Tuesday, 14 January 2014 00:00

"Setting the Prisoners Free", January 12, 2014

“Setting the Prisoners Free”
Isaiah 42:1-9
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 12, 2014
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Today’s scripture is the first of the four servant songs in Isaiah.  These verses hold the hope and expectation of the Messiah.  The one who will establish justice, who will open the eyes of the blind, who will bring light to the nations, the one who will set the prisoners free.  Even though we are still awash in lingering Christmas goodness, we run the risk of falling back into the expectation not that everything will be different, but the realistic expectation that everything will be the same at best, or for some of us even worse.

When the gospel writers tried to capture the essence of who Jesus was and what this movement that we called the church of Jesus Christ was all about, they harkened back to the suffering servant songs.  Maybe they needed their reminders of the prophetic work of God still left undone.  Look at the first three verses.  Here is my servant.  My servant will bring forth justice to the nations (verse 1).  He will be a light and will bring forth justice. (verse 3)  The Messiah will do this only in the ways that the Messiah has inspired the church to keep the movement going.  That’s what we are to do, establishing justice is our sacred responsibility as a people captivated by this Gospel story.

So, we’ll look at several ways to do that in the coming weeks. Next week, we’ll look at Martin Luther King who called us to be a light to the nations. And on the last week in January we’ll look at sacred and profane economics.

But this week, I want to focus on this 7th verse of today’s scripture.  “I have called you to open the eyes of those who are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon and from the prison those who sit in darkness.”


Now, when we think of prisoners, we think of criminals, don’t we?  We think that people have done wrong and are thus put in prison to atone for their act of stepping across the line of what is fair and just.  But in Biblical times, prisoners were almost always political prisoners.  These were people who were taking exception to the power of the King or the ruling elite.  Isaiah was writing from exile.  The people had been stripped of their land and had to march to a different set of tunes.  Their leaders were imprisoned and their hope dashed.  It was a great way to gain social control.  Rip apart families.  Take the breadwinner away.  Maybe even round up the strongest and have them toil as slave-workers building roads or quarrying out rocks.  It set up and economic system that ran the country.  So a call to set prisoners free was to mess with the entire structure of society.  It was a deeply revolutionary thought.  And that is what we have today: the call to set the prisoner free.  What structures need to be overturned?  What prison walls need to be overcome?

When we think of setting the prisoners free, we often spiritualize the idea. We are prisoners of our anger, our rage, our addiction, our lack of forgiveness. That’s all true. But I think there is an aspect of the prophetic call that is supposed to be more than just a sanitized spiritual reformation.

We are still mourning the death of Nelson Mandela. He taught us so much about what it means to be a truly inspired and revolutionary man.  And of course we know him as a revolution-inspiring prisoner freed after 27 years of incarceration because he was deemed too dangerous to the South African social and economic order. President Barack Obama put it well in his tribute to Mandela just a few weeks ago:  

Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid, because of his eloquence and his passion, but also because of his training as an advocate. He used decades of prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressors, so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depend upon his.

Nelson Mandela spoke about the setting the jailors free from the prison of racism.  He needed to set himself free from the prison of his need for revenge. It was revolutionary work.

In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean was released from prison, but remained in bondage of the parole system.  His yellow papers requiring him to humiliatingly check with an officer once per month limited his worldview and all but guaranteed his return to prison where he would serve as a strong-backed slave to the state.  The rest of the story is how he redeemed his worldview and sought to set others free from judgment, even his old jailor.  The theme of Victor Hugo’s epic story is revolution.  The revolution doesn’t happen until prisoners are set free on many levels.

We hear this admonition to set the prisoner free throughout scripture.  Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his very first sermon, The spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed and to declare the acceptable year of God’s favor.” We are good at all of those except, the set the prisoner free part.  That’s the one that we get kinda squishy about.

I spent my airplane time this past week reading Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”(The New Press, NY, NY 2012)

It is her thesis that there is a consistent and persistent and egregious system at work in our society that has replaced the racism of the past with a new racism sanctioned by the so-called War on Drugs that has resulted in the mass incarceration of a major segment of the African American community in such an unequal way that it is as bad as or even worse that the Jim Crow and slavery laws that we had hoped we had recovered from as a country.

Alexander thought the statistics must be wrong.  There can’t be a perpetual black underclass caused by incarceration.  Look how far we’ve come.  We’re 100 year from the emancipation proclamation.  We’re 50 years removed from the March on Washington.  We’re 50 years removed from the Civil Rights Act. We’re 50 years removed from the War on Poverty. We have the first black president.  If it’s getting better for a few, it must be getting better for us all.

But hear these statistics:

In the past 30 years, the US penal system has grown from 300,000 inmates to over 2 million with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. One percent of Americans are behind bars. The population of female prisoners has grown 839% since 1977. In 2009, half of prisoners reported annual income of less than $10,000 prior to their arrest. 80% of men are working full time.  55% of state prison inmates were working full-time prior to their arrest. Convicted felons can’t get financial aid, they can’t vote and they often can’t work.

She writes, “The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.  The US imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all of those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.” (pp. 6,7)

We remember that in the 80’s the war on poverty was replaced with the war on drugs.  Even though statistics showed that drug use was on the decline, we embraced a get tough on drugs policy that ramped up the mandatory sentences for drug offenses.  But did it do so in an equal way?  Crack cocaine and powder cocaine were drugs of choice for certain classes and races of people. The powder cocaine mandatory sentences were much less than the crack sentences.  One senator actually said of the 1986 drug abuse act, “If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years.  Only crack is to blame. One is tempted to think that if crack did not exist, someone somewhere would have received a federal grant to develop it.” (p. 53)

Mandatory minimum sentences put people behind bars and label them felons and criminals for life.

But more insidious than that is that “the war on drugs cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility towards black and black programs without being exposed to the charge of racism.” (p. 54)

No president has since reeled back the war on drugs.  Prison sentences remain high on first offenders.  Remember Clinton’s three strikes and you’re out law?  You have presidents all wanting to appear tough on crime and that has become the new way to be racist without appearing that way.

31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the war began.  “To put the matter in perspective, consider this, there are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than there were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the US than the war on drugs. “(p. 60)

“Imprisonment…now creates far more crimes than it prevents, by ripping apart fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables. Although it is common to the think of poverty and joblessness as leading to crime and imprisonment…research shows that the War on Drugs is the major CAUSE of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families and crime today.” (pp. 236,7)

So what is the solution?  Just set all of the people free?  Well, that would take some work. Imagine this: if 4 out of 5 prisoners are set free (to get back to the egregious numbers of the 1970’s) one million people would lose their jobs. That’s how large the prison industrial complex has grown.  My Venezuelan cab driver in Orlando lamented to me about the violence in his home country.  He traces it to the movement by Hugo Chavez to relax sentences of criminals.  He also sees a correlation with giving (inadequate) money to the poor, which decreases their incentive to work.  The safety net increases crime, partially because people are bored without work.

My daughter asked me last week about the marijuana law in Colorado. Wouldn’t this be bad for society, she rightfully wondered? I argued that it was actually good.  For marijuana could be regulated for the first time.  It could be used for medicinal purposes.  But it would take away the criminalizing element of a drug that is less addictive than cigarettes.  Of course, there would be campaigns against using it, just like there are for cigarettes and alcohol.  Imagine if legalizing recreational marijuana came to a state that was more racially diverse than Colorado.  Then we might see some changes.

Our sacred responsibility is freeing prisoners.  There are the literal prisoners who are victims of the New Jim Crow.  The racial prisoners, like us who benefit from this silent wave of incarceration, and those of us who are blinded by our own judgmentalism and myopia.  But we are not able to do this by ourselves.  It is a huge problem that calls for huge answers.

I think that the real work of setting prisoners free begins with unmasking the racism and privilege that white folks take for granted.  It think it is our sacred responsibility to recognize that loving God means loving your neighbor.  Loving your neighbor means being fair to your neighbor and not prejudging him or her.  And when we see it happening, we are to call out the system that blinds us.  Maybe that’s why the setting prisoner free is tied up with bringing recovery of sight to the blind.

Racism is alive and well. Look at the voter restriction laws.  Look at the stop and frisk laws.  Look at the stand your ground laws.  Look at Travon Martin and George Zimmerman.  Look at the current prison industrial complex.

Prisoners have become non-people to us. We call them names: convicts, offenders, criminals. It would seem to me that Jesus says it is our sacred responsibility to care for the prisoner.  When we do, we set ourselves free from the prisons of our privilege and comfortable myopia.

Nelson Mandela said, “To be free is not merely the casting off of one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” He also said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.  Then you make him your partner.”

How do we do that?

I attended a workshop at the ABC Minister’s Council and one of the presenters spoke about a program called ABC Reads.  She said that the idea is to have people across the country read a book and discuss it amongst themselves.  Kind of like a larger book club.  But the idea is to have people change their behavior because of engaging in the ideas of such a book.  This year’s book is “Ministry with Prisoners and Families: the Way Forward.” (Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA 2011)

It has several authors who tell their stories of living in prison or ministering alongside people in prison.  They cause us to look at the humanity of the person in prison.  And as we do so, we see our humanity.

We need to think of people returning from prison not as ex-cons, but returning citizens.

Matthew 25 stated, “I was in prison and you visited me”  Joan Parajon took this scripture literally and began a choir in the men’s prison in Managua.

Some churches are giving birthday parties for children born in prison.

The opportunities are vast and are only limited by our own fear of the unknown.  But this is precisely where we must step out.

Sisters and brothers, we are admonished by scripture to set the prisoner free.  But it is more than simply loosening the bars of prison walls.  We must struggle to open our minds and hearts to the cries of the people behind bars.  We must gain the strength to inconveniently question long-held truths about the war on drugs.  We need to see it for what it is, an escalation in the war on the poor and the war on the racial caste that is as old as those first slave ships in the 1600’s.

And in this New Year, our sacred responsibility is to embrace the entire Gospel message, even that pesky one about setting the prisoner free.

So consider this:
How are we bound by this system that keeps a racial un-voting underclass?
How are our eyes blinded?
How are we imprisoned by our judgmentalism, our shortsightedness, our fear?

The good news is that we are given the capacity and the Spirit to do something about it.  We have a community of smart and caring people who are not content with the discontent of a class of people. So, pray, educate yourselves and then start to imagine a world where prisoners are set free.  It’s revolutionary thinking and acting.  It’s Good News.  It’s Gospel.  And it’s our sacred responsibility.