Imprisoning hope and reason

By Martin E. Marty
June 21, 2009

My office's files bulge with clippings and printouts concerned with religion and prisons. Every year I “do” one of the sixty synod assemblies of my cosa nostra, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA). This year it was the Southwest California synod. Months ago they told me I was to keynote the meeting on the theme, “I Was In Prison, But...”

They knew of my interest in the subject of prisons and I knew of my non-expertise, so I scrambled to read up as if to catch up. I am writing a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison letters and hang out with colleague Clark Gilpin who is writing on prison letters written centuries ago.

Such histories provide background but we need foreground now. I am not sure that Elizabethan and Nazi prisons were more soul-damaging than those portrayed and described to me by Californian Christians. No, this is not a suggestion of societal “equivalency,” only that damage to the soul of prisoners anywhere is equivalent to soul-damage anywhere.

The end of that paragraph may suggest that I am somewhat sentimental and soft about all the people in prison. Spend a few minutes with chaplains, pastors, lay volunteers, and workers for justice, as I did with the people on the scene at the Synod Assembly, and you will hear stories of people who do evil, evil things.

But what you also hear from them is testimony that most prison life in America is “retributive” and not “restorative” for the literally millions in prison, many of them there so we can hide them or hide from them and where we turn them over to fellow-prisoners and their gangs to teach kids (juvenile offenders) how to train for a life of violent crime.

On 19 May 2009, the Christian Century magazine had a review by Tobias Winright of James Samuel Logan’s book Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and US Imprisonment, which Winright and other reviewers evidently regard as the best of the current batch - the batch being books by Christians and other witnesses on the prison scene.

Winright asked: “Why is it, for example, that the US, which has six per cent of the world’s population, incarcerates 25 per cent of the world's prisoners? We currently have some 3.2 million persons in… prisons. We spend more money building and maintaining prisons than public schools — to the tune of $50 billion a year... No other democratic nation today imprisons people on such a scale or for as long as the US. Yet what are we accomplishing?” Logan’s testimony: We accomplish little positive.

The literature, religious or not, on the failings of the system and the guilty participation in its expansion on the part of eyes-averting citizens is vast and this is not the place to try to review it.

Churches are not entirely asleep. The internet will bring you — as it did, in recent months, to desperate-to-learn me — rich evidences of ingenuity and zeal by congregations, synods, denominations, and agencies.

Some months ago I made a pit stop at Friend-to-Friend, a program of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry in Cleveland, and heard good news of similar programs from Lutherans at the Assembly in California — a state whose statistics and stories make it a candidate for “worst.”

The Assembly theme reminded me and my colleagues there, of the need to take a different look at justice and mercy than that taken by society at large.

Working for justice and visiting the prisoners are central to their devotion to the Jesus of the gospels, who said that in visiting prisoners they were visiting him. He’s quite lonely. The tens of thousands of congregations, whose programmes address this, dispel some of that terror of loneliness.


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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