The brothers of Christ

It is important to note that some of the most effective evangelistic efforts of our churches involve ministry to those who are at rock bottom, and that often means poor people. Yet natural disasters, a surprise pregnancy or an incarceration can make someone poor and needy in a very short span. Efficiency is not the main reason to follow the command and example of Christ on this score, but it should motivate us to observe that ministries to the poor and otherwise desperate bear fruit.  

Poverty is not essentially an economic status if you read Matthew 5:3. We are all beggars when it comes to the deepest needs of our lives. Why did the rich man of Mark 10 approach Jesus urgently and go away sad? Why did King Solomon accumulate great wealth, sample every good and bad thing and still call all of that experience “vanity”? Being well-fed can distract us from our need for the bread of life (John 6:35) just as the feeling of security can delude us that we don’t need God (Luke 12:14-21). The hungry or imperiled yearn for that delusion and the fat and safe take it for granted. When it’s stripped away we see some things that are true that we did not believe before. The experience of those who go to prison and then go home at the end of their sentences can be like that—everything stripped away.

Let’s set aside the legitimate role punishment for crime plays in a nation of law. I stipulate that it is the God-given duty of government to punish those who do bad things. But what about our duty to those who are locked up, or to those who come back to our neighborhoods after getting out? These men and women will live among us for decades but they are often stripped of all they depended on previously. 

Governmental leaders are aware of this multi-faceted problem and have responded with bipartisan changes in state and federal law to make justice less permanently devastating. The passage of the First Step Act addressed this need on the national level at the end of 2018, and laws in Texas since 2007 have cut the percentage of former inmates who return to prison, allowing Texas to close three prisons over the past decade. Reforms included greater judicial discretion in sentencing and more efforts at rehabilitation for inmates still inside. Given the numbers of men in particular who are locked up or who were locked up, this is a step in the right direction. 

Individuals, churches and parachurch ministries involved with prisoners are acknowledging the worth before God of our incarcerated brothers who sing the same songs and read the same Bible we read every week. I have preached in prisons and taught in prisons. I am always surprised to find seemingly vital congregations in this difficult setting. I don’t romanticize the poor or the prisoners but I observe that they are mostly like the rest of us, though often with a greater awareness of their neediness. God uses neediness for physical things from health to freedom to teach us of our spiritual need. Christians should be there when that happens. Great is the reward of evangelistic chaplains, pregnancy resource center counselors and disaster relief volunteers. They often find themselves in the obstetric ward of God’s kingdom. 

I’m provoked by the testimony of Douglas Cupery (see Christianity Today, August 2018) when he tells of the importance of how his church responded to him when he was released from prison and how things might have been different. He says, “If not for my church family, my marriage would have failed, my children would have grown up without a father, and I likely wouldn’t be following Jesus.” 

I’m unaware of anyone in my church who has been a prisoner, but I wonder how an ex-offender might perceive our response to him upon learning his story. Is it similar for couples who divorce or nearly divorce in our churches? How about unmarried church girls who get pregnant?? Are those who are past their great crisis and seeking restoration going to find it in your church or mine? If they do, they’ll need new friends of the come-to-my-house-and-hang-out variety. They’ll need people to give them rides and advice, and pray with them and listen to them as compassionate brothers and sisters. All God’s children are messy, but some of us are messier than others. We’re still part of the same family, though.

I’m not soft on crime any more than I was generally soft on disobedience with my children. There is righteous punishment for those who disobey the law, and then there is a time of moving past it, back into the fellowship of the family. It’s inconsistent and unloving for believers, who are more aware than most of their own sin’s costs, to champion punishment more vigorously than restoration. 

Frankly, no one should do it better than we do. We were uniquely set up and empowered to love and lift up the guilty and helpless ones Jesus called “these brothers of mine” in Matthew 25.  

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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