Prison Reform: Where Is The Church?

Posted on February 10, 2011


Author: Stan Moody:

Reformer Martin Luther, condemned at the 1521 Diet of Worms trial for daring as a Catholic monk to challenge the Holy Roman Empire on its doctrine of indulgences, wrote,

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing.

Samuel Wesley later followed with a similar sentiment in his famed hymn, The Church’s One Foundation.

Today’s American evangelical church is struggling for survival and relevancy, hoping to avoid becoming too involved in the lives of the least among us. Decidedly white, suburban, upper middle class and Republican, its god has become the dumping ground for a wing and a prayer in the vain hope that catchy political activism will change the world. Mainline churches, on the other hand, seem to be locked in the status quo, fighting escalating costs and declining membership.

Meanwhile, the least among us are falling off the cliff or rotting in the world’s most oppressive criminal justice system while we scurry around doing maintenance on our possessions, the presumed blessings of the god of the American Dream of prosperity and success.
We have become a nation proud of our accomplishments, shoving under the veil of welfare and prison the pesky reminders of our hypocrisy. The church is losing its counter-cultural edge and its relevancy to speak to national life.

Award-winning journalist, James Ridgeway, prison activist and founder of Solitary Watch, wrote to me this past week a thought-provoking word:

The prisons are now housing too many old people, and the states are slow to enact compassionate care laws to let these poor old souls out to die in the free world. Now, isn’t this an issue that could motivate these stuck-in-the-mud mainline churches? With a few notable exceptions, primarily among Evangelicals, the churches are dead in the water. These people seem so out of it!

No, Jim. We are so awfully busy keeping up with our toys, our homes, our cars, our vacation villas, our club memberships and our 401K’s that we cannot possibly take on anything more. Would you care for a donation? A Thanksgiving basket, maybe?

The previous week, a high-profile activist for the NAACP in Maine was wringing her hands over the so-called faith community’s tepid response to human rights violations in Maine prisons, particularly around the issue of solitary confinement. She was frustrated over the tendency of the clergy to fall for the “bully tactics” of the Department of Corrections, while the Christian perspective dominates religious culture both inside and outside prison.

As with all causes, there are, of course, exceptions. My favorite is Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Skowhegan, ME, that recently built a 40-bed shelter for ex-offenders on the church property. Its motto? “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Their remarkable story is told on

Today’s church is in survival mode. There are essentially two ways to survive. One is to become too big to fail and thereby too big to care very much. The other is for a conclave of aging members to hold enough bake sales and suppers to ward off the inevitable. There is little room in either case for touching a life beyond notches in the old salvation belt. Meanwhile, the homogeneity of American church congregations holds at bay people who look different, act different and miss the common biblical metaphors for righteous living. In such an environment, there is little likelihood of shoulder-rubbing among disparate groups, let alone addressing each other’s needs.

The critical needs of re-entering prisoners are fairly simple but daunting – job training, mentoring, housing and drug and alcohol treatment. The church, a source of Christian values of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration, is well-positioned to help cut the recidivism rate by as much as 75%. Two impediments stand in the way – failure to trust in the power of prayer and fear of getting our hands dirty with time-consuming, unsolvable problems.

As a pastor, I have no easy answers to such problems except to say that the first step is to welcome into our churches ex-prisoners, their families and their victims. The roadblocks are daunting. Ex-prisoners are more comfortable with their own; families are ashamed, and victims are commonly angry at God and the church that was not there when needed.

It is time for the church to stop wringing its hands over its budget and its survival and jumpstart the ministry of reconciliation across cultural barriers for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do.