Katie Becker (T’17) is studying abroad in Nicaragua and is an active part of PCM+. She shares this homily she wrote for a liberation theology course during her abroad experience.
Visiting the Prisoner
The passage that you just heard is one of the most frequently cited texts of the Christian Bible. Christians frequently refer to this verse as a charge to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and care for the sick. Rarely, though, have I heard this passage employed as a call to visit the prisoner. And yet it’s there in the text. Jesus says that when we visit the prisoner in jail, it is as though we are visiting him in jail. Whatever we do for the “least of these” – in this case, the prisoner – we do for God. In Matthew and the Margins, Scholar Warren Carter writes that the act of visiting those in prison, in the time period, meant many things. It meant providing food, drink, and clothing. Such an act, he says, is powerful in that it is “contrary to dominant cultural practices” and because it is concerned for “the needs of the other, not the social credit of the giver” (p. 495).
This is further powerful because Jesus, who had at this point been declared as the Messiah and the Son of God, chooses to identify himself with the poor, with the excluded, and with the incarcerated. And such an identification is not without basis – Jesus will, in the very next chapter of Matthew, be arrested and put on trial. Shortly after, he will be executed. And so, we see that Jesus’ life and teachings are very much concerned with the welfare of those in prison.
So why then aren’t more Christians?
The good news is that some Christians and others, in Costa Rica, in the United States, and around the world, are concerned with the well being of those in prison. Many prison ministries, like the one Leah mentioned, exist here and in the United States. The brave Hermanas del Buen Pastor managed the Carcel de las Mujeres (women’s prison) for nearly 50 years with an emphasis on empathy and grace. Then, when they saw people being imprisoned for their beliefs – beliefs like liberation theology – they refused to participate anymore in a system they saw as oppressive. That is bravery. That is liberating.
So what can we do? What steps can we take to bring justice to “the least of these”?
We can, quite literally, visit those in prison. I am of the belief that every American should spend some time in a prison, seeing what goes on behind those walls. Whether through a class, through an organization, or through a ministry, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to live in ignorance about what’s happening in our own backyards.
We can educate ourselves. Books like The New Jim Crow and Are Prisons Obsolete? should be required reading for US students. We should understand how the United States, through its free trade and neoliberal policies and its War on Drugs, has exported the structure of its prison system and harsh criminal justice system to other countries around the world. And we can educate others. We can talk about our criminal justice system in academic contexts, in social contexts, and in religious contexts.
Lastly, we can simply acknowledge the humanity of those in prison. Each year, my campus ministry writes a Christmas card to every single death row inmate in North Carolina. My pastor once heard an NPR story about death row inmates who said that the worst thing about being on death row was that everyone – society, their families – forgets them. One of the inmates commented that one year, he didn’t even get a Christmas card. Thus began the practice. For the longest time, I didn’t understand why we did that. Why not do something tangible? And why concern ourselves with people on death row, who are probably murderers and rapists?
Through this class, I’ve come to understand the value of mutual acknowledgement, or seeing the humanity in the person the dominant social structure tells you to exclude. Because when you see the humanity in that person, we are acting for the least of these brothers and sisters. And, the scripture tells us, we are acting for Jesus.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”