The New Jim Crow and the church (another old post)

Note: This is a devotional piece I wrote for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in October 2010. It uses some church-y references that I’m happy to qualify if anyone wants it “translated.” 🙂

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19, NIV

We’ve been talking about the joys of missional ministry in this region for a year now. I want to complicate it a little today.

Thirteen percent of African American men (1.4 million) are not able to vote due to felony convictions.

What could this possibly have to do with the church?

A colleague of mine in this region encouraged me to read a book recently called “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” I bought it just after another pastor in this region put forward the very hard question, “Why aren’t we as congregations and as a region doing anything to offer meaningful ministry to the incarcerated people in this state?” (As a side note, I am aware of several congregations in our region who support formerly incarcerated people in their transition out of prison and we have much to learn from them.)

It’s a hard book, an uncomfortable book. It’s a book that makes arguments so extreme that I keep checking the (valid) footnotes to make sure it’s true and keep looking at the author description in the back to remind myself that the author clerked for Supreme Court Justice Blackmun and is therefore probably not a kook.

Michelle Alexander argues that a whole generation of African American men is being disenfranchised from voting just as tangibly as previous generations were. With previous generations it was the Klan, or literacy tests distributed arbitrarily and unjustly. With this generation, it’s the brand of felon, a seemingly colorblind label only attached to people who have earned it. And yet, not only sentencing but simply who gets reported by police for crimes like drug possession affects these numbers: a story on NPR Monday morning backed up Alexander’s argument by quoting a California judge who said that young Black men are statistically more likely to be brought in by police for marijuana possession than their White male counterparts who are caught with the same product. Possession and distribution is the same in White communities, but the likelihood of being arrested is much higher in Black communities. (Please note: this is not an indictment of the men and women who put their lives on the line for our safety every day. However, the justice system is sometimes applied unevenly.)

So what could this possibly have to do with the church?

As I think about the concept of missional ministry (ministry that really is enmeshed with the needs of the surrounding neighborhood), it’s pretty obvious how this information would be relevant to a pastor in a church in Oakland.

But I think that it matters to all of us. When Jesus starts his ministry, he starts it (according to one gospel) by reading a passage from Isaiah about giving sight to the blind, hope to the poor and freedom to the captives. This means that our lives are wrapped up with the lives of people that have been rendered invisible, and then voiceless. (Anyone branded with the label of felon is not allowed to vote for the rest of their lives. Famous Watergate figure-turned prison minister Chuck Colson has been offered an exemption which he has refused to accept until others who have been imprisoned are also allowed to vote.)

But more than that, Jesus reminds us that people we might not think of as having anything to do with our day-to-day lives—the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed, the blind—are the people he has come to love, and that as Jesus’ brothers and sisters, we are called to love them also as brothers and sisters. This is the hard and inspiring work of missional ministry today. When our hearts break with them, when our futures rise and fall with theirs, when their joys and triumphs are ours as well, we are the body of Christ.

We have just given (generously, I’m confident) to our region’s Reconciliation Ministry offering. In past years, those resources have gone to help teach English to communities whose lives are less easy due to language barriers. Reconciliation resources have gone to providing ministry to unsheltered people. They have gone to food justice ministries where community gardens can feed people who don’t have enough money for healthy produce. I pray that our congregations will continue to grow in our commitment to being Christ’s hands and feet in the world in these ways and more—to the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed, the blind. Jesus went to those and stood with those who had no voice. Where do we stand?

Comment (1)

  1. Laura Jean

    Hey Sandhya, thanks for yet another disturbing, thought-provoking, inspiring post! I have to read that book.

    Tiny question — my understanding is that voting status due to felony convictions varies state-to-state. (Although maybe more states have disenfranchised felons since I last did the research. :P)

    My last year of college, I was doing a thesis on Hebrews and awakening to the reality of the prison industrial complex… I kept Hebrews 13:3a above my desk: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them…” The New Testament really doesn’t let us off the hook regarding this (Isaiah, either) – Matthew 25 also includes prisoners in the people we’re supposed to visit if we want to experience Christ’s presence in the world.

    And yes, the facts of this situation are often unbelievable.

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