Isn’t it odd that Christendom—that huge body of humankind that claims spiritual descent from the Jewish carpenter of Nazareth –claims to pray to and adore a being who was a prisoner of Roman power, an inmate of the empire’s death row? Mumia Abu-Jamal (American activist serving a life sentence)
Jens Soering, in The Convict Christ, reflects on this outrageous and intentional decision, “When God chose to take on human flesh, he did not become a priest or a monk, a king or a general, a poet or a philosopher.
Instead, he became a death row prisoner, a condemned criminal executed alongside two thieves.” For those who might say Christ was not a “real” convict because he did not commit any crime, Soering reminds us that since the mid-1990s more than 150 death row prisoners have been exonerated through DNA evidence, every one of them treated as a real convict by the system before being proven innocent.
In our society, we tend to associate the term “convict” with guilt so it creates dissonance in our minds to think of Christ as a convict. But the cross reveals a deeply troubling truth about the criminal justice system of Jesus’ day that holds true for our American justice system: justice systems are often not just.
The cross shows us that three different types of people are sitting in our prisons: the innocent (like Jesus), the guilty but repentant (like the thief who Jesus welcomes into the kingdom), and the guilty but unrepentant (the other thief who mocks Jesus). This means two-thirds of those sentenced to die on Golgotha that day, the vast majority, were not hardened criminals.
Too often our perceptions of the “convict” is that of the hardened criminal, not the innocent or the repentant sinner who just needs a chance at redemption.
If we will follow Christ to the prison, one of the places he taught his disciples to find him, we will see that most “convicts” are not people beyond redemption, but people who could not afford bail or expensive lawyers, who suffer from mental illness and abuse of all kinds, minorities who are disproportionately detained and sentenced, and repentant sinners who don’t want to be permanently judged by their worst mistake.
In Hebrews 13:3, the writer urges the early church community to “remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured as if you yourselves were being tortured.” The translation expresses the iterative force of the present imperative so the emphasis is on continued remembrance.
Continuing to remember the prisoner is how the early church can “let brotherly love continue” in 13:1. The ordinary usage here refers to the love reserved for actual brothers and sisters. My friend Miea Walker, a prison reform advocate, encourages Christians to see those in prison not as “convicts,” “ex-offenders” or “inmates,” but as brothers and sisters deserving of our love, time, and advocacy. Perhaps Christ became a convict so that we could learn to see them as our brothers and sisters.
The early church was directed to see each other as a family who shares in suffering. Paul, a prisoner himself, urged the community in Colossae to “remember my chains,” and instructed the church in Corinth to see themselves as part of a body of solidarity where the suffering of one member is felt by all the other members.
The extent to which Christians would seek solidarity with their brothers and sisters in prison is attested by the skeptic Lucian during the arrest and imprisonment of Peregrinus Proteus in Palestine in the second century.
First, Christians did everything in their power to have Proteus released (advocacy). When that proved impossible certain leaders bribed the guards and slept inside Peregrinus’ cell with him (solidarity). This is evidence how the early church took seriously the charge to remember those in prison as if they were fellow prisoners.
Christians should be the most merciful people on the planet. Having been forgiven such a great debt, we should be the first to demand mercy for others who have made mistakes.
Having had our records expunged by Christ’s act of advocacy on our behalf, we should advocate for others to have their records wiped clean as well. Our worship of Jesus, the convict and the Christ, should lead us into a deep examination of the justice system of our own day and lead us into deeper communion with those who are condemned behind bars. Because you never know who the innocent, repentant, and unrepentant are until you spend some time with them at the cross.
Rev. Dr. Shawn Casselberry is a passionate advocate for God’s justice, author of God is in the City, and Executive Director for Mission Year, a national Christian ministry inviting 18-30 year olds to love God, love people, and be a force for justice in the world. Dr. Casselberry also serves on the CCDA Mass Incarceration Taskforce. You can follow him on Twitter @scasselberry.