A Long Line of Criminals

I have been thinking a lot recently about incarceration.

At its highest levels, the Soviet Union’s gulag system imprisoned 800 people for every 100,000 people in the country.  Today the United States has 743 prisoners for every 100,000 people.  Nearly a quarter of all the prisoners in the world are in United States prisons.

This worries me, and when I read about the Stephen Harper proposing more ‘tough-on-crime’ legislation, I wonder what exactly we are trying to achieve.  But before I delve to deeply into the subject, I first have to recognize how this must be approached.  As a Christian, I belong to a faith tradition that has, frankly, spent quite a lot of time in jail.

  • Joseph was imprisoned for years on trumped up sexual harassment charges.
  • David spent his formative years as an outlaw.
  • Jesus was arrested,  imprisoned, and condemned as a threat to the state.
  • Paul wrote large chunks of the New Testament from a prison cell.
  • William Tyndale was imprisoned and executed by the imperial authorities
  • Martin Luther King wrote his most important work from a Birmingham jail.

I recognise in our society the need for a judicial system, for police officers, magistrates, prison guards and probation workers.

But when we are discussing the criminal justice system, the starting point for those who call themselves Christians needs to be this – our first and primary identity is with the jailed, not the jailer.  As the founder of our movement said, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”