Lenten Series: Breaking the Chains of Injustice
One evening a grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, superiority . . . The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, kindness, compassion and faith . . . The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?" The grandfather simply replied, "The one you feed."
Cherokee Wisdom Story
Too often we fail to examine the basis of actions and whether our choices are aligned with a life affirming ethos consistent with our faith tradition. The Cherokee parable raises questions about the ground on which we stand when we act. It asks us to make a clear choice between the life limiting motivations of greed, arrogance and superiority and the life affirming ethic of love and compassion. The parable recognizes the messiness of our lives, and calls on us to exercise moral courage in our actions. Its application extends beyond the individual choices we make and challenges the ethical grounding of the actions we contribute to as members of communities, institutions and systems. The battle in the parable is epic and appears on multiple levels and in various contexts. The prophet Isaiah speaks to this question and challenges us to move beyond choosing an individual fast focused on humbling ourselves to God, while participating in the oppression and suffering of others. He questions the personal interests served when we focus on a piety that allows us to individually and collectively remain silent in the face of injustice. Isaiah’s prophetic voice challenges us to choose a fast that breaks the chains of injustice and liberates those who are trapped in a system that denies the humanity of imprisoned. He says,
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Isaiah 58: 6-7
The fast Isaiah chooses is inspired by the desire to promote healing of the community and repair the breach. It is a message that Isaiah repeats in calling the nation to transform its practices, customs, and systems. What are the implications of Isaiah’s words in our contemporary context? Let me posit that mass incarceration provides us with an opportunity to integrate the Cherokee parable and Isaiah 58 into the community dialogue about criminal justice reform.
Let us briefly examine how the United States’ system of justice is oppressive and promotes injustice on large swaths of the community. The nation has elected to engage in practices and support policies that make it the leading jailer in the world. America’s prison and jail population has grown from 300,000 people in 1970 to 2.2 million today. The United States represents 5% of the world’s population, yet holds over 25% of the world’s imprisoned people. The system is highly racialized, gendered, and is correlated with poverty. It is fed by network of interlocking education and criminal justice policies that pushes Black and Brown boys and girls out of the classroom and into a pipeline that runs through the juvenile justice system into adult prison. The New York Times reported that almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life in New York; 45,000 are missing in Chicago, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Mass incarceration was largely attributed as a cause of the “jarring” absence of these African American men from communities in every region of the United States. Women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population with women of color significantly overrepresented in the nation’s prison. Black women are 13% of women in the United States, but makeup 30% of all incarcerated women in the U.S. Latinas constitute 11% of all women in the United States and makeup 16% of imprisoned women.
The dehumanization of the system actively destabilizes families and communities. It does this on the backs of men and women who have largely been caught in the cross hairs of the global War on Drugs prosecuted chiefly by the United States. Equipped with mandatory minimum sentences, the War on Drugs has created a “market” for the incarceration of large numbers of Black and Brown people. This system of mass incarceration provides jobs for rural communities stripped of other forms of economic opportunity. The exploitation of the people imprisoned in the local, state, and federal jails and prisons is also seen in the growth of private prisons whose stocks are traded in publicly owned companies. What would Isaiah’s call be to the nation today? Which wolf does he call on us to feed? Which fast does he ask us to choose? It cannot be the choice to continue to remain silent during this Season of Lent while others suffer the lived realities of the oppression and injustice of mass incarceration. Isaiah 61:1 is clear, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he 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.” If we are motivated by the Spirit of the Lord, then we have no choice but to not only choose love and compassion, but also to work to free the prisoner.
This Lent we can move beyond mere acts of humility before the Lord. We can extend ourselves beyond our individual interest to transform our relationship with God and our neighbor by raising our voices on behalf the imprisoned. We can act and be heard in a way that can make a real difference in the lives of people, families, and communities impacted by the mandatory minimums, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration.
We invite you this Lent to contact your senator today and ask them to cosponsor S. 2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. This bipartisan bill that takes modest steps toward reforming our criminal justice system through reducing certain mandatory minimum sentences, restoring some discretion to the federal trial judges, and making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. Key parts of the bill:
- Retroactively reduce the mandatory life without parole sentence for a third drug offense under 21 U.S.C. s. 841 to a mandatory minimum term of 25 years in prison (retroactive);
- Retroactively reduce the mandatory minimum 20-year sentence for a second drug offense to a mandatory minimum term of 15 years in prison;
- Narrowly define which prior drug offenses can trigger longer mandatory minimum drug sentences;
- Make the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) of 2010 retroactive, allowing approximately 5,800 to seek sentences in line reforms in the 100-to-one disparity between crack and powder cocaine mandatory minimum sentences;
- Allow the federal judge to use their discretion in sentencing individual convicted of nonviolent drug offense by considering additional facts in the particular background of the person charged.
You can send a message to your members of Congress in support of this legislation by going here and following the prompts to enter your contact information and view the sample letter we have written.
This is the second installment of the EPPN's Lenten Series "Engaging the Beloved Community." You may find the first reflection here. If you would like to have each week's reflection sent to your inbox, go here.