The drug war: where would Jesus stand? Who would Jesus jail?

There was a great story on Al-Jazeera America posted yesterday, regarding the push by faith leaders to end the war on drugs and establish more reasonable sentencing guidelines. The quote that ended the story hits home:

“We believe the greatest stimulus for the mass incarceration of our loved ones is the failed war on drugs that has spent billions and billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives, for primarily a public health issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of urban strategies at Lifelines to Healing in Berkeley, Calif. “Mass incarceration is the civil rights movement of our generation, and the faith community is at the forefront.”

Emphasis mine.

Let us remember the words of Matthew 25

34 … ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father,inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Jesus traveled with a diverse group of people, outcasts included. He told a crowd ready to stone an adulterer that if they looked deep within them, they would see their own hypocrisy. The New Testament emphasizes that no person is beneath redemption; a system that throws millions to rot in prison cannot be a just one. Yet today there are huge numbers of prisoners serving serious time, despite their crimes being small and non-violent.

When the decision comes, Jesus triumphed empathy towards prisoners, not condemnation. Those that rejected a religious duty not only damaged the prisoner that needed them, but also themselves.

It is good to see a diverse group of faith leaders come together to speak with a united voice. In some modern Christian circles there can be an undercurrent of hypocrisy- people who triumph life in one instance yet don’t find the injustice in war and capital punishment. Often I see pockets that seem more at home with the Old Testament than the New. I won’t generalize, it would be unfair of me; there are many who see the grave danger of mass incarceration, religious and non-religious.

Chart based on US Department of Justice statistics

I don’t believe in God, though I am a proud Unitarian Universalist, but I find great wisdom in the words and actions of Jesus. Often people put words in his mouth, use him like some use Martin Luther King Jr. to gain false credibility. There is a sense of power with this movement, that only comes when a group of people truly grasp the mission they need to embark on. There is not the sense of dissonance that accompanies some journeys, where the premise is twisted or unfair.

I’ve been involved in the prison reform movement for several years now- I founded reddit’s prison reform community (reddit.com/r/prisonreform) and marched during the hunger strike in California prisons that opposed solitary confinement The problem truly is massive, there needs to be a mass movement to counter it. Big problems demand big solutions. I’m glad to know there are religious leaders alongside other activists and the families affected by mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, and other policies that stuff existing prisons and demand the construction of new ones.

A carpenter’s death

In splendor
vivid, garish
it stands behind the altar
thirty feet tall
of exotic wood
shipped over from some dark jungle
that should be on the news
more often.

It is not the cross on which
a simple Palestinian
was laid to die.
His death was that of a humble
carpenter,
and the beams upon
which he cried out
were not a specimen of beauty.

Quite the opposite.

Jesus of Nazareth: the first occupier

In the present day, American politics has become deeply entangled confluence with materialist, grand-scale Protestantism. To great aggravation, Christianity has been tied not only to constitutional self-governance (as this recent best-selling painting shows in a way that strongly resembles parody), but the laissez-faire economic system that has segregated its people and eroded liberty over the past two centuries. It has been used to argue for capital punishment, and for centuries has been used to create the idea of “just war”

The issue is that Jesus was not a fan of exploitative commerce. In fact, he led the first occupation- he was the founder of Occupy Jerusalem. In the gospels, he enters the Temple of Jerusalem, where commerce has defiled the holy place. He takes those around him to task, and uses the popular support for his actions to defy authority.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves (Mark 11:15)

Later Jesus calls the Temple he cleared a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17)

 

Jesus occupies the Temple

 

We can all learn from the example of Jesus. The idea of commerce and profit-making entering a place of worship is cringe-worthy- and indeed I have a visceral reaction when I read about megachurches with cafés and merchandise stores. But even if you’re mostly secular like me- there is something that you think should not be messed with; something that must remain pure and not tainted by money. It could be anything from politics to college sports; from education to healthcare. You probably know of some money changers you’d like to drive out.

And that’s really what Occupy is all about. Driving away the money changers, and improving society rather than let profit dominate over people.