I’ve just finished a class called Church and Social Change, which might have been more aptly titled Theology and Mass Incarceration. What I’m sharing today is a slightly edited copy of the final reflection I submitted based on our weekly readings, videos, and discussions. The materials included, among others, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Melanie G. Snyder’s Grace Goes to Prison, and some videos from One For Ten (a series of films about innocence and death row). 

It’s easy to make connections between the exonerated in the videos I watched and the folks in Stevenson’s stories. The overwhelming theme from this week is that once a person has spent any time on death row and then been released, they can never get that time back and will always be chased by their incarceration. Featured in a One For Ten video, Joe D’Ambrosio who was released after wrongfully spending over 20 years on death row talks about how technology changed and mentions the cultural and social evolution that occurred during the 8170 days he was imprisoned. He mourns the children he never had and the family he lost during his incarceration. He says of incarceration on death row, even though he was always innocent, “This will always chase me.”

I remember watching the movie Dazed and Confused when I was around twelve years old. There’s this part where Matthew McConaughey walks into a bar, it’s slow motion and dramatic. It’s supposed to be sexy, but I didn’t care about any of that.

I was more focused on the Bob Dylan song playing in the background. It’s called “Hurricane” and tells the story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter. My dad was in jail, arrested for possession with intent and some other charges. He was guilty of selling pot. But he wasn’t guilty the way they arrested him. That night he had nothing on him, he was not in possession of anything. But the DA was tired of trying to lock him up, so they trumped up all these charges and planted some stuff on him. At least that’s my memory of it. So I was particularly upset with the police and all I could hear was Bob Dylan calling out this corruption when he sang,

“The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world”

That tiny link of proximity to a problem that I thought was only happening to my dad opened the door of awareness for me to step through and recognize this webbed system of injustice. I became obsessed with the story of Rubin Carter. I listened to Bob Dylan singing “Hurricane” on repeat for weeks. The whole story would become a sort of bedrock of my call to ministry, and specifically to responding to racial injustice and wrongful incarceration.

Everything I read and watched this week called me back to this moment as a little girl when I truly understood the corruption and brokenness of our society. And this part in the song when Dylan says, “Don’t forget that you are white,” rings in my ears. He lifts up the all-white jury and the maddening behavior of the lawyers and police and I know when I hear these lyrics that it’s not enough for the Church to help returning citizens. This ministry is prevention, because the one thing that Dylan gets wrong in the song is the idea that folks who were incarcerated can ever get that time back.

“Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
That’s the story of the Hurricane
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world”

Stevenson says, “There is no wholeness outside our reciprocal humanity.” Certainly that’s the root of the gospel and the root of the ministry God is doing through me. I’m not complete while innocent people suffer in a living hell. There is no joy in my heart when I think of the faces of every man and woman living on death row in the United States.

The Gospel reading from Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary last week required me to really reflect on what it means to sit in the brokenness of life. For preaching, I placed the text in conversation with Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I asked my congregation to sit in the “in-between” of brokenness and joy. I asked them not to be quick to discard anyone into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Because truly, we can’t be responsible for that sort of condemnation. I asked them not to rush into self righteous rejoicing when we sometimes push loved ones into uncomfortable spaces for which they are not prepared or wanting. When I talked about the man who shows up to the wedding banquet without a wedding robe, I asked them to get creative when responding to people who show up in unexpected ways. He wasn’t even supposed to be there, after all.

And I wonder what the world might look like if each of us were to sit in the “in-between” for a while. Maybe we would recognize the natural, necessary reciprocity of our humanity. The “in-between” is where I’m currently fighting against my unfreedoms.

Agere Contra, friends

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