Overview – Criminal Justice
Focus Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; [the LORD] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”
Scripture Commentary by David C. Forbes, Sr., Retired Pastor of Christian Faith Baptist Church, Raleigh
“Isaiah 61:8-11 gives clear indication that the Lord loves justice and justice advocacy. And the Lord hates robbery and wrongdoing and promises recompense appropriate to such carelessness. Those who proffer justice are promised by the Lord an everlasting covenant and blessings. Righteousness involves active care and love for God’s people who include the captive and the oppressed.”
Pastoral Reflection by David C. Forbes, Sr.
“Extending the good news to the captives, then, is not just a good idea, it is an imperative… To what extent does Advent speak not only to those who can smell the advent wreath and hear the joyful bells and carols, but to those also whom the Lord appears to favor: the oppressed, the wounded and the captive?”
Personal Vignette by Rev. Otis Hardy
“In June of 1979, I was sentenced to two life sentences for armed robbery, even though I did not carry a gun. The conviction for armed robbery carried more weight and heavier sentencing. The sentence was for two life sentences without eligibility for parole until 2038. Proverbs 19:21 says ‘Many plans are in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.’ I now know that God has a purpose for each one of our lives…”
Over the past 2 decades, state spending on incarceration increased 127%, while spending on higher education only increased 21%.
Focus Text – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; [the LORD] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display [the LORD’S] glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for [the LORD] has clothed me with the garments of salvation, [the LORD] has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink”…And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Other Lectionary Texts
- Psalm 126
- Luke 1:47-55
- John 1:6-8,19-28
- I Thessalonians 5:16-24
Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
If ever there were a time when good news was needful and required, that time is now. And how timely that “good news” should be one of the motifs in this season of Advent, a time which brims with the announcement of good news! Help, hope, relief, advocacy and assistance are on the way!
What can we glean from scripture about those who languish, the oppressed, the captives, the prisoners and the inmates in our penal institutions? Are they not there, at least most of them, because of crimes they committed? Are they not receiving their just dues? What right have the incarcerated to sympathy, help, hope or relief? Is there a word in the holy writ? The Christian view holds that while deviant and unlawful behaviors necessitate corrective institutions, the Christian community is duty-bound to have active concern for the care, rights and welfare of those who are in society’s custodial care.
The Holy Bible is replete with multiple indications of the intent of the Lord that those in stocks be regarded as brothers and sisters and members of the godly community. Indeed, the prophecy of the coming of Christ embodies such good news for the oppressed.
Isaiah 61:1-4, characterized in some commentaries as the Servant’s Song, comes forth as good news to the ears of the captive. The writer lays claim that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him for cause. The Lord has anointed him to purpose: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. This message includes proclamation of the Lord’s favor, indeed, the brandishing of the day of vengeance of our God. Those who mourn are to be comforted, provision is afforded those in Zion, and godly sanctuary is assured. What a clear indication of the regard which the Lord extends to the oppressed!
Isaiah 61:8-11 gives clear indication that the Lord loves justice and justice advocacy. And the Lord hates robbery and wrongdoing and promises recompense appropriate to such carelessness. Those who proffer justice are promised by the Lord an everlasting covenant and blessings. Righteousness involves active care and love for God’s people who include the captive and the oppressed.
Psalm 79:11 exhorts the people of God to hear the actual groans of the prisoners, indeed, in God’s Name, to minister to those who are doomed to die. Hebrews 13:3 requires little interpretation: remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured (!!!). Believers are exhorted to live in the skin of those who are oppressed. For only by such association is one likely to promote the dignity and rights of the prisoner and thereby provide the proxy of a loving Lord.
By David C. Forbes, Sr., Pastor of Christian Faith Baptist Church, Raleigh
Pastoral Reflection on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Scripture makes clear that while society deals punitively with the prisoner, Christians are asked to afford respect, dignity and fraternity to the captive. Indeed, reading of scripture makes clear that the Lord is on the side of the poor, dispossessed and oppressed. Luke 1:52 makes clear that the Lord rejects sole identification with the so-called powerful. “His mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath [helped] his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.” Wow! What a God! And wow! What a challenge and opportunity the Lord has put before his people!
The response required by God of all redeemed is laid bare in the holy writ. Victimization and derisive treatment of the prisoner is not an option. In fact, the scriptures make clear that a major dimension of divine judgment will hinge on how so-called believers deal with the oppressed. “For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” That which was begun in God’s creative act is not yet completed. And scripture provides a strategy by which believers may continue the work of bringing God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Deliver me from the Christian who joins in the terror and taunting of the incarcerated. Deliver me from the Christian who sees no role for him/herself in being the hands and heart of God in ministering to our brothers and sisters behind bars or those whose liberty is abridged. Deliver me from the Christian who fails to acknowledge that but for the grace of God go I.
Extending the good news to the captives, then, is not just a good idea, it is an imperative. Every Christian and every church should at least struggle with how each might find a niche in active “gospel giving” to those of our community who are temporarily away from us. To what extent does Advent speak not only to those who can smell the advent wreath and hear the joyful bells and carols, but to those also whom the Lord appears to favor: the oppressed, the wounded and the captive?
For the believer, Matthew 25-34-37, 40-43 is especially instructive. This segment of scripture is “in the red ink”, meaning that the writer seeks to report the words of Jesus verbatim. I have for some time called these passages the “final exam” of faith and judgment. These verses make clear that salvation is less about claim and more about what the believer is spurred to do in the name of Jesus. Giving food to the hungry is required. Slaking the thirst of our brothers and sisters is divinely indicated. Extending welcome and the right hand of fellowship to the stranger pleases God. Sharing our wardrobes with those without clothing thrills the Lord. Taking care of the sick is a divine requirement. And of the prisoner, Jesus says, visitation and ministry are required and divinely valued.
Every preacher and every consumer of the gospel preachment ought periodically read the Matthew 25 final exam and ponder, “Did I? Will I?” Will I hear the Divine Judge say to me, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Let those with eyes see; and those with ears hear. The Lord yet cares for the sparrow and the least of these, including the oppressed, the captive and the prisoner. So ought you and I. May we all heed the word of the Lord. Amen.
By David C. Forbes, Sr., Pastor of Christian Faith Baptist Church, Raleigh
Worship Aids for Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The wind of the Spirit challenges us to change.
Give us courage to respond, O God.
The fire of the Spirit calls us to a passion for the kingdom.
Warm us and give us your energy, O God.
The breath of the Spirit offers us new life.
May we receive and live out the gospel in the world.
In a world where there is need and oppression, violence and alienation,
May we bring life and love, O God.
In a world where there is racism, hatred, and division,
May we bring unity and community, O God.
In a world where there is meaninglessness and emptiness,
May we bring purpose and hope, O God.
Lead us forth, Spirit of God, in joy and in faith, in truth and in freedom.
In ways known and unknown, may we follow.
(from Disciples Home Missions of the Disciples of Christ, “Criminal Justice Worship materials,
Prayer of Confession
Let us confess the secret sins in the hidden spaces of our lives, which hold us in fear and anguish, keeping us from God and from each other.
Let us confess the words of judgment we have withheld in our societies, the compromises we have made which allow evil to multiply, producing harvests of destruction and death.
Let us confess the complacency with which we live in disunity, the ease with which we keep our prejudices, refusing to be the one people of God for whom Jesus prayed.
God, from whom nothing is hidden and who knows the motives of our hearts, forgives us our sins and declares to us the joyful truth that we are a liberated people.
(from In Spirit and in Truth: A Worshipbook [ Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1991, pp. 15-16])
Bread and Justice
O God, just as the disciples heard Christ’s words of promise and began to eat the bread and drink the wine in the suffering of a long remembrance and in the joy of a hope, grant that we may hear your words, spoken in each thing of everyday affairs:
Coffee, on our table in the morning;
the simplest gesture of opening a door to go out, free;
the shouts of children in the parks;
a familiar song, sung by an unfamiliar face;
a friendly tree that has not yet been cut down.
May simple things speak to us of your mercy, and tell us that life can be good. And may these sacramental gifts make us remember those who do not receive them:
who have their lives cut every day, in the bread absent from the table;
in the door of the hospital, the prison, the welfare home that does not open;
in sad children, feet without shoes, eyes without hope;
in war hymns that glorify death;
in deserts where once there was life.
Christ was also sacrificed; and may we learn that we participate in the saving sacrifice of Christ when we participate in the suffering of his little ones. Amen.
(from Rubem Alves, Brazil: found in the United Methodist Hymnal, #639)
For Courage to Do Justice
Open my eyes that I may see the needs of others;
Open my ears that I may hear their cries;
Open my heart so that they need not be without succor;
Let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong,
Nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.
Show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
And use me to bring them to those places.
And so open my eyes and my ears,
That I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee. Amen.
(from Alan Paton, South Africa: found in the United Methodist Hymnal, #456)
For the one Who has come is mighty,
Holy is the name of the Lord.
The Lord has “scattered the proud,” (Lk 1:51)
And has “exalted those of low degree.” (Lk 1:52)
We rejoice in the coming of the Lord,
Who has exacted justice in the world for the downtrodden.
(by Jason R. Jenkins)
Suggested Hymns for Criminal Justice
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Baptist Hymnal 77
Presbyterian Hymnal 2
United Methodist Hymnal 196
African Methodist Episcopal Hymnal 103
Moravian Book of Worship 262
There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
United Methodist Hymnal 121
Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ) 73
African Methodist Episcopal Hymnal 78
What Does the Lord Require
United Methodist Hymnal 441
Presbyterian Hymnal 405
Moravian Book of Worship 695
You Are Salt for the Earth, O People
New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) 181
Arise, Your Light Is Come
Baptist Hymnal 83
New Century Hymnal (United Church of Christ) 164
Presbyterian Hymnal 411
Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding
The Hymnal (1982) 59
On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry
The Hymnal (1982) 76
Presbyterian Hymnal 10
Lutheran Worship 14
Moravian Book of Worship 267
Quotes about Criminal Justice
Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.
Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom; Justice is what comes out of a courtroom.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all.
Vignette about Criminal Justice
A New Life After an Unfair Sentence
In June of 1979, I was sentenced to two life sentences for armed robbery, even though I did not carry a gun. The conviction for armed robbery carried more weight and heavier sentencing. The sentence was for two life sentences without eligibility for parole until 2038. Proverbs 19:21 says “Many plans are in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” I now know that God has a purpose for each one of our lives…
While I was doing time, I began to learn to bake in prison. In 1994, I was invited to church for the first time in my life. I converted and accepted Christ as Lord and Savior of my life through the persistence of a prison guard. Whenever he saw me, he used to say “Jesus Loves You.” That bothered me so much. Slowly, I started to believe it was true that Jesus loves me. Before I became a Christian, I used to run the prison I was in. I would run all kinds of games. If I told it all, it would make church people stone me. But, when I accepted Christ, I was transformed.
In 1996, I was given a task of becoming the personal chef of Governor Hunt at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh, N.C. This provided me with some freedoms and experiences I would not otherwise have had. I worked there for four years. I met Bill Gates, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jordan, Senator Jesse Helms and Billy Graham. It was soon discovered that the state of North Carolina was at error for the amount of time that I was convicted for; therefore, I was released on February 15, 2000 as part of a prison ministry program. I was given a check of $45, and the check was cashed because I owed the state $20.00. So, I left prison, after 21 years, with my life’s savings of $25.00 dollars.
Soon after, I married the most wonderful lady (saint) that I have ever known—Wynella. We are partners, and I am now a student at St. Augustine College. I finished my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Organizational Management in 2003. Today, the Lord has blessed me with the opportunity to be a national motivational speaker for youth and adults. I am also involved in many community-based programs such as the NC Oral Historical Society at UNC, Urban Ministries Christian Business Men’s Association, and the Governor’s Job Start program for Prisoners. In 2002, I was ordained as an elder by the Community of Christ. I do not belong to any one denomination. I work with all to the glory of God.
By Rev. Otis Hardy, from www.exodusfoundation.org.
Contacts and Resources for Criminal Justice
The Elephant in the Courtroom: Racism and Criminal Justice in North Carolina
This resource is an adult education curriculum resource provided by the North Carolina Council of Churches which explores themes of community, forgiveness, racism, and restorative justice.
Thy Kingdom Come: A Call to Prophetic Ministry
This resource is a small-group study guide produced by the Office of Missions (NC Conference, United Methodist Church ) in conjunction with the North Carolina Council of Churches. This guide discusses jobs and wages, health, education, housing, criminal justice, and other social justice areas.
The Committee on Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries of the North Carolina Conference, United Methodist Church is committed to providing services and opportunities for United Methodists in the North Carolina Conference to achieve and maintain an understanding of prison ministry and the importance of prison reform based on Christian principles. The Committee seeks to relate, in a Christian manner, to the individual offender and his or her family and to victims and their families.
The Exodus Foundation is a faith-based group that serves African-Americans who have been incarcerated or who are at risk for incarceration with a national community-based after-prison care program.are program.
Human Rights Watch is an international, independent, nongovernmental organization that stands with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice.
Key Facts about Criminal Justice
1. Currently, there are approximately two million people in federal prison. Two-thirds of the people in US federal prison are African American or Hispanic.
2. The national incarceration rate for whites is 412 per 100,000 residents, compared to 2,290 for African Americans, and 742 for Hispanics.
3. In the state of NC there are currently 38,284 inmates, with the holding space for 33,148 inmates. In NC, for every one Caucasian in prison or jail there are 5.4 African Americans.
4. In 2007, approximately 93% of all prison admissions were male and 58% were African American.
5. One in nine (11.7%) African American males between the ages of 25 and 29 is currently incarcerated in a prison or jail.
6. More than three times as many African Americans live in prison cells as in college dorms. The ratio is only slightly better for Hispanics, at 2.7 inmates for every Latino in college housing. Among non-Hispanic whites, more than twice as many live in college housing as in prison or jail.
7. Latinos have one chance in six of being incarcerated during their lifetimes.
8. More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.
9. The average cost of incarcerating an individual for a year is more than $23,000.