Prison ministry is very interesting and has taught me many things. Many of those things are about myself.
I remember one of my first visits to prison and experiencing how vulnerable the women were wiling to be. I drove home thinking how they were willing to be more vulnerable than I was. How they had come to a point in their lives that they were now ready to look up and be helped. They seemingly had nothing left to lose. But what about me? I still had an image, if you will. An image of “helper”. And having an image to protect is a kind of prison in and of itself.
God worked on that in my dreams. Actually, in one particular nightmare. I dreamt that I went to prison. I can’t remember what I went to prison for, although in the dream I know that I knew, but I was sentenced to 2 years. Now, if I had been sentenced to 2 years less one day, I would have been sent to Provincial prison, but since I was sentenced to 2 years, I was being sent to Federal prison. That means I would be going to the very prison I ministered in.
I remember the thoughts I had in my dream quite vividly. Thoughts like: “How can I get out of this?” “I am not going to want to talk to anybody!” “I won’t even want to leave my room or go to a Bible study like the one I was leading.” I remember the desperate feeling of being trapped with no way out. I could not believe it was happening.
What I was convinced of is that the prison of image is much harder to recognize and harder to get out of than the prison I was sent to.
Since beginning prison ministry, I pay a lot of attention to articles about all things prison. I remember one fascinating article that documented a recent move by a prison in another country (I think it was Belgium, but can’t be sure) to focus on dignifying prisoners. This article focused on how the maximum security prisoners and the guards ate together at a properly set table.
So I began to ponder the need to ensure dignity for people who had broken the law and so were incarcerated and also to question what “punishment” is supposed to look like. And I remember hearing someone say that when someone is sent to prison, the punishment is supposed to be separation from society. Theoretically, there is not to be punishment in prison – prison (separation from society) is the punishment.
And then a little lightbulb went off inside my head. Ahhhhh…..that makes total sense, I thought. After all, punishing people inside the prison does nothing for rehabilitation or reintegration once a person’s sentence is done.
Let’s make it even simpler. Prisoners come out of prison eventually and may live anywhere they wish. When thinking about your next door neighbour having perhaps come out of prison, what kind of experience do you hope they had in prison? One of dignified living? Or one of continuous punishment? We need to get smarter about this kind of thing.
Jesus came to free the prisoners. That is us – we have all sorts of prisons. Prisons like depression, addiction, laziness, image, control, etc. Those prisons represent separation from God. As he frees us from those prisons, he dignifies us. He loves us into his kingdom. Can you imagine if he just threw our “crimes” / “sins” up in our face continually, and we had to be punished ever after? No one would choose to be saved under those circumstances. It is the enemy who will throw our past up into our faces and who would like to punish us over and over and over again.
How do we view prison and punishment? As the church, hopefully we are in the image of the one we serve – Jesus – and not in the image of the enemy.