Saturday, August 06, 2011

Who Would Jesus Incarcerate?

Article first published as Who Would Jesus Incarcerate? on Blogcritics.

Evangelical activist and author Jim Wallis recently framed debate about our nation's debt as a potential "moral default":

"This national debate about our priorities and, indeed, our character, is far from over. When all is said and done in any final deal, the faith community will be watching to see if the most vulnerable are being protected or savaged for the financial sins of the rest of us. If low-income people are not exempted from deficit reduction, the result will be a fundamental moral default."

While it is true that Wallis and many of his fellow evangelicals do not speak for all Christians on such issues, as a Baha'i I have found the way that they have provided prophetic vision and voices to the debate is truly inspiring. An effective strategy for mobilizing moral and spiritual energies to defend the most vulnerable has been the "circle of protection" initiative. The Circle of Protection is a diverse, non-partisan coalition of Christian leaders dedicated to that efforts at financial responsibility by our government are balanced by social responsibility towards the poor. The principle statement of this group which articulates its values and priorities includes the following:

Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. They should be made as effective as possible but not cut. A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth.

Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.

As laudable as efforts like The Circle of Protection are, they are incomplete if they do not address the fact that many people in America are unable to access poverty reducing programs or decent jobs. As Michelle Alexander has described in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, once you are labeled a felon, you can be legally discriminated against in the very areas that Wallis and others are fighting for. Surely the circle of protection is large enough to embrace the largely black and brown men who are being incarcerated at rates unheard of in American history, condemned to civic death and internal exile, and locked in a condition of racial caste by law and custom. Efforts to protect the poor must include addressing mass incarceration, which not only contributes to poverty but primarily targets the poor. As the saying goes, the rich get richer and the poor get prison. In a study of the relationship between incarceration and poverty, the Justice Policy Institute put it this way:

"Poverty does not create crime, nor is limited wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system; however, people with the fewest financial resources are more likely to end up in prison or jail."

Many faith communities are already deeply involved in advocacy to reform the criminal justice system and minister to those impacted by the prison industrial complex. Much more needs to be done however. As Alexander and other scholars have noted, mass incarceration is being largely driven by the War on Drugs. In order to turn the tide, this "war" must come to an end. Nothing short of a massive mobilization of concerned citizens will accomplish this task. It is time for people of all faiths who care about "the least of these" to confront the War on Drugs head on as a spiritual crisis just as important as the federal budget. The opportunities for a new kind of interfaith, anti-war movement are profound.

As they have done so well regarding the budget debate, people of faith can transform the discourse about the Drug War and crime and punishment generally. They can open minds, soften hearts, and sharpen vision. They can inspire, mobilize, an canalize collective compassion. They can create politically educated and engaged communities. They can nurture an emerging generation of prophetic leaders while deepening the wisdom of veteran spiritual warriors.

Video related to the NAACP's historic call to end the War on Drugs closes with participants gathered together in prayer. In this spirit, I'd like to close with a Baha'i prayer written by Baha'u'llah the Founder of the Baha'i Faith:

My God, Whom I worship and adore! I bear witness unto Thy unity and Thy oneness, and acknowledge Thy gifts, both in the past and in the present. Thou art the All-Bountiful, the overflowing showers of Whose mercy have rained down upon high and low alike, and the splendors of Whose grace have been shed over both the obedient and the rebellious.

O God of mercy, before Whose door the quintessence of mercy hath bowed down, and round the sanctuary of Whose Cause loving-kindness, in its inmost spirit, hath circled, we beseech Thee, entreating Thine ancient grace, and seeking Thy present favor, that Thou mayest have mercy upon all who are the manifestations of the world of being, and to deny them not the outpourings of Thy grace in Thy days.

All are but poor and needy, and Thou, verily, art the All-Possessing, the All-Subduing, the All-Powerful.