Love is not for cowards. If loving the enemies is part of the love zone, love takes courage.
But even before you get to enemy territory, there are other love zones though not enemy-heavy, are hard to get off the ground. Prisoners are such a people.
The high walls of prisons seem to aid people in doing something they want to do – forget those who live behind bars. Silently we affirm that those in there do not belong out here.
But just before we settle in this thinking, Jesus rattles this comfort by claiming that he was in prison. And you know what? You never went to see Him! He had expectations that his handcuffs were not a code for you to shut the door of regard. He waited for you to scale the high walls and appear in his prison cell but you were a no show.
While the high walls exist to keep the prisoners in, they also propagate rejection. They demarcate the ones behind them as unworthy and to be handled with suspicion. Those same walls that sentence the ones inside of them sanitise the ones outside. This is interrupted by Jesus who relates himself with a prisoner. What was His crime? His was big – treason. He was not a petty offender.
To give credit where it is due, a good number of churches have the office of chaplaincy as part of their clerical order. While some denominations deploy ministers as prison chaplains as a matter of duty, others reserve the chaplaincy to those who discern prisons ministry as their primary call.
Again, to their credit, many churches organise visits to prisons. Some have impressive prison-visitation budgets. Others mobilise widely and fruitfully towards a prison visit.
A question worth asking is: When Jesus says He be visited in prison, what about when he leaves prison? This post-prison visit is a challenge to many churches. Sometimes it gets so bad that churches end up on a notorious list of stigma peddlers. As long as the prison spirit hovers upon discharge, visits should linger.
Visiting a prisoner goes beyond the mere presence of a person to become an affirmation of their personhood. The visit is an embrace. To be seen is an expression of love – the love that scales high walls as a way of bringing them down.
Regarding visiting Jesus in prison, two critical questions arise. First: Why does God take a prisoner identity?
Second: If God is in prison asking for a visit from me, who really visits who? One may add a third one: Why is God asking for a visit and not a release from prison? For the first question, God takes the prisoner identity to express solidarity with the fallenness of humankind.
But in His nature, He is both prisoner and liberator. His affirms innocence while taking away guilt and its power. He locates himself in an earthly cell to impart innocence on His visitors. He absorbs the earthly judgment while being the Judge of judges. Visitors see him condemned yet they leave acquitted.
When Jesus enters the prisons liberty is inevitable. Liberty is not necessarily walking out of a prison but is first a divine interception of an inevitable guilt and sentence. The effect is a paradox of “I’m in chains but the gospel is not” and connectedly, “They (Silas and Paul) praised God until the prison doors opened.” Prison doors opened, a ship wrecked yet a decision not to escape. This can only be a response of freed people who know a higher Liberator whose visitation has unshackled their sentence. They do not need to run – they are free! In a light-visited cell sentence is dim.
The question of who visits who in prison rhymes with that of who baptises who in the Jordan. If John baptises Jesus, what happens to John? Who baptises him? But John cannot escape such a great baptism. The moment cannot leave him untouched. John’s baptism is in the wrestling with unworthiness.
Reversed as it is, John proceeds to baptise His saviour. How can this be unless the Messiah has covered his mess! John’s unworthiness kills him but he is made to rise by the Messiah’s insistence of worth.
The real event is not visiting Jesus in prison. The real event is the visitation that Jesus makes to those who visit Him. The visit to prison is an acknowledgement that they have unclean lips and that they live among people of unclean lips. Only then does a burning coal come to cleanse the lips so that they now speak cleansing words to liberate an incarcerated world.
Jesus does not need you to visit Him rather it is you who needs His visitation. He calls you to visit Him in prison because He wants to visit you where you are – in your prison. You who think you are free need to meet the Liberator in chains – your chains. To experience Jesus’ visitation is to be drawn to your own fallenness and loved there. To be loved in your fallenness is to be called to love the fallen – in their prisons.
Clean Start Africa works with women, girls and children impacted by the criminal justice system did a study titled Rethinking the Bars: Access And Administration Of Justice For Women Who Commit Petty Offences. Read keenly, the report informs the church that compassion is in high demand among the imprisoned and discharged. Like a mirror, the report makes the church face the ugly reality of neglecting and downplaying a constituency that Christ identifies with.
It challenges the church to enliven its love. The report stirs opportunities for the church to be creative in its approach. A church that determines to set up a non-custodial sentence site is would be out for a newsworthy adventure. One can only imagine the intense learning a priest would embark on to equip themselves to attain the stature of a magistrate to rule on petty offences.
The Clean Start report is an eye opener for the church to shed its self-reliance mode - it only leads to inefficient repetition. Instead of the church seeing itself as transcending other institutions, it should become aware of zones to synergise with good spirited organisations to form a front that lobbies for legislative reforms in favour of people undeserving of harsh sentences. In such a joint effort, the church pulls a special weight, especially in this political season where a section of the church is quite close to power.