Where the Gospel Meets Mass Incarceration: Love Thy Neighborhood Podcast #28

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Prologue 0:00-4:30

Hosts Jesse Eubanks and Rachel Szabo introduce the podcast “Where the Gospel Meets Mass Incarceration” and partners Pass the Mic podcast. They explain that the episode will view mass incarceration through three lenses: ethnicity, wealth and proximity. 

  • Guest Steve Prince, an artist, recounts how a church in Louisville, KY commissioned him to redesign the stations of the cross in a former Catholic sanctuary with a modern twist. He chose to represent the current bondage of African American men: mass incarceration. 
  • Mass incarceration is a complex issue and can be difficult to narrow down to a specific angle.

Part 1 4:30-18:20

Author Dominique Gilliard breaks down some harrowing statistics about ethnicity and incarceration; Jesse and Rachel discuss Bryan Stevenson and his role in calling out the justice system’s injustice. 

  • America incarcerates the most people in the world: we have 2.2 million people in prison and make up 20% of the world’s prison population. America spends $87 billion on jails and prisons, the most of any country.
  • The biblical books of Jeremiah and Isaiah detail how Israel was destroyed in their disobedience to God. Some of the ways they disobeyed God were through their dealings with justice. 
  • 1 in 3 African American men will be locked up in their lifetimes, compared to 1 in 6 Hispanic men and 1 in 17 white men.
  • Mass incarceration arose when the 13th Amendment gave rise to the Black Codes, which allowed governments to persecute newly-freed slaves for minor crimes, roping them back into a life of servitude and slavery.
  • Harsh drug sentencing in the ’70s and ’80s skyrocketed America’s incarceration rate: half of all federal inmates are locked up for drug-related offenses
  • “According to the Center for American Progress,” Rachel says, “Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses despite there being equal substance usage rates.”
  • Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, filed a motion to the court for the judge to try his 14-year-old black, poor client as a 75-year-old white, corporate executive. 

Part 2 18:20-25:00

Jesse and Rachel break down the second lens: wealth. Bryan Stevenson explains the point he tried to make with his motion, and that wealth, not culpability, “shapes outcomes.”

“Ultimately, you judge the character of a society not by how they treat the rich, and the powerful and the privileged,” Bryan says, “but by how they treat the poor.”
  • Lawyers are expensive; public defenders are overworked and have large caseloads.
  • The cash bail system makes justice extremely expensive in this country. Seventy-six percent of people held in jails haven’t been convicted of a crime, but they can’t afford bail to be released. 
  • Bryan argued successfully before the Supreme Court to ban mandatory life sentences without parole for children under 17. He also started the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to people who were unfairly convicted, abused in state jails and prisons or unfairly sentenced.
  • “Ultimately, you judge the character of a society not by how they treat the rich, and the powerful and the privileged,” Bryan says, “but by how they treat the poor.”
  • Jesus continually affirmed the poor and the Bible promotes justice against the oppressed.

Part 3 25:00-51:06

Rachel shares a story about North Park Seminary, which teaches students alongside prisoners inside a maximum security prison to look through the ‘proximity’ lens of mass incarceration.

“If we know a system is broken, and we choose to do nothing about it, how then can we look at God and tell Him honestly that we have loved our neighbor?”
  • Mass incarceration isn’t just about ensuring fewer people get locked up—it’s also about the welfare of those already incarcerated. Education can help prisoners stay out of prison once released.
  • “The people we lock up are ‘Matthew 25’ bodies.” In other words, prisoners are the people Jesus calls the hungry, the thirsty, the sick: people are blessed for loving them. 
  • Biblical justice is two-fold: punitive and restorative.
  • The media turns prisoners into “the others” of society. Often, the news, movies, books paint prisoners as violent, dangerous and uncontrollable. This makes it easier for society to focus on punitive justice, not restoration. It makes us think of people as beyond God’s redemption because we are not in proximity to the incarcerated.
  • “We have to understand there is a fundamental connection between incarceration and scripture…literally, we would have no Bible if it weren’t for criminals,” Dominique says. “You’ve got John the Baptist, Paul, Jesus, Sampson, Joseph, Malachi, Stephen, Jeremiah, Peter, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Silas. All these great Biblical leaders were incarcerated. They’re criminals.”
  • Dominique says there are parallels in Jesus’s death on the cross and capital punishment: modern-day criminals who are executed by lethal injection are lain on a wooden table in the shape of a cross. The needle carrying the lethal dose in their arms are reminiscent of the nails in Jesus’s hands. 
  • Bryan has helped release over 135 wrongfully convicted Death Row inmates. He doesn’t understand why as humans we want to “kill all the broken people” in the world, but he does what he does in representing them because Bryan is broken, too.
  • “As Christians, we live with the premise that this world is less than it should be. We live with the truth that man-made systems are flawed,” Jesse says. “What that means for us, living in America, is that we can look at some of our systems that we’ve created, and we can start with the humility that it’s probably broken in some way. But, as Christians, our ultimate hope isn’t in a perfect system. It’s in a God who perfectly executes justice. And, one day, he will right all wrongs. But until that day, God calls us to love our neighbors. So the question becomes, if we know a system is broken, and we choose to do nothing about it, how then can we look at God and tell him honestly that we have loved our neighbor?” 

Discussion guide:

  • Do you believe our current judicial system reflects Biblical justice? Why or why not?
  • In what ways has this podcast episode made you think differently or reinforced your preexisting notions of mass incarceration?
  • What do you think that we as Christians, collectively, can do to help alleviate these cases of injustice? What can we do on an individual level?

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