(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on July 24, 2015)
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24, NRSV).
A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting of the Anti-Racism, Pro-Reconciling Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Kentucky. We are a racially mixed group who come together for study, prayer, fellowship and the Lord’s Supper. That week, we did a lectio divina Bible study of Amos 5:21-24. It was a moving experience that brought the team closer together and helped us make the journey of reconciliation among one another more easily discernible. This is important work that must be done. Our nation has no chance of healing without and confession and hope, two gifts I think that the church can bring to this nation.
Currently, we are studying Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Reforming our criminal justice system is not only the moral response in a Christian nation, it is a widely bipartisan issue, drawing support from the far right and far left, from President Obama to the Koch brothers. We study this evil because perhaps in no other institution do we see the sin of structural racism more present than in the prison-industrial complex. Systemic inequities in legislation, enforcement, legal representation and sentencing laws—intentional or unintentional—has led to gross racial disparities that must be corrected if we are to be a just and democratic society.
That day, after the Reconciliation Team meeting, I went home and watched a documentary about the overuse of solitary confinement as punishment within prisons. This is the prison within the prison. And it is a complex issue. What is clear is that there are prisoners who are so dangerous or so endangered, that they must be separated from general population. The problem is that it has been used as a technique of punishment for a wide variety of offenses. And compounding this phenomenon are the well-documented facts that solitary confinement can cause rapid and severe mental health deterioration and that it is disproportionately extreme for most infractions. In solitary confinement, a prisoner will spend 23 hours of the day in a small cell with little to no human contact for sometimes months or even years. During that documentary, one could see how common it was for inmates to cut open their veins and bleed all over the cell until they had to be forcibly removed, sewn up, sometimes thrown in the psych unit before being returned to solitary with often time added to their confinement as punishment.
Another curious behavior were coordinated protests in which inmates would simultaneously flush their toilets over and over until the water poured out onto the floor and into the hallway. The normal reaction, I think, to this behavior would be a mix of pity and bewilderment, since the protest seems to accomplish nothing except more time in solitary confinement. But because I had studied the passage from Amos 5, the verse that rang in my ears was, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” and I got the sense that while these inmates may have felt all alone, none other than God is in that cell with them, refusing to allow his children to be abused and dehumanized.
For those of us who dare to call ourselves by the name, “Church,” I beg us to consider that what is at stake in this world is too present and urgent to waste another moment of our time worrying about unimportant things, arguing over differences of theology, holding generational grudges, perpetuating centuries-old sins, or pretending that we can live with out one another. God demands justice for the least of these. God’s righteousness is the only light by which we can discern our life together. So let us unite, pick up the difficult work of reconciliation and truth, and let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.