Dominique Dubois Gilliard on the Implications of Meritocracy on the Church: Grace Erased for Incarcerated Individuals

We gather weekly to worship God, giving honor, praise, and glory to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We declare the goodness of God through prayers, songs, and sermons. We thank God for the unceasing love, mercy, and grace that’s been extended to us, singing hymns of adoration and thanksgiving because nothing—no one, nothing, and no deed—can separate us from the love of Christ.

But, do we really believe this? Do we truly believe that no offense, sin, or crime—regardless of how heinous—can separate us from God’s love?

If we soberly search our hearts, many of us question and doubt this. We wonder, Can a person who has been convicted of mass murder, pedophilia, or human trafficking truly be transformed, redeemed, and reconciled to God? While these are extreme examples, given that most incarcerated people (73%) are serving time for nonviolent offenses, this is still a vital question for the Church to grapple with. We either believe that no one is beyond redemption, or we don’t. There’s no middle ground.

Christianity is predicated upon grace. Orthodoxy affirms that we are Christians because Jesus chose to pursue and save us while we were yet sinners. Jesus didn’t wait until we got our act together; he embodied perfect, sacrificial love while we were yet enemies of God. Subsequently, the amazing grace that reconciled, restored, and redeemed us should be the hallmark of our lives as Christians; particularly patterning our disposition towards others standing in the need of grace.

The Gulf of Grace

However, our criminal justice system reveals that all too often this hasn’t been the case. While the United States constitutes only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its incarcerated populace. Statistically, our nation currently has more people locked up in jails, prisons, and detention centers than any other country in the history of the world. We currently have more jails, prisons, and detention centers than degree-granting colleges and universities. This means that in many areas of the country, there are more people living behind bars than on college campuses.

As followers of Christ, we must ask what our faith calls us to in this unprecedented era. Collectively and individually, we must contemplate what bearing witness to the gospel in this critical moment entails. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” Hebrews 13:3 exhorts Christians to “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

As new creations, we cannot dismiss these explicit instructions to be engaged with our criminal justice system. Could you imagine the prophetic witness of the body of Christ, in this watershed moment, if we steadfastly lived into these passages today?

Why Don’t We Go?

The church doesn’t know about the dehumanizing realities that incarcerated people are subjected to daily, because we have not faithfully responded to Jesus’ summons to be present behind bars.

Put another way, we don’t know that we are the only country that imprisons children for life, or that 80,000 people are locked in solitary confinement daily (quarantined in a 12-by-7-foot concrete cell for 23 hours a day and are only allowed outdoor access and human interaction for one hour).

We’re unaware that pregnant women, in many states, are shackled to gurneys during their delivery, and that 13 states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults—because we don’t go. And part of the reason we don’t go behind bars is because we are prone to forgot who we are, and who’s we are. Consequently, we frequently stigmatize and write off the incarcerated as irredeemable people to be avoided like the plague.

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Source: Christianity Today