Part One: My Story
Blacks are being incarcerated at a higher rate than any other race in America. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40% of the people in prison today are people of color. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men. For black men in their thirties, one in every 10 are in prison or jail on any given day. Some people have described mass incarceration as a hidden agenda—a new caste system to enslave black people in America.
In a recent conversation with my older cousin, he said, “Mass incarceration is a tool used to keep God’s people broken.” After reflecting on such a provocative thought, I remembered how nearly every adult male I knew as a child went to prison. My biological father and the majority of my uncles were incarcerated at some point in their lives. Some were gone for many years for drug offenses, while others went to prison for shorter sentences for smaller crimes. For so long, I considered my father and uncles “bad guys.” It was not until I had an encounter of my own with the law that my perception of them and myself changed.
In 2012, I nearly went to prison for 4-6 years for “failure to stop a crime.” This was life-changing and very eye-opening for me. From one experience, I was dismissed from my graduate program and fired from my job. Humiliation barely scratches the surface of what I felt. I was labeled a criminal and “a bad guy.” I spent almost five years in litigation for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Overall, I spent seven years being untangled from the web of the justice system. I thank God I didn’t go to prison physically, but psychologically I became a prisoner to the trauma of being labeled and targeted as a Black man. This experience forced me to ask God many questions—why? Why was prison on my journey towards graduating from college? Am I a criminal? Was God punishing me?
I felt like a criminal. I felt bad, wrong. Not one of my accomplishments mattered in that moment. I was a statistic and my hard work came to an end. I’ll never forget that day in court. The judge looked at me and said, “You are being charged with a felony. Your bond is $300,000. You are a flight risk and a threat to the community.” The irony of this is, at that time, my current job was to serve the community. Yet, I was being charged and considered a threat. After hearing this, I threw my head back and allowed tears to roll out of my eyes as I whispered, “Oh God.” I was simply hanging out with friends, at a party, and this happened. After spending seven days in jail, five years in court and two years under court supervision, I can honestly say the justice system is unfair towards Black men. I believe it targets completely innocent people and imprison them. I believe it captures those who commit the crime, those connected to those who do the crime and those who are there and have no idea a crime is taking place. What’s complex about this is actually determining what is a crime. Often, blacks are involved in something that may resemble a crime, but it’s not. The justice system will sometimes exaggerate what was done and stretch the truth to make an incident become a crime—especially when Black men are involved. Again, this is all my opinion my personal experience and observation. I can only back it up by the countless stories of black men being incarcerated for crimes they didn’t do or crimes they didn’t know was a crime. I had no idea that being with someone who did wrong made the person who didn’t do anything a criminal. Guilty by association? I’m convinced that black men in America are in need of justice, redemption and the justice system needs to be reformed.
Biblically, the children of Israel (God’s chosen people) were enslaved by the Egyptians. In the book of Exodus (Exodus 1:1-22), it is written, the Egyptians placed slave masters over the Israelite people and oppressed them. The Egyptians were so threatened by the growth—they started to kill the boys. Biblically, this slavery is not considered punishment from God. However, they suffered and God didn’t intervene until they cried out to Him. After they cried out, God raised up Moses to emancipate them from slavery. God liberated the Israelite people so they could worship Him. Later in the Bible, we read how God redeems Israel in the wilderness and reforms society with His principles of justice.
Like Ancient Egypt, America enslaved Blacks. Like the Israelite people, Blacks were issued slave owners and worked hard without pay. They were fruitful and multiplied like the Israelite people and were oppressed for hundreds of years before they were liberated. Once blacks were liberated in America, they didn’t go to a wilderness for redemption like the Israelite people, they stayed in the same country among the same people who enslaved them. This is where the narrative differs from God’s chosen people. Could it be, Blacks are unable to be completely redeemed because we are still among those who once owned us? Does the freedom and progression of Blacks threaten the American empire? Are Blacks suffering because our dependence/faith remains upon our oppressor instead of God? Or even this: how do you positively impact and change the place you inhabit when its structure is built upon your oppression? Where is God in all of this?
I believe, God is within us. Unlike ancient biblical times, we are now in the era of Jesus Christ—the Gospel era. Like Moses, God sent Jesus to save the world. Like Jesus, Black men are falsely accused of crimes they did not commit. Jesus is falsely accused of a crime, placed in prison, and killed as punishment. The Roman Empire imprisons Jesus, kills him and God redeems him by raising Him from the dead. As a result of this, those who believe in Jesus are saved and made right with God. There is a formula… slavery, punishment, redemption and reform. Do we need all of them? Is slavery good? Does punishment push us towards redemption despite the fact we may be falsely accused and or imprisoned?
God sends Jesus Christ to redeem mankind once and for all. However, in America, Blacks redemption is complex. Despite our redemption, we struggle to experience absolute freedom. I believe America is hindering God’s plan for Blacks. Reformation starts with recognition that there is a flaw in the societal system. We can see that Blacks are being imprisoned at much higher rates than any other race in America. Is this because we are the most sinful? Are we the “bad guys?” I don’t think so! Could we be involved in another form of slavery for the advancement of another group of people? Maybe! Do we need to cry out to God? Absolutely! Are Blacks being punished for ancient sin? I don’t think so. I think they are being oppressed. Could reform be achieved in a place that slavery has existed? I think so, but it may take us some time. If we advocate now, things can start changing. But, without God we can’t do it. Historically, God has been the liberator. We need Him to help us. We have to speak up on this and fight for change like Moses and maybe even die like Jesus. In order to do this, I believe we need to accept the story of Jesus Christ as truth. We need to believe in Him so that our sin can be forgiven and we can receive the Holy Spirit, which is God’s Spirit within us. With the Holy Spirit within us, we can live righteous lives and have the true power to turn from sin, which brings punishment. As a result of living righteous and powerful, we can then make the proper argument against injustice. But, it has to start with being in right standing with God, because He is the liberator.
In conclusion, America is a country that believes in civil death instead of redemption. Where is God in all of this? I believe He is with us, and our redemption still exists—even if it isn’t visibly tangible in the society we live in. We have to fight the good fight by challenging the systems in place and continue to share the Gospel. This is a heavy topic to tackle, I’m just sharing some of my thoughts. Here are a few reformation questions I’d like to ask to contribute to the discussion that is already taking place:
How does society shift its toxic dependency and usage of the penal system?
What can be implemented to ensure ex-felons have the opportunity to healthily and strategically return to society as productive and reformed citizens?
What does a reformed penal system look like? What does a penal system rid of discrimination and racial bias look like? How does it function and how is it properly being implemented?