Divine Prisonbreak

A sermon on Acts 16, prison abolition and hospitality at Prairie Street Mennonite Church.

In 2019, Prairie Street Mennonite Church started a radical experiment of hospitality towards men recently released from the local jail, offering housing and community as they sought to find balance in their lives again. Rianna and I were honored to live there as well and serve as hosts and contact people. We made many mistakes and eventually it was decided to discontinue the experiment. Yet it stands out in my memory as one of the most alive time in my life and worthy of repetition. This is a sermon I preached at a service of commissioning for our ministry.

Dear brothers and sisters,
“Grace and peace to you from God our heavenly parent and from the Lord Jesus.”
It is good to be here at Prairie Street Mennonite Church this morning and to be able to share some reflections on the new thing God is beginning across the street at Jubilee House with the incredible support of this congregation.
When Frances asked me over a month ago whether I could share the word today as a way to officially launch the hospitality ministry at Jubilee House for men returning from incarceration, I wasn’t sure what to preach on. After all, I have never done a thing like this before. And at this point we didn’t even have any guests! I felt far outside my comfort zone, both in terms of hosting people and even more so in preaching about it. But as Chaplain Cory Martin of the Elkhart County Jail Ministry often reminds me: we haven’t done this before, we are experimenting and trusting the Spirit’s leading.

Then I checked the lectionary text for this Sunday and got curious. How can this story help us think about this new ministry of hospitality at Jubilee House?!
As I was studying and praying over this story, reading it together with Ron (and Jonathan and Sarah) I slowly noticed connections that ground us in God’s story as we begin this experiment in hospitality.

First, this text reminds us that the people of God are no strangers to prisons. Rianna already reminded us of all the people in the Bible who trust and obey God and are put on trial and locked up in prison. Joseph, Daniel, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist all did time. Jesus himself was arrested, tortured, and executed by the criminal justice system of his time.
In fact, Paul and Silas’ trial echoes Jesus’ own trial. They are accused of disturbing the peace and are sentenced because powerful elites manage to stir up the masses to demand retribution, because political leaders are too scared of losing support to act justly.
We tend to think that the Bible talks about people who do nothing wrong landing in jail because of the corruption of others or precisely because they challenged that corruption, there is a danger in telling only that story. There is a risk that when we begin to differentiate between the “good criminals” who are unjustly incarcerated for righteousness sake, by implication we also say that the “bad” criminals truly deserve prison.

We often try to deal with this problem by expanding the circle of the “good criminals.” We argue that certain things shouldn’t be considered crimes, like non-violent drug offenses. This is all fine and good, but it still leaves some of people in the category of “bad criminal” who supposedly deserve prison.

This division between bad and good criminals also fails to address that the amount of people incarcerated in the US is astronomical. At the end of 2016 (the last year for which I found numbers), there were about 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S., which is about the population of Houston, Texas. That amounts to a nationwide incarceration rate of 860 prison or jail inmates for every 100,000 adults ages 18 and older. This number is almost 5 times the average of other industrialized countries.
Of these 2.2 million, roughly a third, 741,000 to be exact were in the custody of locally run jails, such as the Elkhart County Jail, which is proud to be one of the biggest in the state of Indiana. Out of these, around 70% have not been convicted of any crime, but are incarcerated while awaiting trial, because they cannot afford to post bail. If we also consider that about 90% of cases do not actually go to court but are decided by plea bargains, the link between incarceration and justice becomes seriously strained.
Criminologists have also been arguing for decades that putting more people behind bars has no impact on the amount of crime committed.

These numbers did not just happen, but are the result of “Tough on crime” politics of the last forty years. The criminalization of millions of people also echoes the pattern we see in Jesus’ and Paul & Silas’ trial: lethal manipulation of the masses with fear and racist stereotypes and politicians who prefer what’s popular over what’s right, all for the benefit of a few people and corporations building and running ever more prisons and jails. And it worked! Annual federal discretionary spending on prisons was $7.5 billion in 2017, a tenfold increase over 1976. And with more prisons, came more policing of poor communities to fill those prisons, a vicious cycle. Are they all good criminals or are some of them bad criminals?

The truth is, no one deserves to be locked up for years and deprived of all things that make us human. Everyone deserves another chance, and the fact that some people come out of incarceration better than before says more about the amazing resilience of their spirit than about the efficacy of the prison.

Michelle Alexander, a civil-rights lawyer and author of the book The New Jim Crow has another idea. According to her ending mass incarceration, requires “honoring the criminality in each one of us.”

“We’re all criminals. All of us have done wrong in our lives. The criminals are not them, over there. They’re us. All of us have done wrong. All of us have broken the law at some point in our lives. Even if you haven’t experimented with drugs, even if you didn’t drink underage, if the worst thing you’ve done in your life is speed ten miles over the speed limit, well, you’ve put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in their living room. But who do we shame and who do we blame?
“We … give lip service to this idea that we’re all sinners, or we all make mistakes. But we have a difficult time acknowledging, oh, we’re all criminals. Those people that have been shamed and blamed and stigmatized, actually, we are on so many levels not really better than them. We may be luckier than them.”
Admitting how we have fallen short, where we have transgressed the law, puts us into relationship with others, including those we deem criminal and deserving of prison. This is why confession of sin is such an important part of worship, because we face up to the reality that we are sinners, we are not better than “them,” whoever “they” are. And it’s also why the assurance of forgiveness and sharing the peace of Christ matter. Because we learn that by the grace of God we are not bound by what we have done, or failed to do, but are free to start again, to become who were are meant to be as beloved children of God.
As Christians we cannot be satisfied with merely distinguishing between good and bad criminals. And according to our story the Spirit does not care. The earthquake shook the prison to its foundations and “all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.

Let me repeat that: “all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.

According to our story, the Spirit of God is a prison abolitionist. The Spirit does not reform the prison, but sets everyone free, regardless of what brought them there. Freeing prisoners has always been a part of the Spirit’s work of bringing about the jubilee, a kind of universal second chance for the whole society.

The fact that realizing the spirit is a prison abolitionist surprised me, and might surprise you, says more about the ways we have internalized the ideology of the prison and are part of the idolatrous notion that prisons save us from crime.

The Spirit not only sets the prisoners free, but shakes the prison to its very foundations. The foundations of the prison are what make it seem common sense to lock people up, strip them of all that makes us human and expect them to change for the better.
The foundations of the prison are structural, encapsulated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s giant triplet of evil: Poverty, racism, and militarism. But just like criminals, the foundations of the prison are not just out there, but in us, in our stories and in our bodies.
One foundation of the prison is fear, fear of the other, especially the one labeled as criminal. This fear is experienced bodily and seems natural, but it is nourished by thousands of hours of crime shows and reporting about the rarest and most horrific acts of violence. As a result we have become “conditioned to believe that our safety is directly to to bodies locked behind doors and prisoners chained.” This conditioning makes the sheer idea of prison doors wide open and chains loosened both absurd and utterly terrifying to us.
In this, we have as African-American theologian Willie James Jennings writes “become one with the jailer” The jailer is “one whose sense of well-being is shattered if people are set free.” The jailer, it turns out is not free, but is captive to his fear of the other and his need to control their bodies, when the prison doors open, his world seems to collapse.
Yet Paul calls out to him “Do yourself no harm!” The jailer’s life matters, he too is a beloved child of God, just like those he locked up in the service of empire.
Paul is speaking as one also once used to arrest people out of his zeal for law and order, but was utterly transformed by the Spirit and the caring hands of those he sought to incarcerate. Paul knows what it’s like to be a jailer, and he knows that the Spirit sets both prisoner and jailer free.

This story would be incomplete without the salvation of the jailer. As Martin Luther King jr. said: “all life is inter-related. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
This is crucial because Another major foundation of the prison is the loyalty of the jailers themselves. Those who carry out the orders to arrest people, all of us who call the police, who fall for the lie that locking more people up will make us safer. If the jailers can imagine a world without prisons, this shakes the foundations of the prison to its deepest core. This jailer accepts the invitation and turns his world around. Instead of putting people behind bars, he invites them into his own house, feeds them, and addresses their wounds, wounds he probably inflicted himself.

The Spirit shakes the foundations of the prison by bringing prisoners and jailers together in one household, at one table, washing the wounds we have inflicted and celebrating our common freedom in Christ Jesus, our Lord. I am saying we because even in the short days of living together, I have learned that I have a jailer inside of me, stoking up suspicion and fear, trying to prevent me from fraternizing with others like Ron. I guess it’s almost impossible to grow up in societies addicted to prisons without growing a jailer inside of you. This jailer is a part of me, and it will take time to let him go.
I remember my friend and mentor Mäki Ashe van Steenwyk saying: “We don’t practice hospitality because we are already hospitable, but because we know we are inhospitable and want to become hospitable.”
Sometimes the spirit’s work is like an earthquake shifting things rapidly, but often it is more slow and steady, like water carving its way through stone over the course of millennia. This is what I see us doing at Jubilee House in a small and limited way.

Jubilee House is becoming a place where former prisoners and former jailers are brought together by the spirit to be set free through developing unlikely friendships. We will not do it perfectly and we will most certainly fail. And we will most certainly need your prayer and your support.
And it is most fitting that we will launch this new chapter in the life of Jubilee House with a dessert potluck after church and a house dedication. Please come over, and continue to come over in the coming weeks, months and hopefully years, get to know us so we may all be transformed by the Spirit’s jubilee power.

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