that is not his, and serve them and be afflicted by them for 400 years for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. Remember how God dealt with Ninevah. God is holy; He could have dealt with Ninevah in wrath and destruction. God is also love, and He could also deal with them in grace and salvation.
Most Christians look for punishment—retribution instead of correction—failing to remember that if God had chosen to deal with mankind in this way mankind would not exist.
Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told to you from the beginning that Godly punishment always has a restorative purpose?
When sin entered the Garden of Eden, and humanity hid, it was God who came seeking Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:9). It was God who initiated the first rehabilitation program for criminals as well as the earliest ex-offender reentry initiative. It was God who sought His wayward people and pleaded with them to repent and receive His salvation. It was God weeping through the tears of Jeremiah for His sinful people (Jer. 13:35-17). It was God who was depicted in the story of those going into the slave prostitute market and bringing His unfaithful, sin-stained wife back and treating her with love as if she were a chaste, virgin bride (Hos. 3:1-3).
O foolish people, who hath bewitched you, that you should believe that God’s justice is retributive. Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told to you from the beginning? God’s justice was not constructed on Greco-Roman presuppositions of the goddess of Themis, but rather on the operative model of the ancient Israelite scapegoat ceremony.
The Romans conceived of justice as the balancing of the scales of the goddess Themis. Today, both inside and outside many American courthouses we find statues of Themis wearing a blindfold and carrying a sword and scales. She has seeped into our culture so thoroughly that we no longer realize we are committing a form of worship inside those courthouses.
There is no text in the Old Testament where God’s justice is equated with vengeance on the sinner. God’s justice is saving justice, where punishment of the sinner is an integral part of restoration. God’s creative justice heals and restores the victims and transforms the perpetrator, bringing about shalom, and the peace of the community.
In the New Testament, scales or balances are mentioned only once: in Revelations 6:5, where death (not God) carries them to measure out starvation rations during the end times. The Old Testament uses “mozen” or balances, fifteen times, almost always in reference to merchants cheating their customers; one exception is a beautiful poetic image in Isaiah 40:12 that describes the Greater God’s sovereignty. In only one passage, Job 31:6, do we find the man of sorrows (Job) complaining, “Let God weigh me in the scales of Justice; thus will h know my innocence.”
But that is precisely what God refused to do. Iin fact, the whole book of Job is one long refutation of man’s attempt to impose his sense of right and wrong on God’s actions! “Who is this that obscures divine place with words of ignorance?” asks God. “Where were you when I founded the Earth?” (Job 38:2, 4)
Impartial scales were never God’s symbol of Justice, because this wisdom descended not from above, but is earthly. The wisdom that is from above was granted to the writers of your Constitution in Article I Section II, which states:
“All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship…”
Search the Scriptures and receive the word with all readiness of mind whether these things be so. That the prophets of old give the bad news first, and then relate good news. Even in the darkest hour, there is the shining of hope.
My dearly beloved brethren, you should know that before fallen, sinful men can be restored, he must be cleansed by the precious blood of Christ and clothes in His righteousness (2Cor. 5:21). Isn’t this Zechariah’s vision of the cleansing of Joshua, the High Priest? (Zech. 3:1-10)
Brethren, beloved of God, knowing this: that God has not finished with the prisoner. His message of restoration gives light in the darkness, hope amidst sin and sorrow, and the promise of salvation after destruction.
Hear a word from the Lord: the Church’s mission to help restore the prisoner can be taken from church discipline outlined in Galatians 6. The three important steps for restoring the brother or sister are:
Pick Them UP
The word translated “restore” literally means “repair, mend, or refurbish.” It conveys the idea of bringing something damaged back to its former condition. Isn’t that what God is doing to this fallen world?
Hold Them UP
The restorer must also be willing to help shoulder the fallen brother’s burden. Helping bear the burden entails getting involved in the other person’s life. It involves much more than coming in and preaching a quick sermon or merely saying “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” (James 2:16) It involves cultivating a relationship. It involves being there from the beginning throughout the incarceration into the reentry process and beyond. Why? Because there will be some in society as well as the church who will doubt that the brother or sister has truly changed, but if a member of the congregation can attest to these things (i.e. conversion, transformation, faithfulness) it would make acceptance easier. This is what Barnabas did for Paul when he brought him before the apostles (Acts 9:27). Paul learned this lesson and did it for Onesimus when he sent him back to Philemon.
Build them UP
In verse 6 of Galatians 6 “the one who is taught” refers to the person being restored, and “him who teaches” is the person doing the restoring. They have a ministry of mutual edification with one another.
Therefore, dearly beloved, I beseech you by the mercies of God that you allow the Holy Spirit to stir up your gifts, talents and resources, and pray for laborers to bring in the spiritual harvest (Matt. 9:38).
There is a great deal of work to be done. Multitudes of souls are headed down the road that leads to incarceration, multitudes of souls are in prison, and multitudes are becoming returning citizens—all need instruction from the word of God. This is your mission field and Jesus Christ has told you that the harvest is plenty but the laborers few. Get involved, if not in the lives of these brothers and sisters, then influence change in laws and policies that limit opportunities for returning citizens subsequent to their release, such as restrictions on housing, voting, education and employment. Temper justice with mercy to bring about shalom!
May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and forevermore.