Praxis Connection Review is an online journal that highlights collaboration, innovation, and impact through churches in NYC.
Now is the Time: Reflections on Isaiah 61:1-4
This past spring marked the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The letter was Dr. King’s personal appeal to white clergy and faith leaders in response to their counsel that King and his colleagues were moving too fast in their quest for civil rights. King’s letter challenged religious leaders with the “fierce urgency of now,” making the provocative point that those who are not victims of oppression tend to be more patient with the status quo than those who are victimized. King wrote from his jail cell to stir up fellow clergy to join the cause of social justice as an extension of Gospel ministry. The justice of God demands that we move in the moment. It takes an immediate stirring of God’s Spirit to create movements of social change.
In Isaiah chapter 61, the Spirit of the Lord agitates and anoints God’s servants to deliver good news to the poor, offer healing for the hurt, and provide liberty for the captives. God is presently in the midst of the people righting wrongs, granting grace, comforting mourners, lifting burdens, and recreating a beloved community of justice and righteousness.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus launches His vision of ministry and transformation with Isaiah’s urgent, prophetic speech. Indeed, Christ now has come, and the world and life as we have known it can never be the same. Through Christ we have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Spirit-stirred and Spirit-led people have transformed the world through movements that evangelized the world, abolished global human slave trafficking, and influenced governments and public policies that promoted humans rights, human equalities, and improved qualities of life. Faith-filled people like Wilberforce, King, Mother Teresa, Bono, and countless others have been agitated and anointed by the advocating Spirit of God to help usher into the earth a greater manifestation of the reign of God.
The question today is: where are the places the Spirit is stirring today Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is at once revealing and shocking. With only 5% of the world’s population, America holds 25% of the world’s incarcerated. The “land of the free” has become the home of the locked up and locked out. In 1980, one American in seventy-seven had encountered the criminal justice system. Today the ratio is one in thirty-three. Courts and jails now suck up huge portions of local and state budgets. For urban African American and Hispanic males, any given day one of every three is under some form of incarceration or court supervision. Once a young person is a convicted felon, most for non-violent drug offenses, their legal economic prospects are pretty much over. Locked in poor performing schools and redlined neighborhoods, they will also be ineligible for professional licenses, school loans and grants, and public housing. They are forced back into illegal economies, imprisonment, and death. Their families and children will be mired in cycles of spiritual and cultural poverty, and social isolation and segregation from opportunity.
Alexander’s book shows how this racial caste system of mass incarceration has now spawned a prison industrial complex whose profit and economy is tied to urban misery and exploitation. From funding courts to building and servicing prisons, to servicing businesses around courts and jails, to expanding law enforcement departments, to gun sales and security systems, a significant part of the national economy now depends on incarceration and insecurity. The oppressed tend to turn on each other, and increased urban desperation and violence refuels the system. The trends are in place to continue to feed this evil system with the fresh meat of the youth of America’s new immigrants for decades to come. Without repair of the criminal justice system, immigration reforms and pathways to citizenship will become a cruel hoax. For an impoverished child born in inner-city America, the game may be over before she or he utters their first word. It is a wicked, systematic snuffing out of live options from birth to death. If the dynamics are not changed, the American dream for more citizens will descend further into the American nightmare. It is going to take an urgent stirring of the Spirit to respond to America’s 21st century captivity.
The good news is that the Spirit of Christ is yet in the world. To save the nation again with a new birth of freedom, believers will need to discern where the Spirit is stirring on behalf of the new captives in our urban centers. By definition captives cannot go free, they must be set free. What can the faith-filled do?
First, we can help lead a new Great Awakening in evangelism. The souls of those in urban centers must matter to all of us and we must make them matter to the powers that be. We must make the case for their humanity, people equally made in God’s image. We cannot ignore their misery and we must demand that any resources be spent to bring about their individual and collective salvation and edification. We must insist that government and private industry respond to their conditions of degradation.
Second, we should fight for redemption laws that allow for the expunging of the criminal histories of non-violent ex-offenders who keep clean records and have become contributing members of society.
Expungement puts our spiritual teachings of jubilee and grace into practice. No one should have to wear an “ex-offender” label for every minor infraction for their entire lives. This is the year of God’s favor! Repented offenders should be treated as returning citizens.
Third, we must consider the benefits of decriminalization for victim, drug using minors, and treat some drug abuses as a public health issue instead of a criminal matter. Decriminalization does not necessarily mean legalization. Yet, we must acknowledge that many drug users are more sick than they are criminal. Sick people need treatment and healing, not incarceration. Drug laws should be fair for everyone and good law seeks rehabilitation, reintegration and restoration. Like those before us, we can use our faith to fight to change unjust application of the law and help set the captives free. It is noble for us to feel compassion for those across the oceans. However, it may be more challenging and more authentically spiritual to respond to those suffering across town or next
The mass incarceration of American urban youth is just as urgent as the next international or national disaster that will capture our imagination and attention. The “New Jim Crow” describes an ongoing disaster that we allow to fester with either conscious consent or blissful ignorance. Soon, it will be clearer that the compounding human tragedy of our unjust justice system will be too close to all of us to ignore. Dr. King once preached: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I pray that this year the Spirit of God stirs our hearts as never before. We cannot be a light to the nations if our criminal justice system is an unfair system of social control. We will not have a national spiritual revival in the midst of a government funded racial caste system. Without fairness for everyone, we cannot all rest secure. Without justice there can be no peace.
When the Spirit anoints we have a passion for justice and the courage to act against injustice. Today, God’s Spirit is stirring and seeking servants to empower to bring good news, healing, and liberty to the oppressed in our midst. Justice restores God’s image upon fallen humanity and a just society reflects the glory of God. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 8:6). It is time for proclamation and action. By the power of the Gospel and the Spirit of Christ we can change hearts, change laws, and change the course of our country. Now is the time to proclaim release of the captives, reignite our passions for activist evangelism, and reclaim the godly purposes and promise of America as a light to the
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2012.
Hatch, Marshall. Project America: Memoirs of Faith and Hope to Win the Future. Life to Legacy