Feb 2, 2014, The Presentation of Our Lord YR A

Criminal Justice Sunday

The Reverend Deacon Thomas R. English

The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection

Eugene, Oregon

February 2, 2014

Micah 6: 6-8

Psalm 15

Hebrews 2:14-18

Luke 2:22-40

Good Evening (Good Morning).  Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple as well as mark the very first observance of Criminal Justice Sunday in this Diocese of Oregon.

The 40-day-old baby Jesus full of life is presented in the temple when Simeon recognizes him as the hope of the future.  These two themes—hope and justice— are united with Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary of his death on the cross— as a criminal.  In Criminal Justice Sunday we recognize the importance of our criminal justices system as our hope for community peace and by honoring those who work within it.  Sadly, in these times, as a people of God we must also lament its brokenness raising our voices to advocate for responsible reform.

We often teach and preach about social justice, but almost never about criminal justice.

This evening (morning) I want to do a number of things: First, honor the men and women who work within our criminal justice system; (2) talk to you about criminal justice in the context of God’s justice; (2) tell you just how badly broken our criminal justice system is; (3) convince you that these issues are not only critically important to Christians but urgent as well; and finally (4) suggest ways you can get involved.

Prayer 37 in the Book of Common Prayer (pg. 826) reads in part:

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal…Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life…and give them hope for their future. When they are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal and callous.  And since what we do for those in prison O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot.

This prayer recognizes the very real spiritual risks—brutality and callousness—to those who work within our criminal justice system: guards, wardens, chaplains, jail administrators—yes; But also prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges. And then there are the offenders and their victims and their families and their communities—our communities. It also reminds us of our moral responsibility as Christians and as citizens for the evil done in our name.

            “He has told you O, mortal, what is good;

What does the Lord require of you

But to do justice, and to love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God.”

These words from Micah beg the questions: so what is God’s justice and does it include criminal justice?  It absolutely does. In the Hebrew bible, justice almost always means social justice—that is, does everyone have a fair share of everything—does everyone have enough? It includes those in prison who have the least. God calls us to do justice—the verb form, just as he calls us to love one another—the verb form.

It would be naive to ignore the fact that individuals do choose to commit crimes and are accountable for their actions.   But choices are limited by circumstances, and it is also naïve, if not dishonest, to speak of crime solely in terms of personal free will. Under certain social conditions people will turn to crime who in other situations would remain law-abiding— poverty, unemployment, racial inequality, social prejudice, family dysfunction, hopelessness and drug and alcohol abuse all have a role in fostering crime. A significant proportion of criminal offenders have been offended against as children before they became offenders. It is crucial to recognize these societal causes of, and our collective responsibility for crime rather than just dividing individuals into categories of guilty and innocent, and tossing the guilty into jail and throwing away the key.

Society’s own—our own, complicity in the creation of criminals is quickly lost sight of the outpourings of moral indignation at the acts of individual offenders.

For most people, including most Christians, prisons are “out of sight, out of mind”. We know prisons exist. We’re glad they exist, because they remove dangerous criminals from the streets. But what goes on in prisons, and whether they do any good, are not questions that concern us much. All we really want to know is that bad people will end up in prison, because that helps us feel safe. All the rest is someone else’s problem.

But this “out of sight, out of mind” attitude is not an option for Christians.   Why? Because of what the Bible has to say about prison and prisoners, and our responsibilities towards them, not to mention what it says about justice, repentance, forgiveness and restoration. Those who claim to take the witness of scripture seriously in shaping their beliefs and practice ought to find the current state of criminal justice deeply disturbing if not scandalous.

and to love mercy

The Church does a pretty good job with mercy or compassion.  Works of compassion are what we do about the poor and homeless.  It is what I do and the small band of us who make up the Diocesan Prison Ministry Commission do  when we visit with prisoners, counsel them when they get out and work with organizations like Sponsors which helps them get a job and find a safe and permanent place to live a become contributing members of our community once again.

But, by itself, it is not enough.

My own epiphany came about two years ago when I attended the Interfaith Alternative Prayer Breakfast here in Eugene.  Many of us had been working for the adoption of a Charter for Compassion to be passed by public bodies and endorsed by local officials. A poster for the Charter was propped up against the speaker’s lectern.  Our speaker that morning was John Dominic Crossan, an Irish-American biblical scholar, often considered the foremost historical Jesus scholar today. As he approached the lectern he critically inspected the poster we had propped up against it.

“Now I don’t want you to think I am against compassion,” he began in his thick Dublin brogue.  “It’s truly a necessary and lovely thing.  But tis’nt enough! You must also do justice or you’ll be doing those same compassionate things until Jesus himself comes.”

It hit me like a ton of brinks!  I had been feeling eerily complicit in the system’s brokenness and brutality, but I didn’t know what to do.  No matter how much compassion and mercy is being poured out, the system continues to brutalize not only offenders, but victims, communities and those that work within the system —by themselves our efforts are insufficient– not enough.

Still the question: how do you do justice?

For me it became clear.  Start where you are. I am a churchman; I Co-chair the Diocesan Prison Ministry Commission.  As a Church we meet, we teach and we preach and, hopefully motivate our fellow Christians to take action based of their understanding and abilities. While our gospel is radical our churches organizational capacity is limited.  So we have partnered with action and service organizations like the Partnership for Safety and Justice, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and Sponsors as places for our members to take their passion.  There are many works of mercy that still go wanting for lack people to do them.  You could volunteer to be a mentor at Sponsors, you are already doing so much to help the poor and homeless a very high percentage of whom have criminal histories. But it won’t be enough.  It is not enough to keep rescuing those drowning in a river of pain; we must also find ways to prevent them from falling into the river in the first place.  We must radically change our criminal justice system.

And to walk humbly with your God.”

You could also educate yourself about the critical issues facing our criminal justice system today by joining the local action team of the Partnership for Safety and Justice. You could write and talk with your legislators about creating a criminal justice system that is fair, effective and humane with the help of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.   You can join me on February 11th in Salem to talk with legislators personally.

These are first steps in what will be a long humbling walk to create real change with God’s help.

As a church, we have joined with Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians and many other denominations by passing resolutions at our local and national conventions calling for prison reform.  We have now instituted annual Criminal Justice Sundays as a way of informing and motivating our members.  As citizens in a free country where we have ready access to legislators, we can tell them that our justice system is not working for victims, it is not working for communities, it is not working for offenders and it is taking money away from the very things that can prevent crime in the first place.

How broken is it?

Let’s start with the big picture:

U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va) announced in a floor speech recently, “We have five percent of the world’s population; [but] we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

The NAACP reports than more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends are as direct result of the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

In Oregon:

  • 16 Years ago Oregon had a prison population of less than 5,500
  • Today we have approximately 14,000 men and women in state custody—nearly a 40% increase.
  • In the past ten years, Oregon has had the 4th fastest growing prison system in the country.
  • Corrections is consuming 1 in 9 state general fund dollars
  • DOC now consumes more than $700 per household per biennium

This growth is just not economically sustainable!

And in county after county local jails are releasing offenders and laying-off deputies for lack of funding. Shelters for battered women have no space, we can find no safe places for our homeless and the number of school days for our children and grandchildren keep decreasing while class sizes grow.

In Lane County

·       We have no Mental Hospital.  We closed it about ten years ago because of lack of funding.

  • Last year, at least three homicides, including the death of Officer Chris Kilculllen,  are directly attributable to this lack of resource.
  • Our own jail was releasing the most dangerous offenders on a daily basis. Today, it continues releasing far too many and in so doing denying access to services for many in serious need of treatment..

How did the land of the free become the world’s biggest jailer?

In the final analysis: Fear—fear for our own safety and fear of the faceless, nameless other —the criminal.  Fueled by political rhetoric, Congress and legislatures and us– the people—through the initiative  passed sentencing enhancements that focused on addiction-driven crimes that have filled our prisons threaten to fill still more.  We have created sentencing grids that mechanically mandate long sentences while tying the hands of judges.  The system runs on its own valuing process over outcome.  No one is in charge.

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

Simeon’s words to Mary:  Take our souls and hearts to Luke 23:32-33 “Two others also who were criminals were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

For me, these verses puts both a name and a face on the criminal. Karl Barth, the famous Swiss theologian declares that these gospel verses describes “the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community.” These two criminals were with Christ the first church. Not even the apostles could lay claim to this distinction.

A fair, effective and humane criminal justice system is essential to our Christian vision of love and peace. This is not a “pie in the sky” vision. A restorative justice is not only possible but is actually working in other states and countries.  It is urgent, however, for us to act now.  Not because criminal justice is any more important than other justice issues, but because of the urgency of opportunity. Policy makers at all levels of government have come to see that the current system is not economically sustainable and they are opening their minds to change—not necessarily for the values of God’s justice.   But this openness provides us the opportunity to bring the healing values of God’s justice into the discussion and onto the table.

In the final analysis, ”What prisoners need most is a community of people who truly understand both the grace and the discipline of forgiveness, a community that loves  its “enemies” and welcomes strangers, a community that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility and preaches “peace to those who were far off.  This is what Christ did, and this is what those who bear his name should also do.[1]


[1] Prison, Prisoners and the Bible: A Paper Delivered to “Breaking Down the Walls Conference”

Tukua Nga Here Kia Marama Ai Matamata, 14-16 June, 2002 Dr Christopher D. Marshall*

Tyndale Graduate School of Theology, Auckland*