Monday, May 14, 2012

Setting Free the Captives (Idaho Statesman piece for May 2012)

Faith communities tend to make requests of God that She either cannot or will not deliver.  Sometimes we petition for what simply cannot be; more frequently, we pray that God will do things that She, in Her great wisdom, delegates to humanity.   Since we are God’s partners in the work of repairing our broken world, much of this sacred burden falls on us.

Such is the case with a blessing that Jews traditionally recite upon waking.  Every morning we proclaim, “Praised are You, Eternal One. . . who frees the captives.”  Yet God does not free captives.  God leaves this calling to humankind.  The point of the blessing is to remind us of our God-given obligation to bring liberation.  Alas, we in America are failing dismally in this task.

Adam Gopnik offers a powerful indictment of our national epidemic of incarceration in his January New Yorker essay, “The Caging of America.”  He notes that our prison population is at a level almost unprecedented in human history.  With over six million people currently locked up, we have surpassed the numbers cast into the Gulag at the depths of Stalin’s tyranny.  Racism plays a significant role here; there are now more African-American men living under the auspices of the criminal justice system than there were slaves prior to the Civil War.  This scandal exacts a terrible cost in both moral and fiscal terms.  Over the past twenty years, the money that states spend on jails has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.  As Gopnik concludes: “The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life.”

Surely faith communities, who are charged by God to “free the captive”, should insist that America—and Idaho—can do better than this.  We who believe that every human being is created in the Divine image should not abide the cruelty, racism and corruption at the foundation of our penal system.  We should sound a clarion call for reform.  Such reform might start by abolishing the contracting out of our prisons as for-profit business to for-profit companies.  As Adam Gopnik points out: “It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.”  So, too, should we be doing more to combat the racism and poverty that render the system so inequitable.  Justice should be colorblind—which, for now, it surely is not.  Meanwhile, synagogues, churches, mosques and other houses of worship have largely failed in our God-given mission to provide people with hope—and people condemned to live in hopelessness will always turn to crime in disproportionate numbers. 

Last but not least, we should insist on the decriminalization of marijuana and the reform of our nation’s drug laws.  The so-called “War on Drugs” is an utter failure and the collateral damage that it has inflicted on our entire nation is colossal.  The compassionate response to drug use is rehabilitation rather than incarceration.  We need prisons to protect society from violent criminals; locking up addicts serves no one, and is a sign of barbarism.  

God does not free prisoners—but we can.   Before we continue praise or petition the Holy One for liberating captives, it is long past time that we do our human part.                                        

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