“Going to prison is like dying with your eyes open.” Bernard Kerik
There are two phrases from Jesus’ first public words of ministry that weigh heavily on me:
“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives…
to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
Twice we find the word “liberty” as part of our Lord’s purpose and ministry – liberty for captives and liberty for the oppressed. While the oppressed may be somewhat qualified, captives is not. It’s a broad term. What did Jesus mean by captives? To be a captive means you’re a prisoner of someone or something. You’ve been captured, taken hold of, put into chains and bondage – with or against your will. Obviously, Jesus was speaking first about freeing those in bondage to sin. Yet, I don’t think it excludes those who’ve been physically enslaved or judicially incarcerated.
If there’s any area of ministry that the Church for the most part has failed, it’s for those imprisoned or incarcerated. For me it’s become a great burden, though I certainly have more questions than answers at this juncture of my life.
Our church used to support The New Man Project. This ministry’s purpose was to provide employment for recently released prisoners, paying a family-supporting wage to enable them to become healthy citizens. The primary goal was to share the Gospel. True change occurs in a community one person at a time and only comes as we’re transformed by God’s grace, repent, accept by faith Christ’s sacrificial death for us, becoming a new person. Sadly, they had difficulty finding financial support to maintain this ministry and are currently in hiatus, seeking new funding for a re-start.
The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. While home to only 5% of the world’s population, we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. Criminologists have coined the term “mass incarceration” to describe the 500% increase in the prison population in the U.S. over the last 40 years.
Our judicial and incarceration system is a failure. The philosophy of just building more prisons to lock up more people is ludicrous, even from a fiscal perspective. Keeping just one inmate incarcerated, on average, for a year costs over $30,000.00. Yes, we must lock up violent and sexual criminals, but what are we truly accomplishing when we incarcerate shoplifters, addicts, those convicted of fraud or drunk drivers? Wouldn’t it be better to have a system of restitution and rehabilitation without incarceration? Should a shoplifter really be locked up with a rapist?
Please understand, it doesn’t excuse it, yet many repeat offenders grew up in homes where they themselves experienced terrible trauma in the forms of neglect, abandonment, sexual or physical abuse. Punishment for them then is seen as something to endure, not a learning tool. Planning or thinking in life-skill categories isn’t part of their life. They live in survival mode. Think about it, who plans for the future when there probably isn’t one? Trauma during those early years increases the likelihood of criminal behavior, mental illness or substance abuse later on. Those of us from relatively stable homes just don’t think the way that they think.
Jesus has called us to be incarnational. We must seek to understand and even enter their world, just as He entered ours. Those who have been incarcerated are often bruised, broken and wounded. If you take those who are physically broken and wounded to a hospital, shouldn’t you take those who are emotionally broken and wounded to a spiritual hospital, to the church? Shouldn’t our church be the place for healing and transformation?
As Paul Tripp writes, “What is the church? A well-led successful organization or a hospital full of diseased people? Everywhere you look, you will find couples who are struggling to love, parents who are struggling to be patient, children who are attracted to temptation and friends who battle the disappointments of imperfect relationships. This is 100% of the church’s membership! The church is not a theological classroom. It is a conversion, confession, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness and sanctification center.” The church is to be a wonderful, healing place! You don’t have to be perfect or good or even pretend. You can be a mess because Jesus loves to fix messes. That’s why Jesus died…for messes like you and me.
I don’t have all the answers but I know the One who does. At Grace, we’re not about us, our wants or needs. God has called us to be a lighthouse of hope to our community through astonishing, sacrificial acts of compassion. As others see Christ’s love manifested in us, not just talked about, they’re more open to listening to our message. We must be a church known for deeds of love, mercy and compassion. Our world will never accept Jesus until they first see Jesus in us. It means loving those who humanly speaking we may be repulsed by, like the incarcerated. Our Savior reached out to us though our sin was an abomination to Him. Then He died so that we could be free! Surely by His grace, we can show love, sharing acts of compassion for the incarcerated and those who are sin’s prisoners.God may have brought someone into your life who, humanly speaking, you wouldn’t walk across the street for. We’re motivated by a higher calling to walk across a bridge for them, the bridge of the Cross. We must share God’s love, that there’s forgiveness, hope and restoration. Will you walk across the bridge of the Gospel to set a captive free? Will our church be a place of hope for those society considers hopeless? Are you in? I am!
Can we help you spiritually? Can we help you know Jesus better? Please check out more resources on our church's web page, Gracechurchwi.org. Or, call us at 262.763.3021. If you'd like to know more about how Jesus can change your life, I'd love to mail you a copy of how Jesus changed my life in "My Story." E-mail me at Carson@gracechurchwi.org to request a free copy. Please include your mailing address.