LOOKING AT THE HISTORICAL NATURE OF CRIMINALIZATION FROM A THEOLOGICAL LENS, WITH AN EMPHASIS ON PRISONERS AND PRISONS
The criminalization of behaviors isn't something new, even in biblical context. This piece is meant to address the misconceptions in some of our faith communities when it comes to criminal justice, specifically when it comes to prisoners and prisons.
March 29th, 2022 | JoJo Deogracias Ejonga
As a believer and a person of faith, it is mind-battling to see that some of us in the faith community are the ones who vilify individuals that are accused or convicted of a crimes, and more often, are the ones advocating for the most severe form of punishment -- thereby abandoning our core principles of compassion, fairness, redemption and forgiveness as the scripture dictates.
As people of faith, the Lord has called us to his righteousness and made us as covenants to the people, with a specific mission and rules for which we ought to follow as believers. Meanwhile the scripture identifies specifically with prisoners in prison.
The scripture states:
“I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house. .” (see Isaiah 42:6-7). Not too far down in Isaiah 61:1, scripture paints a clear picture of what our mission is as believers. The scripture states: “The spirit of the "Lord" GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor, He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of prison to those who are bound.”
Many of us forget the historical and the biblical nature of the prosecution and persecution that people of faith had to deal with, and that many still deal with around the world today because of their faith or for what they believe in and stand for. A belief which some societies deem to be contrary to their norms.
We also forget that many of the great prophets, disciples, and apostles spoken about and mentioned in the scripture could be said to be far from perfect and that some were even accused of crimes.
Some of our greatest biblical heroes took people's lives by killing. Look no further than David who killed one of his warriors so he could conceal his sin of adultery by laying with his servant’s wife, or Moses, who killed a guard who he saw beating a slave. We could also talk about Paul, who was going around persecuting and crucifying Christians before his encounter with Christ, which I will address later below. While some might have done those things, others didn’t, yet they still fell victim to false imprisonment and were accused of crimes they didn't commit. This can be seen in the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis 39:6-20. Joseph was set up by his master's wife and ended up in prison. Despite his innocence, he still spent time in prison for the crime in which he was falsely accused.
Looking at the story of Belteshazzar (Daniel), Hananiah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abed'Nego), it was unlawful to disobey a King's decree. Here, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that an image of gold be built and mandated everyone within his kingdom must kneel down and worship the golden image. Whoever disobeyed this decree would be punished by being cast into a burning fiery furnace.
The three brave men mentioned above disobeyed and broke the king's decree, and as a result of their disobedience, they were thrown into the furnace of fire (Read Daniel 3:1-30).
This was similar to the situation with Daniel. He refused to abide by King Darius’ written decree, which was made in accordance with the law that governed that era. The decree barred anyone from petitioning any god or man for thirty days, except the King.
Daniel’s action led to him been cast to the den of lions (Daniel 6:6-16). Regardless of the unreasonableness of such decrees, they were accused of breaking a law and faced consequences that almost cost them their lives.
We may now move to the New Testament and focus specifically on the apostle Paul (known before as "Saul" when Jesus Christ was known as "Yahweh"). For believers, Paul is believed to be a very important figure in the Christian faith. This remains true, regardless of his past prior to his supernatural encounter with Jesus Christ, as described in the book of Acts:9.
Paul faced many persecutions and prosecutions after he became an apostle of Jesus Christ. As a result of his conversion, he became a target and accused of crimes, including blasphemy.
Paul was arrested and transported from nation to nation, facing trials, including one in front of King Agrippa (see Acts:26). He was prosecuted because he was preaching what some in those societies believed to be blasphemy. Paul’s actions were declared illegal based on the laws and norms of those societies. Paul later lost his life in the process. Many disciples, apostles, prophets, and people of faith who believed in Christ have also confronted similar persecutions and prosecution, even losing their lives, just like Paul.
Some of the most notable names are Peter, John, Silas, Mark, and John the Baptist, but the most important example is that of Jesus Christ, the figure who the Christian faith calls the "Messiah".
Jesus was accused of blasphemy, a very serious crime which was punishable by death. Setting aside the divine nature of Christ, the accusers still believed Jesus was breaking the law and therefore had him arrested, accused of the crime of blasphemy, jailed, and subsequently unfairly tried, convicted, and crucified.
I bring up these examples to remind my fellow believers that we don't have to conform to our emotions, but rather we can remind ourselves of who we are as believers, what our mission is, and how we are to treat those who are chained down behind prison walls facing prosecutions or persecutions. We need to remember that, even our own savior was prosecuted and faced an unjust justice system in his time. He was chained-up, sent to prison/jailed, sentenced to death and crucified for blasphemy. This was a crime which the judge refused to preside over and that was never proven.
As people of faith, we ought to very much acknowledge the victims of crimes which harm people, businesses, and society in general. With that in mind, it is imperative for us to never abandon the fundamental principles of "JUSTICE", which include fairness, just proportionality, compassion, and redemption.
We ought to remember that being compassionate doesn't mean neglecting the victims of crime. Scripture teaches us that being forgiving doesn't mean that you don't care about accountability, nor does advocating for proportionality mean you are weak or soft on crime. Contrary to the view of some, this compassion is actually consistent with the teaching of Christ and the Word of GOD which instructs believers and people of faith to be just, compassionate, proportional, fair, and be able to offer those who offend us the ability to be redeemed.
This is an appeal to the community of faith to reevaluate the way some of us view our fellow human beings who are suffering in chains and captivity, especially when we advocate for punitive measures and disproportional sentences against them. We ought to recognize that when we take those steps, we are doing so against our creator; for as believers, we are taught to believe that we are all created in the image of GOD and those in chains are no exception to this.
I write this to remind us that our savior was a disruptor who came to challenge the status quo. He was an advocate for the chained and those in prison and his mission was to set people free, rather than put them in chains or forsake them to cages.
The so-called “criminal justice system" has been unfair, unjust, and disproportional in its punishments. All of this reflects the hallmarks of what Christian faith stands against and is contrary to the principles and the teachings of Christ.
Our so-called “criminal justice system", which is the PIC (Prison-Industrial Complex) is the status quo. As people of faith and believers, we ought to follow Christ’s teachings and follow in his footsteps as he has commanded us to do when it comes to the issues of prison and our fellow human beings in chains!
Forgiveness, compassion, redemption, and love is the way we ought to live by.
JOJO DEOGRACIAS EJONGA. AKA.
JONATHAN DEOGRACIAS EJONGA LIHAU.