From the Book of Deuteronomy:

You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 16:18-20 (NRSV) – June 6, 2013.)

Hands Through Prison BarsJustice. When I was initiated into the “free and accepted” fraternity of Masons, I was taught that justice is “that standard or boundary of right which enables us to render to every man [sic] his just due without distinction.” Justice, I was told, “is not only consistent with divine and human laws, but is the very cement and support of civil society.” Furthermore, my instructor continued, justice in large measure “constitutes the really good man, so should it be the invariable practice of every Mason never to deviate from the minutest principal thereof.”

As a child in Sunday School, I learned that justice is a quality of the kingdom of Heaven made real in the church’s practice of acceptance and equality. But that really wasn’t true in the church of the early 1950s – not everyone was accepted and not everyone was equal. In fact, I don’t think I would be too far off the mark to say that the Christian church then and now has done a pretty lousy job of teaching, by word and example, what justice, on an individual and personal basis, is. The Masons’ initiatory instruction probably does a better job of personalizing the idea of justice than does any teaching of the church.

We’re pretty good at teaching about “social justice” and addressing justice as a global goal. There are several books and websites where one can read something similar to this (copied from a popular church website):

It is central to the Christian faith that God desires a world in which justice is done. However, the past hundred years have revealed the scale of injustice in the world to be greater than anyone had previously imagined. Global forces that are deeply unfair determine the destiny of the world’s poorest people and cause damage to the planet’s environment. War and suffering follow. This has led to a planet on which, every eight seconds, a child in the developing world dies from diarrhea because his or her community has dirty water. When seen through God’s eyes, this and many similar issues are an outrage.

Striving for justice and working for peace, particularly for the world’s poorest people, are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The good news he came to announce was that suffering and oppression could be brought to an end. Christians believe that their faith should lead them to be the people who help bring that about.

The challenge Christians face is to have a personal way of life that does not add to the world’s problems. This means adopting a simple lifestyle in which the world’s resources are not wasted, buying goods that have been fairly traded, and changing habits that damage the environment. In the richer parts of the world many of them support and give money to organizations that are seeking to improve the conditions of the world’s poorest people, to end conflicts, and to preserve the planet.

I have no real quibble with what this says about justice on a global scale. My concern is, “What do we do about justice in our personal lives and in our most intimate local communities, our parish churches?”

This became an issue in my parish when a church member was arrested, and the fact of the arrest and the nature of the charges were splashed across the front page of the local newspaper’s Friday morning edition. The details are unimportant; what is important is how the rest of the church will deal with this parishioner and other members of the family.

On reading the newspaper, I contacted the family; on Saturday, I visited the arrestee at the county jail. I assured them all of my prayers. But then, in the privacy of my study, I began to wonder, “Should I say anything about the situation in church? Should I rework my sermon for Sunday?” At our early service, I said nothing; but just before our principal service, because of something I was asked by another member, I knew I had to address the issue. Our practice is to make announcements before beginning our worship, so when those were concluded, I said something along these lines:

You may have read Friday’s paper or have learned otherwise that a member of this congregation has been arrested and jailed. None of us know the details, so none of us really has anything to say. What I would ask is that we not speculate, not gossip, not spread rumors, and not judge. Instead, let us keep our fellow member and the family in our prayers, and allow the justice system to do its job. Let’s remember that as Americans we are bidden to treat everyone as innocent until proven guilty, and as Christians we are bidden to forgive even the guilty.

Was that enough? I asked some colleagues; I asked friends on Facebook: “Do you know of resources to help a pastor lead a congregation through dealing with the rather public and embarrassing arrest of a parish member?”

Pretty much deafening silence followed . . . .

I searched the internet.

Pretty much nothing there . . . .

I did learn that there is something called Prison Ministry Awareness Sunday among North American Orthodox Christians. This year, an encyclical from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops sets the observation on June 9 and calls on members of Orthodox faith communities to participate in the church’s ministry to those who are in prison, and to support and encourage “those who bring the Gospel of hope and salvation to the incarcerated.” Their letter begins with these words:

We greet you in the surpassing joy of the Risen Christ. By the grace of God, we are blessed to observe the Sixth Sunday of Pascha, which this year falls on June 9, as Prison Ministry Awareness Sunday. We embrace the diakonia of prison ministry in keeping with the example of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Physician of our souls, who did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance; who ate in the houses of thieves and forgave the sins of harlots; and who said that, when we visit those in prison, we are in truth visiting Him, the Lord of Glory. (Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, emphasis in original.)

I believe the Orthodox bishops are on to something. How we handle the arrest and incarceration of a parishioner should be informed by Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment in the 25th chapter of Matthew. When he says, “I was in prison and you visited me” by visiting “one of the least of these who are members of my family,” we should hear his words as addressing the full experience of arrest, arraignment, trial, and sentence. As anyone goes through that process, we should see that person as bearing Jesus’ identity, and however we relate to that person and his or her family will reveal how we relate to Christ. This is especially true of those who are our brothers or sisters in the local Christian community.

Concern for global social justice is well and good, and it certainly has and deserves a place in the teachings and practice of the church. But in light of our parish experience, I believe that, like charity, justice begins at home. How we treat one another in these difficult circumstances in the intimate setting of our parish communities is foundational of our efforts to promote justice in the wider sense.

I’m troubled that there seem to be so few resources available to clergy and church members providing guidance in these circumstances. The Sentencing Project reports that “the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years.” Surely this is something that will increasingly occur in our parishes. We need to address it.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.