The following post originally appeared as a BreakPoint radio commentary.
If I asked you what prison and salvation have in common, chances are you would draw a blank. I know I would.
But the answer, according to philosopher and theologian Stephen H. Webb, is “quite a lot.” In fact, he insists that revival in America is contingent on our understanding the connection.
Writing in First Things, Webb notes that “there are substantial parallels between what we think about incarceration and how we understand salvation.” The most obvious one is that, for the Christian, sin is a kind of prison and release from this prison lies not in escape, but in a personal transformation effected through grace.
“In a democratic country heavily influenced by Christianity,” Webb continues, “prison is more than a theological metaphor.” It’s a “social reality that reflects our hopes and doubts about what it means to be liberated from our iniquities.”
Stated differently, how we deal with prisoners, whom Webb calls “sinners in extremis,” reflects what we believe about sin, grace, forgiveness, and salvation.
Let’s start with sin: Americans are fond of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I . . .” but our attitude towards prisoners belies that sentiment. Prisoners can be the ultimate “other” with whom we share little, if anything, in common. We often don’t believe that in God’s eyes we both stand condemned apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This failure to see ourselves as fellow sinners, not surprisingly, is reflected in the way we treat prisoners. As a society, we’ve all but given up on the idea of prison as a place where offenders are rehabilitated and prepared to rejoin the larger society.
Instead, we talk about prisoners “serving time.” Or even less charitably, we sometimes talk about locking them up and throwing away the key.
And, as Webb points out, we continue to punish prisoners, both formally and informally, long after they’ve been released. Try getting a job once you put a checkmark in the “have you ever been convicted of a felony” box. We may talk about someone paying their debt to society, but that debt seems never to be paid in full.
Now if this were only a matter of mistreating prisoners, it would be bad enough and something that Christians should strive to correct. But as Webb points out, the impact doesn’t stop there. He writes that he is “convinced that the crisis of faith in America today cannot be resolved apart from a reformation in our understanding of prisons.”
That’s because, in Webb’s estimation, our inability to think about prisons and prisoners in Christian terms leaves us without examples of how to think about sin, forgiveness, and salvation when it comes to our own lives.
Instead of liberation, transformation, and restoration, we prefer a God who wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. Instead of robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb, we get “Orange is the new Black.”
It’s no coincidence that this Christian worldview radio program was launched by the man who founded the world’s largest outreach to prisoners: Prison Fellowship. Chuck Colson – and the thousands upon thousands of Prison Fellowship volunteers who followed in his footsteps – saw firsthand the power of the Gospel inside the walls, the Holy Spirit moving in the lives of “sinners in extremis.” The same Gospel, and the same Spirit, can revive us “sinners in denial” in the Church outside the walls.
So, I want to invite you today to please visit Prison Fellowship online at www.PrisonFellowship.org. Read the testimonies; then consider how you and your church might experience revival as you participate in the work of God inside a place we’d least expect it – at a prison near you.