In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul says that he has been “…in prisons more abundantly (than ‘super-apostles’), in stripes above measure, and in deaths often. Five times I received forty stripes minus one …. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.” (WEB)
Clement of Rome claims that Paul was imprisoned seven times. Why was Paul jailed so often? And why was he flogged or beaten so many times? Yes, Paul was witnessing to the Gospel, but he may have been seen by local Roman magistrates simply as an undesirable itinerant who could be punished casually and with impunity. After all, the apostle was homeless, poor, and a native of a despised, captive race—the same underlying reasons for so many people being in American prisons today.
The U.S. leads the whole world in number of people incarcerated, spending 80 billion dollars per year to keep people in jail or prison. During the last 40 years our American prison population has increased 500%, with no evidence of a corresponding decrease in the crime rate or improvement in public safety.
My daughter is married to an ex-con, white as it happens, who served ten years in prison for an offense that didn’t merit—in my opinion—more than six months. Now a good husband and the manager of a Dallas-area restaurant, “Chris” had the misfortune of being relatively poor, having inferior legal representation, and drawing a notoriously punitive judge for his case.
How many people of color are similarly imprisoned today because they were caught with small quantities of illegal drugs? Perhaps these victims of our justice system had prior convictions for public intoxication or petty theft—perhaps not. In any case, many years of prison are inappropriate as a sentence for “victimless” crimes, no matter if a person’s skin color is black, brown, or white. And, of course, there are very few wealthy people in prison. I’ll bet there are no CEO’s in the picture heading this article.
What can Friends do about the mass incarceration that is a blight upon our society? Of course, we should lobby for fairer laws and sentencing guidelines, but we could also follow the lead of the Church at Philippi during one of Paul’s imprisonments.* The Philippians sent Epaphroditus to visit Paul and make sure he had the necessities of life. They also wrote him letters of encouragement and prepared a guest room where Paul could stay after being released. Following the example of the Philippians, Quakers can visit those in prison and write them letters. Moreover, we should welcome ex-convicts into our private homes and meeting houses to aid their reintegration into society.
Finally, we could follow Paul’s advice to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (NIV) If there is joy in our lives, we will want to share it with those who have been incarcerated.
* The times, places, and details of Paul’s imprisonments are very unclear.
(This post was based on an article in the Christian Century reviewing Ryan Schellenberg’s book, Abject Joy.)
~ Richard Russell
This blog was set up to post content of interest to Old Chatham Quaker members and attenders. Posts related to one's own personal spiritual journey, reports based on interviews with others, and reflections on Quaker-related topics are welcome. Posts by individuals are personal expressions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Meeting as a whole.
Guidelines for posting on website blog:
Submit to member of Communications committee; committee has editorial oversight over all content posted on the Meeting website.
Be respectful of the nature of vocal ministry given in Meeting for Worship or other settings and any private conversations about spiritual matters.
Cite source of any image or other external content submitted.