One of the few areas in which progressives and conservatives have managed to find some areas of common ground in the world of public policy in recent years revolves around the issue of reducing massing incarceration and promoting second chances for the formerly incarcerated. The growing momentum in North Carolina for raising the age at which young criminal defendants are automatically tried as adults, “banning the box” on job applications, and providing meaningful opportunities to expunge old criminal records are but three encouraging examples of this hopeful trend.
As part of this effort, the North Carolina Justice Center (parent organization of NC Policy Watch) helps lead an effort called the NC Second Chance Alliance. The following brief essay was written by an advocate who works with an affiliate of the Alliance known as the Christian Community Development Association.
By Shawn Casselberry
Mass incarceration is a troubling trend that is inconsistent with Christian belief and practice, yet many Christians do not see ending this phenomenon as an urgent discipleship issue. Even among churches that are active around the prison system, a bifurcation exists between prison ministry and prison advocacy that makes mobilizing churches to resist mass incarceration much more difficult.
Part of the problem is, our ideological and political leanings shape the way Christians view prisoners and approach prison reform, creating unique blind spots for conservative and liberal Christians. According to a survey by Lifeway Research, only 46% of pastors see “the rapid growth of the inmate population in recent decades as unjust.” In Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that white evangelicals struggle to see racial structures of inequality or systems of injustice. This systemic blind spot leads many Christians with a heart for justice to focus on personal forms of prison ministry, sometimes to the exclusion of prison advocacy.
While liberals tend to emphasize systemic change, they have blind spots of their own.
A chaplain friend of mine made this observation, “Conservatives love to visit the prison but they aren’t as involved in addressing systemic injustice. And liberals are involved in addressing systemic change but don’t visit the prison.” The liberal focus on systemic change can prevent activists from building actual relationships with prisoners and/or the formerly incarcerated. This is a solidarity blind spot. In The Irresistible Revolution, author and death penalty activist Shane Claiborne sums up the liberal blind spot: “It’s not that we don’t care about the poor, it’s that we don’t know them.”
What is needed is a holistic approach that includes solidarity with our brothers and sisters in prison (and commitment to walking with them when they return) and advocacy around systemic change. Identifying our ideological blind spots, helps us engage in prison advocacy from a place of humility, and better work across political and denominational lines with others.
The Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), a network of Christian churches and organizations committed to holistic change in under-resourced communities, is one example of how Christians are being mobilized to resist mass incarceration. CCDA has made addressing mass incarceration an organizational priority and provides churches with resources to help them gain awareness and take action. Earlier this month, they organized over 50 “Locked in Solidarity” events nationwide to educate Christians about mass incarceration and what their responsibility is to resist it. They had those most directly impacted by mass incarceration share personal stories to illuminate the systemic injustices and helped participants see how their sacred texts might be leading them to “be merciful,” “to do justly,” and to “remember those in prison as if they were there themselves.”
While our country remains deeply divided over many social issues, there is growing consensus that something needs to change in our prison system. I hope that prison advocates can see Christian churches and organizations as potential allies in the struggle for prison reform and build bridges between ideological and faith divides so we can work together for change.
The author serves on the mass incarceration task force for Christian Community Development Association.