I get a lot of letters from inmates, mostly friends and acquaintances I’ve known from Church Under the Bridge, Mission Waco or my neighborhood. Most are incarcerated for small, non-violent crimes, though there are some exceptions that include even life sentences. While some letters are appeals for commissary money or other personal requests, many are filled with deep expressions of repentance, grief or loss. Some are a cry for meaningful dialogue about life, dreams, faith and family.
These are the letters that often move me to shared pain and prayer for them. These are the reflective thoughts I wish we all could write.
Besides the Apostle Paul, two other inmates who have deeply influenced my life and theology also wrote letters from prison. Both used pen and paper to express their deep lament over social injustice and a cry for change. Both were world changers and prophets in their times when some people of faith seemed to have compromised truth.
In the book, “Letters and Papers from Prison,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared deep insights during his incarceration in a Nazi prison in the early 1940s. As a young German pastor and theologian speaking out against Hitler’s dictatorship and horrific euthanasia of the Jews, he was hanged in 1945 along with others for their plot to assassinate the German Fuhrer.
Bonhoeffer’s views were driven by his theology in Christ in whom God and the world are reconciled. God is a suffering god whose works are found in this worldliness, not only in a future heaven. His teachings and writings, including his well-known book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” have had profound impact on Christians, challenging them to engage against systemic injustice in our own culture based on love of Christ.
From prison he wrote, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others . . . not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.” To do nothing in the face of injustice, he suggests, makes us “a mindless tool, capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.”
In short, apathy is not a choice for those who say they love God.
In his well-known text, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. responded to a letter from eight white religious leaders in the South who cited his protests there as “unwise and untimely.” King was incarcerated in 1963 for non-violent civil disobedience against the treatment of blacks in fiercely segregated Birmingham. “The Negro is your brother,” he wrote, adding: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” He concluded: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” For King, like the Apostle Paul and Bonhoeffer, doing nothing in the midst of injustice is evil itself.
Letters from U.S. jails have grown exponentially. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails — a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. Many agree this is based on sentencing law changes, not from increased crime rates. These trends have created prison overcrowding, financial burdens on states and a growing “prison industry.”
Despite evidence that large-scale incarceration, with virtually no rehabilitation efforts, is not effective in achieving public safety, reform is minimal. Today more than 60 percent of people in prison are people of color. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are 2.3 times as likely to go to jail or prison. One in every 10 black men in their 30s is in prison or jail on any given day. And few dollars are provided to cities to help reintegrate ex-offenders back into society through jobs.
It’s time for new prophets like King and Bonhoeffer in the church to rise up and advocate for change based on non-violent Christian values. We at least should have lively dialogue about it. Might we seek King’s dream and say, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
Jimmy Dorrell is executive director of Mission Waco and pastor of Church Under the Bridge. The MLK Program & Day of Service, including a free soul food lunch (at high noon) and afternoon of community service, is Monday, Jan. 18, at the Jubilee Theater, 1319 N. 15th St.