It’s not often that we think of prisons as holy spaces, but I’m struck by the number of persons on the holier side of history who have spent years of their lives in chains or behind bars. In the Hebrew Bible there were people like Joseph, Jeremiah, Daniel and others, and in the New Testament, there were John the Baptist and many of Jesus’s disciples, most notably Paul, who wrote many of his letters from there. And throughout the centuries there have been countless numbers of people in prisons for their faith, like John Bunyan, John Huss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and many others. All of which has led people of faith to take a special interest in all who are imprisoned. While many in our prisons and penitentiaries today are of course guilty of crimes of all kinds, their cells nevertheless become places of suffering, isolation and extreme emotional stress that should concern all of us.
What should be our response when in our land of the free we have an astonishing 2.3 million people behind bars, the largest number of people in prison of any country in the world, including China.
In the Hebrew Bible there is a model for a safe place for offenders known as cities of refuge. They were ordinary cities in every respect except in these cities people could find refuge who felt they were in danger of being lynched for a crime, as an act of revenge, if they believed they were innocent, or had unintentionally harmed or killed someone. There they were offered sanctuary in communities where they could live responsible and more or less normal lives. My dream would be to have every community, every congregation, become a kind of city of refuge, not for coddling wrongdoers, but for mentoring them, holding them accountable, and helping them to become responsible and productive fellow citizens.