Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does Jesus Still Free Captives?

Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming that his mission was “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and “to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). We know he was ultimately talking about freeing us from our bondage to sin, but was the reference to captivity and oppression simply a rhetorical touch, or was he promising earthly freedom as a type of heavenly freedom the way he physically did give “recovery of sight to the blind,” heal the sick, and rais the dead as proof that he had authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt 9:6)? If we are to heal the sick today, miraculously or not, are we also to release the oppressed and captives?

If so, I would like to suggest that our biggest enemy in that endeavor will be politicians. While the Bible gives us an enigmatic introduction to politicians in the person of Nimrod, our first clear picture of them comes in Genesis 14, where we see a band of suzerains engage in a campaign of murder and pillage against their rebellious vassals and the latter’s subjects. In the course of the battles, Abraham’s nephew Lot becomes the Bible’s first named captive—a prisoner of war, a political prisoner. When Abraham learns of this, he enacts the first type of Christ’s redemption of his people: working outside the political system, he leads those “born in his own house” in battle against that system and rescues Lot.

The next prisoner we meet is Joseph, imprisoned first by his brothers and then by an unjust political system. His cellmates are political prisoners; both are imprisoned and one of them is executed, arbitrarily and unjustly, at the whim of the local despot. Joseph eventually becomes a despot himself and uses his power to give his brothers a sip from a cup he had drunk to the dregs by imprisoning them for a few days. In turn, Joseph’s descendants, and those of his brothers, eventually become political prisoners at hard labor because the mightiest politician in the world at the time was afraid of them without cause.

This last captivity became the type of the sin Jesus came to deliver us from. We are sold as slaves to sin, and the offenses we commit against God to serve it are worse than any injustice anyone can ever commit against us (Matt 18:23–35). And we cannot escape it by ourselves any more than the Israelites could simply up and leave Egypt. When Jesus announced his mission, he referred once to blindness, but he referred twice to political injustice (Luke 4:18).

Captivity, prison, is never prescribed in Scripture as a lawful means of dealing with miscreants. The closest it gets is the Mosaic permission to marry females taken prisoner in battle (Deut 21:10–11; war, “politics by other means,” is the consummate political act). Otherwise, there’s Jesus’ warning that we are to settle with our adversaries before they make us subject to the political system (Luke 12:58); this is a corollary of Paul’s admonition that we not become “slaves [= prisoners] of men” (1 Cor 7:23). The general rule is that miscreants be either forced to make restitution to their victims or executed.

This being the case, how is it that the nation with arguably the world’s most visible presence of Bible-believing Christians also boasts the world’s largest prison system? Worse, how is it that most of those prisoners have been incarcerated for activities never called crimes in the Bible, specifically connected with plants God himself planted in the Garden of Eden? (Neither hemp, poppies, nor coca have thorns, which presumably did not exist in the Garden [Gen 3:18].) Why are Christians not leading the charge to free prisoners jailed for noncriminal activities and those who need to make restitution for their crimes? Why instead do they display that evil system’s flag in their churches and on their lapels and pray for its armed agents as though the latter are doing God’s will? Is the bombing and imprisonment of innocents simply a blemish on an otherwise good system, or is government munificence the candy used to lure children into the big black car?

I know atheists who call for restitution instead of prison for nonviolent criminals and oppose the jailing of those the Bible calls innocent of crimes, and I know Christians who defend the welfare-warfare-prison status quo even though they admit Scripture calls for restitution and that no substance is evil in and of itself. So if I don’t want to “walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps 1:1), which group should I hang with? And if we truly want to see people come to faith in Christ, isn’t opening people’s eyes to the evil of the prison system one way to “preach the gospel to the poor”?

1 comment:

  1. Very perceptive thoughts.It's disappointing to see the ideals of Americans perverted as they have been, so that now you only have an INJUSTICE system. Trying to change the system from within the system won't work. Those who try will just be co-opted. Non-violent (except in self defence) civil disobedience as practiced by Jesus & Ghandi is the only answer.