“Several years of prison ministry have convinced me that there are substantial parallels between what we think about incarceration and how we understand salvation.” So says religion professor Stephen Webb. In a recent article for First Things, Webb asserts that in order for spiritual renewal to take place in the United States, Christians must first turn their focus to the prison system.
“[P]rison is more than a theological metaphor,” Webb says. “It is a social reality that reflects our hopes and doubts about what it means to be liberated from our iniquities. If Christians cannot help prisoners find meaning behind bars, how can they expect the Gospel to find an audience among those never convicted of a crime?”
Webb argues that an understanding of incarceration is central to the Gospel. “How can captivity, a great biblical theme, have any meaning today if we treat incarceration as nothing more than ‘serving time’? How can salvation be proclaimed as the ultimate joy even in this life if we live in a society that continues punishing prisoners long after they have been released?”
To put a finer point on his position, Webb – an adult convert to Roman Catholicism – examines modern views of heaven and purgatory. Without a coherent understanding of how individuals are redeemed, he suggests, Christians are content to isolate prisoners, leave the “remote possibility” of any moral change to God, and to remove themselves from the process.
“Prisons should be purgatorial, not simply punitive,” Webb says. The purpose is to “do justice,” but always with an eye to restoration. Instead, prisoners are saddled with burdensome parole restrictions and many hurdles to reintegration, both institutional and de facto. And this, he claims, colors how modern culture views heaven. What joy can heaven offer, if it resembles in any way the challenges that come with release from prison?
Part of the problem, Webb suggests, is the prevailing Christian understanding of heaven as an immediate perfection of sinful human beings. “If that is heaven, then what hope do we have for prisons? If restoration can only happen in the blink of an eye, then we might as well give up on the healing properties of punishment.” Instead, he proposes that a better understanding of heaven might be a place where people can grow closer together and help heal each other’s wounds. Rather than a place where justice is rendered unnecessary by love, he offers that maybe heaven is a “place where the power of love will make justice finally possible.”
While Webb’s views on purgatory and heaven are not universal in Roman Catholic circles – let alone the broader Christian community – his article raises some important points for all Christians to ponder. The justice we seek in this world should always be viewed through the lens of our own sinfulness and the need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Our restoration and adoption as children of God did not simply occur, but was part of a divine plan. As a result, any Christian understanding of corrections should also be focused on restoration. Simply locking prisoners away and trusting that, somehow, they will emerge from prison appropriately chastised is not likely to be effective, and it doesn’t reflect the hope that is available to us in Christ. The restoration that we as Christians have received should be reflected in how we view the corrections system. To do otherwise would be both uncharitable in practice and inconsistent in theology.
“I am convinced that the crisis of faith in America today cannot be resolved apart from a reformation in our understanding of prisons,” Webb concludes. “If we do not know what role punishment plays for those convicted of crimes, how can we claim to understand what penance is for souls guilty of sin? Now more than ever we need to rethink the connection between showing mercy to trespassers and seeking forgiveness for our own trespasses. Revival will come to America when Christians begin doing justice to the American prison system.”