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Why not free the prisoners?

All society knows to do about criminals and prisoners is to do what they did to Jesus and to those executed with him. But God in Jesus did and does free the prisoners. Resurrection. Jesus is prisoner in our place. He is executed in our place. So that we might be free. So that we might be resurrected. “Free?” Yes, free to be with God and with neighbors and enemies the way Jesus was with God and with neighbors and enemies. But free also in and from prisons of stone and concrete.

The texts, but more critically the lives of Jesus and the prisoners admit of no demythologizing, no re-mythologizing, no hermeneutic contortions, no theologizing about symbolic or other hidden meanings. Jesus proclaims freedom to the prisoner. That is the good news in its first-fruits. Men’s crimes against God and therefore against society are taken up, they are assumed by the imprisoned and executed Jesus. Jesus in our place. But we in His. Free. Resurrected. So why not “free the prisoners?” God has. All of us, inside and outside prison. “Worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of any man” (2 Corinthians 5:16). So what could the “prisoners” freed do to us that we are not already doing to ourselves? Murder us? Pervert us? Steal from us? Use us? Lie to us? Is not the freedom that Jesus means the very option to humanity that the murderer, conspirator, dope-pusher and user, sodomist and thief cannot find in the prisons and the paroles of society?

. . . It is not to oppose “reform” of prison life, but to overcome prison, to preach and live the good news of freedom to the prisoners as a first-fruit of freedom to us all.

We cannot blot out Christmas and Easter. Jesus became a criminal and prisoner of society and was executed for us. All! Everyone! When we call him Lord! Lord! we are therefore calling upon a Lord who was and is a prisoner. . . . We cannot take refuge in our law-abidingness, our good citizenship and economics, for our Lord was himself executed as a criminal and thus brings freedom, resurrection, to them.

Will Campbell, “Good News to Prisoners,” in Writings on Resistance and Reconciliation (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 24-25.


  1. Eric wrote:

    out of curiosity and for clarification, what kind of prisoners do the scriptures have in mind here? Is Campbell really advocating that societies not take steps to encourage repentance or at least behavioral modifications within those individuals that commit criminal acts? Is he simply baptizing Foucault on this point? The substitutionary-type anointment model here also seems to miss the point, I think. Christ didn’t become a criminal, but took the punishment destined for criminals. I’m just not convinced. Sure, Christians can do more to encourage a different, even radical, ways of dealing with criminals then locking them away or killing them. But, surely Campbell isn’t advocating not doing anything at all. right? Freedom in Christ surely doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want to people because God has forgiven all sins, does it?

    Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Nathan Smith wrote:

    But, surely Campbell isn’t advocating not doing anything at all. right?

    Maybe not Campbell, but Jesus sounds like he is advocating just that:

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

    You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

    Along this line of thinking, I have some science fiction recommendations:
    - The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
    -The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

    A society without prisoners can only really be imagined in sci-fi literature, I think.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:43 pm | Permalink
  3. ken oakes wrote:

    This passage brings up an issue that has yet to be developed in current theology: crime and punishment. Outside of canon law or a two kingdoms scheme, theology hasn’t provided much reflection in this area.

    The above account seems like a very ‘Protestant’ stance on crime and punishment, while a more ‘Catholic’ one might view time served as distantly analogous to penance. In any case, the above passage has little to say to the prisoners, as it is primarily concerned with overcoming our own potential squeamish-ness about the effects of releasing violent offenders. A good example of the gospel preaching, but surely along with the gospel there is the call to repentance.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

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