Mass Incarceration: A Theological Reflection

Mass Incarceration: A Theological Reflection

Chase Tibbs

Contributor at Christianity Now
Chase is currently a student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. Pursuing an MDiv and MTS, his interests lie in reimagining faith for persons of faith in postmodern contexts. He is influenced by the Holiness movement, process philosophy, existentialism, liberation theology, and postcolonialism.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” – 1 John 1:8

Let me be the first to admit it is easier to talk about the sin of other communities and other individuals than it is to look into the mirror and face our own. Condemnations of violence committed by past generations and other nations swiftly roll off the tongue. Be that as it may, I would like to reflect on what I have seen in my own mirror and discuss a devastating reality that we in our Christian communities in the United States are currently perpetuating and tolerating: mass incarceration. Before we reflect on a particular dynamic of mass incarceration, and what its ubiquity could mean for Christian communities and the work of the church, we ought to identify the weapon Christian communities have used that makes mass incarceration seem right and holy.

Without the power of demonization, mass incarceration would not exist.

Demonization is a powerful weapon we wield to justify our mistreatment of other human beings—sometimes even ourselves. When we view another person as demonic, or when we allow ourselves to see another as inferior, our harmful ways of relating can easily feel vindicating to us, if not divine. To take someone from their family and friends, lock them in a cage, and release them as unequals or celebrate their execution seems justified when we allow ourselves and our communities to see their souls as inherently evil—as subhuman.

Throughout the history of the United States, Christians have used demonizing language in many forms. In their time, words like “Jew,” “savage,” “Jezebel,” “slut,” “fag,” and the n-word have been used to portray other human beings as creatures made not in the image of God, but in the image of God’s enemies. Nowadays there is a new word that serves to make us feel validated, even proud, of our dehumanizing relations, and that word is “criminal.”

Common phrases like “They treated me like I was a criminal!” and “It’s not like I’m a criminal or something!” depict how we as a society perceive persons who are convicted of crime. “Crime” for many is equivalent to the word “sin.” Moreover, criminal has become the unforgivable label that not even God can redeem.

Despite our propensity to call the violence of mass incarceration “justice,” or quickly resort to believing that all who are convicted are simply “getting what they deserve,” Christ, as the anointed one who has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and bring freedom to the oppressed, calls us to seek restoration and abundant life for all humanity, as opposed to the harsh sentences, second-class statuses, or death that Christians in the United States have been so swift to deal (Luke 4:18-19). Perhaps our “Christian” understanding of justice is no representation of Christ at all. Instead of reflecting God’s liberative and restorative love, we embody an imprisoned soul.

The United States methodically incarcerates human beings in quantities incomparable to the rest of the world. No other country systematically rounds up humans by the masses, cages them for such severe lengths of time, and releases them into a world of legalized discrimination as fiercely as the United States. To adequately understand the pervasiveness of mass incarceration, it may be helpful to think of its manifestation in two parts: (1) the population under the direct control of the United States Corrections System—including those on probation or parole and persons incarcerated in federal and state prisons, or local jails; (2) the population of persons who have completed their sentences, yet, upon release, are condemned to an inferior, second-class status for the remainder of their lives, forever bearing the burdens of legalized discrimination. This article will focus primarily on the first part of mass incarceration: the mass imprisonment of human life.

There was a time before mass incarceration, a time when Christians in the U.S. were not applauding such severe lengths of sentencing, nor were we locking up so much human life in cages. Imprisonment was, for the most part, seen as a means for rehabilitation, as opposed to simply being punishment. Even upon release, persons who had formerly been incarcerated could more easily access housing, employment, food, and basic health services. Though mass incarceration has become normalized for us now living in the twenty-first century, we must remember that it remains relatively new considering the history of imprisonment in the United States, and that it does not have to last if our hearts truly do not want it to.

As Christians, how can our faith communities begin to take seriously the mass imprisonment of our society’s most vulnerable, disadvantaged children of God? What would it look like for our churches to look into the mirror and confess our complicity in the violence? In confronting and deconstructing mass incarceration, we do not suggest that justice is meaningless or that God is passive toward sin; on the contrary, our pursuit to dismantle its cyclical violence rises up from God’s longing to realize a more holistic and restorative creation. If mass incarceration is to be dismantled sooner rather than later, our faith communities must see our tolerance of the system for what it is: antithetical to the liberating way of Christ, and a barrier to the redemptive power of God’s justice. For when we pretend to be innocent of complicity in the sin of mass incarceration, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

Sentenced To Die

There’s a story in the Bible about a people who were taken from their families, forced into captivity, and harshly sentenced. King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple—the place where the very presence of God resided. While a majority of the Israelites remained in the city, many had strategically been displaced in an attempt to control their now vulnerable population. These people were taken from their homes and separated from their loved ones, their children, and their life-supporting communities. All they could take with them were the stories of life before captivity; although, sometimes even stories of what was or dreams of what could have been only served to show how despairing their present captivity felt.

The book of Daniel tells us of three young men—today would likely be considered children—whom were among those displaced. The King had legislated a new law and made sure there were authorities in all the right places to enforce it. When the three young boys were deemed threats to the law and order of the land, they were immediately taken before the King. Nebuchadnezzar offered the young boys a plea deal, a response he believed to be gracious and forgiving, yet despite their oppressor’s attempt to justify their criminalization, the boys knew they had been set up to fail from the start.

Perhaps out of embarrassment that he could not command the obedience of the children, the text tells us “Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted.” Unwilling to be seen as soft on crime, he believed that the punishment—throwing them into the fiery furnace—was not strong enough for these protesting children, so he ordered the furnace to be heated up seven times more than the usual fire. The writer continues, “Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men” nearby, but “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire.”

The Fires That We Start

Similar to the plight of these Israelite children, the fires of mass incarceration are fueled by an increasingly punitive society and an abusive criminal justice system. The livelihood of millions of Americans, crushed under the heel of over-policing and severe sentencing, have been ruined by the manipulative tools of criminalization and demonization.

To put today’s reality of mass incarceration into historical perspective, in the early 1970s Civil Rights activists decried what they experienced to be one of the highest incarceration rates in the history of the United States, where as much as 300,000 people were locked away. By the turn of the century, that number would surpass 2 million.[i] If we can even comprehend, between the years 1990 and 2005, a prison was built every 10 days.[ii] Even if we attempted to return to the historically high incarceration rates of the 1970s, we would have to release 4 out 5 of all incarcerated individuals today—nearly 1,600,000 people.[iii]

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that in order to adequately understand how we as a nation became the most aggressive incarcerator in the world, we must see mass incarceration as a novel, legalized structure in a series of systems that have effectively manipulated, controlled, and exploited people of color and all persons in poverty: beginning with slavery; leading to the era of black codes and the birth of convict leasing; to Jim Crow and segregation; and culminating with mass incarceration.

While a plurality of influences have contributed to the ever evolving prison industrial complex, it was desegregation and the gains of the Civil Rights movement that led Americans in the United States to both subconsciously and, to some extent, consciously seek a replacement for the overtly racist discrimination of Jim Crow that was no longer seen as acceptable. By the 1970s, a large portion of our society had become uncomfortable with discrimination toward people of color based explicitly on race, believing itself to have transcended its racist ways and to truly be a “colorblind” nation, where the character of one’s heart would not be determined by the color of one’s skin. Despite setting aside the destructive language of racism (for the time being), the economically motivated intent to suppress people of color and manipulate lower and middle class whites began to manifest itself in new ways. Although portraying blacks as inherently inferior simply because of skin color was now unacceptable to the majority of the public, convicting someone as “criminal” was both legal and just.

According to The Sentencing Project, 1 in every 17 white male babies who were born in 2001 will spend time in prison, compared to 1 in 6 Latinx men, and 1 in 3 black men. This is to say that over 15% of all Latinx males and over 30% of all black males will likely spend a portion of their lives behind bars. For every one white woman, as much as two Latinx women and five black women will be locked up. In 2016, while blacks and African Americans made up 13.3% of the nation’s population, 35.4% of people in State and Federal prisons were black—incarceration rates never before seen in the history of the United States.

While people of color are incarcerated at disproportionate rates and receive harsher sentences for the same crimes committed by their white counterparts, there are other factors to be considered: the majority of people imprisoned have a history of substance abuse;[iv] possession of marijuana was the number one arrest offense contributing to the rise of mass incarceration;[v] nearly 73% of incarcerated women are diagnosed with a mental illness;[vi] 2.7 million children have incarcerated parents;[vii] in 2015, state governments spent as much as $56.9 billion on corrections alone, up from $6.7 billion in 1985;[viii] and 6.1 million Americans are currently barred from voting due to state disenfranchisement policies.[ix]

The fires of mass incarceration spread far and wide, but these are fires our Christian communities must all begin to face. Today, rather than using explicitly derogatory slurs and epithets to justify our structural violence toward the most disadvantaged in our society, we as Christians, complicit by participation and acceptance, have offered a new name, a new label that makes our mistreatment of other humans seem God-ordained. For many, to throw the “criminal” or the “felon” into the fire is to actualize Heaven on Earth. The “way of Christ” is to turn the fire up seven times hotter. Yet no matter how distorted our souls become, the angels of God will forever be in solidarity with those amongst the flames, seeking justice over violence, redemption over demonization, and new life over death.



[i] Stevenson, 15.

[ii] Stevenson, 260. or Dressinger, 14.

[iii] Alexander, 230.

[iv] Dressinger, 18.

[v] Alexander, 60.

[vi] Dressinger, 144.

[vii] Dressinger, 146.

[viii] The Sentencing Project

[ix] The Sentencing Project