Thursday, August 13, 2015

Benjamin L. Hartley: Mass Incarceration and the UMC

This post is written by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission and Director of United Methodist Studies at Palmer Theological Seminary. You can read more of his writings at his personal blog, "Mission and Methodism."

Twenty years ago I was in a Michigan prison. By the grace of God, I was working in that prison as a substance abuse counselor rather than as an incarcerated person. My work in Michigan followed on the heels of living and working on the west side of Chicago. There too I saw the impact of a rapidly escalating prison population on neighborhoods and families which were losing their fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters.

That was the mid-1990s which was close to the end of a devastating period – beginning around 1980 – of the sharpest increase in incarceration rates in state prisons across the United States. (The incarceration rate still increased after 2000 but not quite as dramatically.) In 1970 there were 200,000 incarcerated persons in the U.S. Now there are over 2 million. At the one year anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown the racist nature of the U.S. criminal justice system is especially sobering. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.

The prison population forecaster, a creative, interactive graphic published this week (August 11, 2015) by the Urban Institute, shows what policy changes could make criminal justice more just. Dozens of other statistics could be shared here to tell a similar story of lives devastated by a criminal justice system focused on retributive justice instead of restorative justice – about which the UM Social Principles speak eloquently.

Why do I raise this issue in the UM & Global blog? I have two reasons. First, it is important to acknowledge that the United Methodist Church is far from silent in the face of mass incarceration. I think we UMC folk frequently berate ourselves for not doing enough, and in so many ways that is true. But it is also important to express gratitude to God and to one another for the good work we are already doing.

The United Methodist Church is engaged in ministry with incarcerated persons in a wide panoply of ways. Individuals and congregations befriend prisoners, lead services of worship in prisons, and help “returned citizens” after they are released. The UMC’s General Board of Church and Society has a National Coordinator for Criminal Justice Reform named Douglas Walker who organizes UM congregations to become part of an ecumenical network of congregations who strive to be Healing Communities for families and communities affected by mass incarceration. The General Board of Church and Society is also engaged in advocacy to reform the criminal justice “system.” The term “system” is difficult here. It gives an impression of coherence and integrity that is sorely lacking in the way we treat persons who have committed crimes.

I also wanted to write about this for UM & Global because I serve as one of the representatives of the United Methodist Church in the National Council of Churches of Christ which has chosen the theme of mass incarceration as its priority for the next several years. The National Council of Churches of Christ has been the most important ecumenical body in the United States since its founding in 1950, and the United Methodist Church has played an integral role in that organization – and its predecessor – from the beginning. As one of the few (only?) professors of mission at our NCCC gatherings, I see part of my role there as reminding us all of how the missionary movement gave birth to the modern ecumenical movement. To address the injustice of mass incarceration will require ecumenical effort and a revitalized missionary imagination in our churches.

Hebrews 13:3 calls us to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them;” John Wesley noted in his commentary on this passage, “Seeing ye are members one of another.” Wesley spent a lot of time with prisoners throughout his life. I have been wondering of late how his conversations with prisoners– especially early in his ministry – influenced his own deep appreciation of God’s grace and the centrality of Christian fellowship for our growth in holiness. I don’t think these conversations were merely incidental.

As followers of Jesus we must be vigilant to never scapegoat the prisoners and “returned citizens” who are or will be our neighbors. We do this in all sorts of subtle ways through, for example, dehumanizing terms like “sexual predator.” No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace and redemption.

It is worth meditating on Holy Scripture’s and Wesley’s admonition to remember that we “are members one of another.” With this Wesleyan advice in mind, let’s begin by praying for those who are imprisoned but who are nonetheless integral to the body of Christ. It has been twenty years since I worked with prisoners on a daily basis. I pray they are all doing better today, and I pray that the Spirit would lead us all to be more faithful in remembering them. We are members one of another.

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