I was channel surfing recently and latched onto a program on the Christian Broadcasting channel featuring a prominent televangelist whose topic of the day was his work with prisoners. He described his encounters with a number of men who were ardent in their belief and filled with the Holy Spirit. He went on to present the picture of the changes wrought in these men’s lives. All very inspiring.
The one thing that emanated from his colloquy, certainly unintentionally, was his superiority to these poor wretches. The smug self-satisfaction throughout this recital of his unswerving sacrifice, to actually come into physical contact with the “unclean”, leaked through in buckets. As he sat on camera in his Armani suit and referred to these individuals as “offenders” or “inmates” and rarely by even their first name, this television star of the ministry of Christ perpetrated a further demeaning of these men’s lives and persons. Our hero for Christ then concluded with a heartfelt plea for money, donations so that he could afford to continue his “service” to those least among us. I understand this. Gasoline prices are soaring and his Rolls Royce is a real gas-guzzler.
One thing that should be observed, even by anyone unfamiliar with life behind bars (this would include most of us), is that the salient feature of incarceration in America’s prison systems is a systemic degradation of the human spirit. I’m not talking about a humiliating encounter with a sadistic guard or staff member. The actual physical mistreatment of these people who are absolutely helpless is fortunately fairly rare. Instead, a systemic abuse occurs that is ongoing, minute-by-minute and day-by-day.
Those men and women who have transgressed one of our myriads of laws are relegated by the system itself to a less than human status. After being demonized by a compliant press, the accused felon is stripped not only of his or her freedom, but also of any earthly possessions. These seized items are usually split up among the bureaucrats who prosecuted the case for their own use under the guise of furthering “law enforcement” objectives. The penniless convict is then dressed in bright orange, chained hand and foot and paraded before the public. Once in prison, they are dealt with as a piece of paper, a form in the labyrinth of a gigantic bureaucracy. The prisoner is routinely cut off from contact with family and friends. Frequently denied such basic necessities as timely medical care, decent food or even a roll of toilet paper, they are then ordered about by their keepers as children. In fact, most correctional authorities agree that newly released prisoners suffer culture shock after being “infantalized” for a number of years.
The argument is often made that these people are getting exactly what they deserve. Perhaps in many cases that is true. But, as Christians, I think it would behoove us all to become more aware of the definition of the word “criminal”. The Dictionary defines criminal as “One who has committed or been convicted of a crime.”
I wonder how many of my fine readers think of themselves as criminals. A reporter for a Chicago newspaper once asked Al Capone how he viewed himself. Mr. Capone’s answer was, “I am a philanthropist and a businessman.” What about you?
There are two kinds of crime codified in our immense body of law. There is "malum per se" and "malum prohibitum". These Latin phrases mean an act that is inherently evil in and of itself or an act that is simply prohibited by statute. Anyone in virtually every culture on the planet will agree that robbing someone of their possessions, murder or rape are excellent examples of malum per se, an evil act that must be punished. Even those persons who are incarcerated for committing these very crimes will be in accord with that premise.
Malum prohibitum is a horse of a different color. These heinous crimes include failure to comply with numerous bureaucratically promulgated regulations, incorrectly filling out a tax form or inadvertently cutting down a tree that was on federal property. This latter act sent two young men to prison for a year on a felony charge. Another man in California had to pay off the government bureaucrats with half of his family farm to avoid a life sentence in a Federal prison. His crime: He accidentally killed a kangaroo rat while plowing his field.
The most common examples of malum prohibitum are the Draconian laws against the use of drugs. Even if you view recreational drug use as the scourge of our time, you have to admit that in the vast majority of cases the only person affected by this activity is the user himself. Prior to 1913, this nation had no such laws and you could purchase cocaine or other such items over the counter at any pharmacy. By criminalizing drug use, we introduced a tremendous profit motive that has led to a wave of violence in our cities and the rise of nationwide drug gangs that surpass the worst organized crime syndicates that Prohibition produced. Today, over 80% of our prison population is the result of this so-called “war on drugs.” Most of these people pose no threat to you or me and their activity does not in any way impact on our lives. The basic theory of American law was at one time, “to protect your right to swing your fist up to the point of my nose.” Perhaps we should mind our own business and stop trying to regulate other people’s lives.
But back to you! I asked earlier if you were a criminal? You may not (I hope) use drugs or engage in murder for hire.
We characterize the seriousness of a crime by the severity of the sentence. The worst crimes, according to American law, are treason, murder and kidnapping. These can get you the death sentence. I personally think the forcible rape of a child should be in there too, but our wiser authorities don’t seem to agree with me. You say you haven’t done anything like that? OK! They committed crimes against the United States and received the worst the country could do to them.
After these depraved degenerates are executed, what happens to them? If they are unrepentant (and you are a Bible believing Christian), don’t they go to hell to await the final judgment at the great white throne?
Right! But again, you haven’t done anything like that. What about crimes against God? We call those "sins".
Oh, well everybody sins. Not too important, is it? Not like child molestation or murder?
But then, there is the sentence! The state can put you to death. The Lord can, AND SAID HE WOULD, put you in the lake of fire to burn where the flames are not quenched and the worm dieth not and the smoke of their anguish shall arise as incense to the angels forever and ever.
Before relegating those men and women who have been or are now incarcerated to a less than human status, even in your thoughts, as did that TV evangelist, I offer you a challenge. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate your integrity.
Next Sunday, or the next time you make it to church, stand in the congregation and testify.
“Lord Jesus, I want to thank you for what you did almost two thousand years ago. It was a magnanimous gesture, but in my case really unnecessary. I will stand on my own record at the final judgment.”
If this idea horrifies you, it should! Remember that lake of fire!
Maybe these people, who when released will be your neighbors (and I hope your friends), are just like you. Human beings who have made a mistake and paid dearly for it.
Jesus told us, “Judge not that ye be not judged.” If you can’t wholly accept this viewpoint in your thinking, then take the challenge. Show some courage in your convictions.