The Criminal Jesus
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey Geary, and a prayer offer by The Rev. Sarah Henkel, at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday, March 20, 2016
Over the last month at least 30 of us have made Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a part of our Lenten journey. It has been a difficult journey, laying out before us – in stark facts and figures – the current form of what Alexander calls racial caste in America. As she put it,
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans.
Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
We finished our four weeks of study with a commitment to continue our current forms of prison ministry:
- helping imprisoned adults give gifts to their children during the Christmas holidays;
- writing letters to and mailing sermons to those who are incarcerated;
- responding to specific requests, like the one we got a few months ago to donate 100 Presbyterian hymnals to the chapel at Sing Sing Correctional Facility; and
- supporting the prisoner re-entry programs with which our presbytery is involved.
But we also ended our four weeks of study with a new commitment to work for the abolition of the mass incarceration system itself – and not simply because it has become too expensive to maintain, or a political albatross, but for the purpose of ending the racial caste system upon which it has been built. We have committed
- to work for an end to the war on drugs which targets young black men and which, according to one study, accounts for almost all of the prison growth since 1980;
- to scrutinize our legal system, including the President’s current nominee for Supreme Court Justice, on his positions on criminal justice, fourth amendment rights, and “tough on crime” policies;
- to engage in local campaigns like the one to Ban the Box on employment applications here in Westchester in order to give former felons a fair chance for a job and to have the opportunity to get further into the hiring process before a background check is conducted; and
- to look at our church’s investments to make sure we are not profiting from the current system that locks up black men at a rate nearly twice that of the rest of the population.
Michelle Alexander reminds us that the most important thing to understand about the criminal justice system today is that it is not the prison time but the prison label that matters.
Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern. Like the “coloreds” in the years following emancipation, criminals today are deemed a characterless and purposeless people, deserving of our collective scorn and content. When we say someone was “treated like a criminal,” what we mean to say is that he or she was treated as less than human, like a shameful creature. Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those considered less than human into shackles; less than 100 years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages. Once released, they find that a heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon them.
Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits. It does not matter whether you have actually spent time in prison; your second class citizen ship begins the moment you were branded a felon. Most people branded felons, in fact are not sentenced to prison. As of 2008 there were approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and a staggering 5.1 million people under “community correctional supervision” – i.e. on probation or parole. Barred from public housing by law, discriminated against by private landlords, ineligible for food stamps, forced to “check the box” indicating a felony conviction on employment applications for nearly every job, and denied licenses for a wide range of professions, people whose only crime is drug addiction or possession of a small amount of drugs for recreational use find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy – permanently.
There are a number of us here who have family members or friends who are (or have been) in prison. Some of us have, ourselves, been in prison. We know first-hand the difficulties faced, and the deck stacked against, those re-entering society. I had a conversation just this week with someone who is quite certain that the Box on the employment application that an applicant is required to check if he or she is a felon is the reason a family member has not been able to get a job, despite two years of applying again and again.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus is betrayed by a kiss in the garden, arrested and taken to the house of the chief priest. There, the trial of Jesus takes place under cover of night. And when Jesus is declared guilty by the chief priests and scribes, he is handed over to Rome for sentencing. It is when Jesus was being tried and labeled a criminal that his friends distance themselves, disappearing into the night as the cock crows.
In the Gospel of Luke, there is no trial in the middle of the night. The trial – such as it is –takes place, the following day, on Friday morning. But in telling the story this way, Luke tells us something else. Jesus’ friends begin to disappear the moment he is arrested. The arrest itself, by armed guards and soldiers, already labels him “accused.” And in justifiable fear of guilt by association, they abandon him.
Each Holy Week we retell the story in horror. This week on Maundy Thursday church leaders will take turns reading the narrative from the last supper through the crucifixion. We will slowly extinguish the lights in the sanctuary. We will tell and hear the trial and political maneuvering of the Roman authorities, the abuse and beatings at the hands of the soldiers. How Jesus was lashed with words and whips, as if he were a thing beyond care. And he is brutally crucified – a criminal among criminals – one of the thousands upon thousands of so-called criminals that were crucified by Rome at “crossroads” in order to dominate the occupied people of Judea, Galilee and Perea.
What justice system there was in Ancient Rome was purely for the purpose of securing and maintaining the power of the occupying force. Arrests, trials and crucifixions were designed to terrorize the population into submission. And Jesus is arrested and branded a criminal. Now you may remember that some in the narrative, like the Roman Centurion in Luke or the criminal crucified to one side of him, claim Jesus was innocent. But Jesus doesn’t claim that for himself. And by all accounts, Jesus was guilty of sedition; he was a traitor to Rome because he was building a popular movement whose character and practice put them on a direct collision course with Roman priorities and power. It wasn’t a mistake. Jesus was a threat and he was arrested and executed as an enemy of the state. Jesus, our savior, was a criminal.
I want us to take this in and not pass over it. Jesus was a criminal.
What does it mean for us to be followers of the criminal Jesus? As we move through Holy Week, I invite you to reflect and pray and journal and talk with one another about the questions, the insights, the stories that emerge for you as you sit with this image. As social critic bell hooks says, “use what you know, to know more.”
See if you can stay with Jesus on Maundy Thursday as we go through the liturgy – how long do you make it before feeling it is safer to distance yourself from him? See if you can see him suffering on the cross, not as a uniquely persecuted person, but as a criminal among thousands of criminals, abused and killed as an ordinary course of Rome keeping order and power. Stay with the criminal Jesus this week. Will you dare?
Following the sermon, the congregation sang Thomas Troeger’s powerful hymn, “A Cheering, Chanting, Dizzy Crowd” which moved us on from Palm Sunday right into Holy Week. Then The Rev. Sarah Henkel led us in the following prayer she composed for the occasion:
We are gathered here in prayer on the cusp of Spring,
at the beginning of this Holy week of mystery, sorrow, and new life.
All around us are signs of newness: green tender buds,
bursts of color emerging from the cold ground.
We give you thanks for the beauty of this earth in all seasons
and we pray for the earth’s restoration.
We pray for all of us – for all people – to turn to the earth with love,
to shield and cherish what remains.
As we cross this threshold into the remembrances and celebrations of this week,
draw us near to Jesus’ journey, to his death on a cross as a criminal among criminals.
May our hearts be broken, cracked open to all who bear the hate and fear of this world.
We lift our prayers as ones committed to a world with no more crosses,
no more systems of death.
We pray with the hope of resurrection to you, the God of Life in abundance.
We pray for all who are incarcerated, under probation or parole,
for all who bear the weight of label ‘criminal’. We pray for hope.
We pray for all who work to break down the system of mass incarceration
from behind bars and from the outside. We pray for endurance, wisdom, and clarity.
We pray for….(here prayer petitions from the congregation were offered and silence was held for prayers unspoken).
Holy Creator, who shaped the universe, who dwells within us, hear our prayers. Amen.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. p. 2.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. p. 141.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. p. 94.
 See Mark Lewis Taylor, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. (Fortress press, 2015)
 bell hooks, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. (Routledge, 1944). p. 10.