Punishment Policy

The news last month, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, that more than 1 in a hundred Americans were in prison at the outset of 2008 was upstaged only by the statistic included in the report that 1 of every 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars in this country.  One shudders to think what the percentage is in Philadelphia.  In our nation, 2.3 million people were in jail at the beginning of this year – 1% of the population.  Even China has imprisoned only 1.5 million of their significantly larger population.

The report tells us that these numbers are a concern for states because of the high costs of incarceration, which naturally deprives other important programs – like education – of funding.  For every dollar spent in Pennsylvania on education, we spend 81 cents on prisons.  What kind of holy experiment is that?

The conclusion of the Pew report says this:

“As a nation, the United States has long anchored its punishment policy in bricks and mortar.  The tangible feel of a jail or prison, with its surefire incapacitation of convicts, has been an unquestioned weapon of choice in our battle against crime....  However… a continual increase in our reliance on incarceration will pay declining dividends in crime prevention.”

This conclusion is happily free of euphemisms for the reality of prisons: like correctional facilities or, more pointedly, penitentiaries, both of which suggest that we have something more in mind than punishment when we lock someone up.  In America, punishment is not just a policy, it’s a growth industry, if not a terribly useful way of dealing with crime, since, according to the report, “more than half of released offenders are back in prison within three years.”

This report makes me almost unspeakably grateful to our friend and neighbor, Fr. Julius Jackson, who with a handful of helpers runs a parish (St. Dismas) within the walls of Graterford Maximum Security Prison, where, on a very few occasions, I have visited the men with him.  But I cannot imagine what Palm Sunday is like in the walls of that prison.  And I wonder if it occurs to us to consider how different God’s punishment policy is from our own.

Very near the beginning of the Bible comes the first story of God’s punishment, which, interestingly, involves locking Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, not locking them up.  Go on, and you will find that the Ten Commandments completely lack sentencing guidelines.  Keep reading the Scriptures from there and you will get to a body of religious law that is complicated but has precious little interest in building correctional facilities.  And while there are plenty of threats breathed against the children of Israel, God’s hand is seldom actually raised.  Their suffering is usually at the hands of worldly opponents.

Eventually we get to Jesus.  His early call to repentance is soon transposed to his preaching of the kingdom of God: a message that he seems to intend for prostitutes and sinners: governors and their harlots, perhaps.  But remember that, with the governor and his call girl, you and I have also been locked out of Eden.  And while our sins have not been chronicled in detail in the press, are we really any less susceptible to the punishment policy of God?

So we might take notice when we hear Saint Paul tell us that “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… and humbled himself... and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

Here on the cross is God’s new code of punishment: foreshadowed by the scapegoats who had long carried the sins of the people out of their midst.

Here is God’s Son, who could very well have rode on, rode on in majesty, (could he not?), but here he is, taking the form of a servant, a slave, even unto death.  Here is the eternal Word of God, nailed to two wooden beams.

Here is God’s new policy of punishment: using the most vulgar form torture available and turning it not to our own destruction but to our salvation.  Here Jesus suffers and dies for us.

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So impressed are we with ourselves in America, because we can buy whatever we like and pay for it with credit, that we have pretended that a liberal democracy that imprisons 1% of its population and more than 10% of its young black men – at the expense of educating the rest of its children - has something to teach the rest of the world.  I’d call that ironic at best.  We are clearly building in this country a hellish kingdom of punishment behind bars, where the smartest thing to do must be to get used to it, since chances are good that those who are banished there, even for a while, are likely to return.

But God’s kingdom is built with the wood of the Cross: with the atoning sacrifice of his Son.  God’s kingdom runs on an economy of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation.  God’s kingdom is founded in hope not despair.  God’s kingdom doesn’t need bricks and mortar, let alone iron bars.  And the tangible feel of God’s kingdom is the surefire love that stoops to wash the feet of its friends.

Any nation that has committed itself to a punishment policy that gives us an ever-increasing supply of prison cells – and that has no trouble filling those cells - is desperately in need of word of God’s kingdom.

It turns out that God doesn’t have a policy of punishment at all.  His policy of love extends to providing the lamb for the sacrifice.  And while the cost to God must surely be great, this gift of salvation is given to us freely.

Just try to get into Graterford Maximum Security Prison – not an hour away from here – as a visitor from the outside.  It will take months of waiting, even with the Chaplain working on your behalf.  And should you fail to produce the proper identification, on arrival, or should forget to leave your cell phone in the car, or should you be carrying with you a book that seems suspicious, you will be stopped at the inner gate and told to go home.

They do not want you to see more than you have to.  And they do not want to risk that you will infringe on the punishment of surefire incapacitation that is meted out to the men – so many of them black – who are incarcerated there.  This is our country.

But try, if you will, going to the foot of Jesus’ cross.  Go there without my help, or anyone’s.  And you will find that although the way is not easy, there is no one to stop you, nothing to prevent you from standing at the foot of the cross, as we stand here today, marveling at the love of God, who put punishment aside, and instead sent his Son into the world to bear the sins that even the strongest prison cannot contain.

Bring to the foot of the cross not only those things that you fear you could be punished for, but all those things you and I have gotten away with and that live only in the secrets of our hearts.

Lay your sins at the foot of the cross, and I will lay mine there.  Let us go with fear and trembling: God knows what we deserve.

And see that he who hangs there, dies for us; his blood poured out that we might be saved.  And his greater love made plain as he lays down his life for you and for me, and for all the world.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Palm Sunday, 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 16, 2008 .