Evangelical witness in an age of mass incarceration

December 14, 2015

For many evangelicals, the question of our nation’s penal system is one largely unconsidered. Our vast and growing prison system operates behind a curtain, mostly hidden from view. And yet, for many of our communities, it has a profound and long-lasting impact.

Biblical revelation forms the foundational reality for Christian thinking. We should be leery of jumping into any moral or ethical dilemma without first considering the biblical parameters for righteousness and justice. Beyond that, faithful Christians can have a variety of opinions and convictions, even disagreements, as we all strive to submit to biblical authority. I know this is the case with discussions about incarceration, criminal sentencing and justice. Perhaps we can seek to find some common ground though.

As Christian citizens in a democracy, we understand that the “power of the sword” in Romans 13 has been entrusted to us, the people. And it is we who will give an account to God for how we have stewarded that power. So we cannot choose to look the other way when it comes to incarceration.

American justice and the current crisis

While the United States comprises five percent of the global population, our nation houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That’s a staggering number that tells a story. For instance, look deeper into those numbers, and you will find that black men are disproportionately incarcerated. Take a second look, and you will see that the rate of incarceration for women has surged dramatically in the last three decades. All of this comes at a moral cost and brings measurable implications to our communities and churches. Unfortunately, evangelicalism’s silence on this urgent moral issue is deafening.

Faithful Christians can and will disagree over a host of policy questions when it comes to how to ensure a just and equitable penal system in this country. We need to be able to have civil and gracious dialogue even when we see things differently, especially among our Christian communities.

But surely we can all agree that the status quo is woefully unacceptable. Not only is it inefficient, it is also immoral. So let’s at least agree to have the conversation. Let’s agree to start talking about this. Let’s commit to listening well, learning, and then seeking ways in which our churches and communities can be faithful.

Here are three areas where an evangelical social ethic must be brought to bear on our American prison system.

First, the racialization of American incarceration raises troubling questions about enduring racism.

Right now in the United States, the statistical odds suggest that one out of every three black men will likely be incarcerated at one point in his life. In contrast, only one out of 17 white men will. The disparity also exists for Latino men, one out of six who will likely be incarcerated.

Why is this? Some will suggest that black and brown men are just more likely to commit crimes, especially drug related offenses that comprise so much of the surging incarceration rates. But Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness documents the various ways in which the American penal system is structured in an inherently inequitable way. Evangelicals can and should have healthy dialogue and even disagreement on what might prove to be the best solution to the problem. But surely we can agree that a prison system that is incarcerating this many of our nation’s black men is scandalous.

Second, the dramatic increase in female incarceration comes at a tremendous cost.

One of the neglected realities of our incarceration is the way women have entered into the system. In fact, between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in prison increased by 646 percent. The racial disparity that is endemic among male prisoners is also at play here. The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for black women is one in 19, while it is one in 118 for white women.

This brings a host of ethical and moral problems. For example, women can be shackled during labor and delivery in 13 states. While the Federal Bureau of Prisons ceased shackling pregnant inmates, these states have not addressed the issue in their respective systems. And the majority of children born to imprisoned women are immediately separated from their mothers. Only a handful of states have adopted creative models to provide continued opportunities for qualified inmates to stay with their children. The National Women’s Law Center reports that only thirteen states provide a prison nursery system for qualified mothers, and of these, only two allow children to stay beyond the age of two.

Third, we should be leery of any system that profits on the misery of another.

It can never be Christian to profit from another’s misery. Throughout the Bible, God makes clear to his people that righteousness and justice never bow before the idols of profit. Southern Baptists have rightly spoken in the past against predatory systems that profit from the misfortune and suffering of others. For example, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a strong resolution in 2014 rightly lamenting the prevalence of payday lending operations that prey upon the poor and vulnerable.

While there may be a number of creative solutions in privatization, we should at least give due consideration to the inherent challenges in the commercialization of our nation’s prison systems. While a free market is right and good for economic development, it is a horrible model for serving justice.

Private prison companies now take in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue, while the federal prison population has more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. What if the financial incentives for these companies were not tied to capacity—the number of inmates housed—but to demonstrated success in rehabilitation and lowered recidivism rates? Surely we could leverage the economic interest in a better and more productive way.

As it stands now, nearly two-thirds of these private prison contracts require that state and local governments maintain a fixed occupancy rate, usually of 90 percent, producing a system built to incentivize incarceration. Most often, if they fail to meet those thresholds, taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for empty beds. This system has produced its fair share of scandals too. Perhaps the most notorious was the “Kids for Cash” scandal where two judges were convicted of receiving $2.6 million in kickbacks from private prison companies for sending more minors with unusually large sentences.

In many of these private prisons, inmates receive as little as 17 cents per hour for labor of up to six hours a day. In contrast, inmates in federal prisons can work more hours and earn $1.25 an hour. What often goes untold is how many Fortune500 companies are now reliant on low-cost prison labor. Of course, there is moral and economic complexity involved in an issue like this. We should be leery of simplistic generalizations or solutions. But, by and large, Americans in general, including evangelicals, are not even involved in the conversation.

This only scratches the surface of some incredibly complex moral questions regarding the American penal system. Surely, there’s more to say about how we treat prisoners while incarcerated, the challenges posed by incarcerating more and more of our nation’s children, and questions as to the democratic rights of prisoners, particularly those convicted of felonies, to vote. These issues require more conversation from the broad spectrum of evangelicalism and they need not polarize our churches. Surely we can learn and listen together, as a people marked by both grace and truth.

So where do we go from here? What does it mean to make disciples of Christ in the age of mass incarceration?

God’s care for the prisoner

You might be tempted to think that the incarcerated are “the scum of the earth.” And don’t forget those “violent offenders.” They’re the worst sort, right? Well, have you considered Moses? Here was a man who saw his fellow citizen being abused by an Egyptian supervisor and intervened. However it happened, when everything was over, Moses was guilty of murder and ended up a fugitive, a violent offender. There’s no small irony that years later, on the backside of a mountain, God revealed his law to this same murderer, commanding, “Thou shalt not kill.”

And what about David? Here’s a man who sees a woman who is not his wife one night and lustfully desires her. She’s married to another man, so David conspires to have him killed. His plan is successful, and he eventually takes the woman as his wife. It would take the prophet Nathan, not a district attorney or grand jury, to indict this conspiratorial killer.

And the Scriptures are full of men who were incarcerated. Joseph. Samson. Daniel. Jeremiah. John the Baptist. Peter. James. John. And yes, even Jesus was processed through the judicial system of his day and unjustly convicted and sentenced.

So we might think twice before we casually assume or generalize about the condition of those 2.4 million men and women living in our nation’s prisons. These are people, made in the image of God. And every one of them has a unique story.

Have you ever noticed how Jesus launched his public ministry? Luke 4:17-19 tells us how he entered into the synagogue in Nazareth, opened up the scroll, and read Isaiah’s prophecy: “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (cf. Isa. 61:1). Most gloriously and wonderfully for Christians, that certainly means liberty from the bondage of sin and death. But it does not mean less than that. It is also good news, right now, to those locked up.

This is also why Jesus specifically identifies the way we treat prisoners as one evidence of whether or not we truly know him (Mat. 25:36). The writer to the Hebrews also makes specific mention of our duty to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body” (Heb. 13:3). While these passages have in mind especially our fellow Christians incarcerated for the faith, it cannot imply that we neglect our unbelieving neighbor in the next cell.

Thank God for ministries like Prison Fellowship. Thanks to the enduring vision of Chuck Colson, evangelicals have been on the front lines of caring for the men and women who live in our prisons. Thank God for people like Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, a Baptist scholar and theologian who is helping so many to think biblically on these issues. But there is an overwhelming amount of work to be done. It is time for the evangelical conscience to be pricked. If we don’t lead the effort, who will?

Matthew J. Hall

Matthew J. Hall was appointed as provost and senior vice president for academic administration of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in April 2019. Previously, Hall served as dean of Boyce College in 2016 and senior vice president of academic strategy at Southern Seminary. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24