Ministry to Prisoners
A true Christian is no conformist. He remembers, rather, the exhortation of St. Paul: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Whereas the world encourages a lazy, unthinking acquiescence in its many cockeyed opinions and myriad half-cooked ideas, the gospel calls for a total transformation of the patterns and processes of our thought. It is no easy matter to love God “with the whole mind,” for the unregenerate mind is notoriously sluggish, and the clamor for worldly conformity is all around us.
Among the many ways in which Christians today are tempted to conform to the biases of secular society, I wonder if there is any so pervasive and insidious as the temptation to accept the world’s view of the condemned criminal and how to deal with him. And just what does the world nowadays, in general terms, say about the condemned criminal? Let me suggest that “Lock him up someplace and forget about him” pretty much sums up the world’s solution to the problem.
The world says that we are good people, after all, with busy, productive lives to live and precious little time to worry about society’s moral dregs, whose behavior makes them unfit to live with the rest of us. Whatever doubts we have about the effectiveness of our penal systems, prisons do seem to be effective in lowering the crime statistics in our cities. So we are tempted to let them be.
It is no exaggeration to say that our present policies for dealing with condemned criminals tend to treat them much as we treat our garbage. That is to say, we do not particularly care where the stuff goes; any dump or landfill will do. We just want the offscouring of society to be deposited somewhere out of our way, so that we can get on with our lives without having to bother with it. One suspects that many, and perhaps most, Christians are pretty much in agreement with the thought of the world on this question.
And what leads me to think this? Well, let me simply call each conscience to bear true witness. How often do we Christians actually think with active compassion about the plight of the imprisoned criminal? How often are we more disposed to dismiss him from our minds as someone who has simply gotten his just deserts? How many of us, on learning the fate of some condemned arsonist or murderer, have thought to pray for such people? Or write to them? Or send them something to read? Or again, if the subject is not too touchy, how much of our ecclesiastical budget is devoted to prison ministry? It is difficult to see how any Christian is excused from the mandate implied in that Gospel scene of the Final Judgment: “I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matthew 25:36).
For this reason, I doubt that there is any area of social concern today in which Christians are more in need of disengaging themselves from worldly ideas, because if we think like the world, we will perish with the world. Please understand that I am not calling here for the reform of our penitentiaries, but for the renewal of our thought. It should be obvious that the secular disposition to treat and regard other human beings as so much social garbage is radically incompatible with the gospel.
Having worked for a year on the chaplain’s staff of a maximum-security prison, I have some sense of the sheer hell of the life inside. For example, I can never forget my astonishment on learning, my first day, that a large percentage of the inmates in that place lived on drugs. I do not mean drugs illegally smuggled in, but an array of medications and sedatives prescribed to diminish their overwhelming anxieties, frustrations, despondency, and feelings of dark violence in a place where life was incredibly brutal and literally unbearable.
Over the years, what I most remember of my visits to prisons is the reverberating clang of those hopeless iron cages. In all the world, there is no higher concentration of spiritual need and eternal hunger than in our prisons. No place on earth more resembles hell. Nowhere are human beings in greater danger of unbelievable degradation and eternal loss than in prison. Nowhere in the world is Satan so likely to triumph over the human spirit.
Ah, but nowhere, on the other hand, absolutely nowhere, have I found a higher concentration of souls eager to hear and learn the message of the gospel. I do not know how many Bible classes I have conducted in prison, but I do know that every one of them was delivered to a packed house. When I think of prisons, then, my thoughts are not entirely dark, and certainly not hopeless, for regarding no other place do I more readily remember the command of our Lord: “Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:35).
—Patrick Henry Reardon
This editorial first appeared in the April-June 2001 issue of Again magazine.
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“Ministry to Prisoners” first appeared in the September 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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