by Emily Ling
“A disorganized Church cannot beat an organized lie.”
As I head into this new year and the upcoming spring semester of seminary, that line continues to be a thought that ruminates in my mind. It was spoken back in October 2017 by Reverend Mike McBride, Director of Urban Strategies for PICO National Network’s LIVE FREE Campaign. Rev. McBride said it while participating in a symposium on the Church’s response to mass incarceration which was held at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)’s 2017 national conference in Detroit. I had helped organize the symposium as a continuation of my contextual education internship this past summer at South Street Ministries in Akron, Ohio. Though my placement officially ended in August, I had an opportunity to continue an aspect of the work I did in Akron through an internship with the national CCDA office, assisting CCDA’s national policy and advocacy director, Michelle Warren. In that role, I had the fortunate experience of helping Michelle with research and organizing on issues of criminal justice, including helping plan the symposium. It proved to be a fantastic opportunity to synthesize the local-level work of South Street’s reentry ministry into a larger conversation with other CCDA leaders doing related work across the country.
The symposium consisted of three panels with different speakers, with each panel’s participants discussing three different themes that were developed out of Bryan Stevenson’s components for dismantling mass incarceration: 1) Getting proximate to the pain, 2) Healing the wounds, and 3) Changing the narrative of incarceration. Each panel examined what it might look like for the Church to live out one of those themes, so the discussion was a mix of personal storytelling, practical policy considerations and ministry ideas, and theological considerations.
Reverend McBride was one of the featured leaders during the second panel, which examined how the Church might go about nurturing healing both for the individuals who have experienced incarceration (including also their families and communities), as well as for us as a nation. McBride noted that, “The Church is not organized to effectively challenge the systems of injustice, and a disorganized Church cannot beat an organized lie.” His words confirmed what I have felt so strongly over the past year especially, which is that the American Church is in the midst of a serious crisis of identity, and it is crippling our ability to embody a prophetic witness to the world.
To be fair, perhaps the Church has never NOT been in a crisis of identity in the United States, nor at any point in its history actually. Certainly, America has had problematic notions of what a Christian community should look like ever since the founding fathers declared in the Mayflower Compact that their colony would be established “for the Glory of God and advancements of the Christian faith”, while soon after enacting a genocide of Native Americans and instituting the transatlantic slave trade. The same is true today, as the Church in America includes congregations that would both support and denounce mass incarceration, as well as any number of other oppressive institutions of our times. Christians in the United States hold such vastly different views about every aspect of what is means to be “the Church”, that there seems to be little, if any, collective sense of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Pastor McBride noted on this point that when it comes to how we address the harm done by incarceration, “We think we have to get everyone to be a Christian. But the thing is that America doesn’t create very good Christians. So, we’ll need to change the system while the Church catches up.” It seems evident that Pastor McBride likely thinks “good Christians” would be those who advocate for setting captives free, and thus opponents of mass incarceration. But he recognizes that the Church as it exists today is not united in that sentiment, and so while Christian congregations remain inconsistent on issues of social justice, those who are woke to the harm of the prison industrial complex will need to cultivate organized collective action on their own.
Such action is necessary because mass incarceration is indeed a very well organized lie. Our nation claims to fervently value individual freedom and the majority of our citizens profess to be Christians, identifying with a faith tradition that extolls forgiveness, grace, and redemption. And yet we place a higher percentage of our population behind bars than any other country in the world, largely because we’ve bought into so many falsehoods: lies that people are beyond hope, that severely punishing people will deter others from crime, that some races are more prone to criminality than others, and that people’s identities are synonymous with the worst thing they have ever done. These lies help bolster a social framework that keeps particular people in control of power and financial wealth through encouraging fear of the other and the valuing of profit over human life. This framework is one that the Church should be equipped to refute, but sadly we seem not well prepared to do that.
It was hopeful to witness at the CCDA conference that at least some of the Church is trying to voice dissent to the lie. We will need to be wise and disciplined in how we expose the lie to more and more light, so that it can be defeated. To that end, I’m excited that this spring Boston University School of Theology is offering “Cursed Amidst Mass Incarceration: Redemptive Possibilities in Criminal Justice Reform”, a course for theology and law school students taught by Rev. Dr. Cornell Brooks. I anticipate my fellow colleagues and I will explore what true prophetic witness could look like in the face of America’s addiction to incarceration, and how we might educate and organize congregations to be equipped with theology and practices of liberation. Such work gives me hope for 2018 that we’re just getting going on fighting the good fight.
Emily Ling (’19) is a second-year MDiv student. She serves as the program administrator for the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program. A native Texan, she earned a Masters of Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and prior to seminary advocated for criminal justice reform and prisoners’ rights. She is a discerning candidate for ordination as deacon in the United Methodist Church.
Feature image art is by Sohee Cha.