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February 28, 2006:

What Would Jesus Do...with our prisons?

by Jon Sweeney

For eight hundred years now, people have been drawn with great curiosity toward the lives of Francis and Clare of Assisi. I am among them. We look on the personalities and intentions of the first Franciscans as one of those instances in the history of the Church when religion was fresh and vibrant. Theirs was a time when a large group of people (hundreds of thousands within twenty years) dedicated themselves to living exactly as Jesus taught.

Francis and Clare intended to do nothing less than turn the world upside down. We most often imagine them with birds, and flowers, and rabbits and calmed wolves by their sides, but we might just as well listen to them as prophets who sought an entirely different way of living.

And that’s what they believed Jesus intended. Imagine a group of Christians—or a group of any people—who followed the teachings of Jesus. For example, the prophet Isaiah foretold of that servant of Israel who would come and bring justice to the nations. Chapter forty-two of Isaiah tells of those things that Jesus later taught and did. For example:

I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Imagine if we actually imitated Jesus to the point of doing likewise. Is this blind idealism that is irrelevant for today? I don’t think so.

What if Christians were to care for lepers (as Francis and Clare did in the thirteenth century), or those with HIV/AIDS, or Avian flu? Yes there are those today who dedicate their lives to caring for the sick and the less fortunate. What if their openness and compassion were the norm not the exception? I am usually quick to separate myself from those who are terminally or seriously ill, rather than care for them personally.

The saints from Assisi intended to redefine—as Jesus had before them—what it means to be a sister, brother, mother, and father. Just as the Apostle Paul later defined love in his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus defined family and neighbor in ways that had never before been understood.

What would happen if Christians were to lead the way to open the doors on our prisons, inviting “those who sit in darkness” to come and sit among us; to forgive them; to reconcile with them and embrace them as our brothers and sisters? There are approximately two million men and women in American prisons today. Compare that to only 300,000 just thirty years ago. In my Episcopal church we pray for prisoners most Sunday mornings, but I have begun to think that my prayers may just be an easy way to dismiss them.

According to newspaper reports last week, Taiwanese judges have recently begun sentencing drunken drivers to choose between paying a fine and playing mahjong with the elderly. According to Hsu Yiling, an official in the Taoyuan Prosecutors Office in Taiwan, “Playing mahjong has taught offenders to love and care for the elderly.”

There are other examples of early-release programs and alternative sentencing here, closer to home. A year ago a judge near Louisville, Kentucky, began offering church attendance as an alternative sentencing option. He has offered first-time drug offenders short jail time, rehab, or ten worship services of their choice.

But where are the church-sponsored early-release programs? Perhaps we should be asking that first-time offenders be invited into our houses of worship, into our communities. What a powerful message that would send to the world around us—if Christians were advocates for freeing prisoners.

Jesus taught that the prisoner, the outcast, and the unwanted are our brothers and sisters. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said: You have heard that the Law says not to murder? I say: Do not be angry your brother. Do not even insult your sister. Your sacrifices are ineffective if you have unresolved conflict with another person. You have heard that the Law says not to commit adultery? I say: Even the thoughts of your minds and the wishes of your imaginations betray you. You have heard that the Law says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I say: Do not even resist someone who wants to do you harm. If someone wants to steal your coat, give him also your cloak. You have heard that the Law says you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy. I say: Love your enemies and—yes—pray for them, too.

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including THE ST. FRANCIS PRAYER BOOK, and THE ROAD TO ASSISI.)

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