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Deuteronomy 15.12-18

Leviticus 25.8-12

Captive Audience

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

“A Man Named Wesley”

“There was once a young man who lived in a land of sin.  A land where dope is the thing, a land where there are wild people walking the street at night.  And you might get robbed at any time.  This was a land of sin.

“Now Wesley was caught up in this land of sin.  He would always think to himself that there must be a better place to live, but he didn’t have the means of getting there.  So he became a man of sin.  He robbed people, he broke into people’s houses, he used dope.  Then one day he was taken from this land into another land.  Now this land is where all the dopers come to get their minds together again.  So Wesley wanted to make peace with himself again.  So his first move was to make peace with his God.  And so he did this and God would tell him to get something on his mind besides crime, and so he did.  Now he’s trying to make his life a good one once again.  He has made peace with his God; now he is trying to make peace with himself.”

During my second year at Princeton Theological Seminary, I worked as a chaplain at Holmesburg Prison, a maximum security facility in the northeast corner of Philadelphia.  During the day I would move around the cell blocks and engage in conversation and counseling with anyone who wanted to talk.  In the evening I taught a class in creative writing, in an attempt to help my students to both express what was on their minds, and to come to grips with what they were thinking and how they were living.  The excerpt I just read was written by Wesley himself, a reflection on why he found himself at Holmesburg and how he might improve his life and circumstances.  Wesley’s story could belong to nearly any of the men I met at Holmesburg, who saw themselves as both criminal and victim in the world they occupied, a world comprised of violence, theft, drugs and death.

Nearly everyone I met at Holmesburg at first tried to convince me of their innocence – it was always, “Somebody else did it – my brother, my neighbor, anybody but me.”  Yet those in my writing class would almost invariably get to the point where they could write about whatever it was that landed them in prison.  But the fact still remains that not everyone who is incarcerated is guilty of a crime.  For example, thenecessity of posting cash bail is an onerous burden on the accused.  On any given day, approximately 700,000 people are in jail because they can’t afford their cash bail, according to National Bail Out, a collection of 13 different organizations working on the problem.  Statistics show that a defendant is nine times more likely to plead guilty to a misdemeanor if they can’t post bail.  Now of course you don’t wind up in a maximum security prison if you can’t post bail, but those confessed misdemeanors become prior convictions that can have a bearing on future arrests.   Not everyone who is incarcerated is guilty of a crime.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me… to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”  Whether we are talking about the sabbath release after the seventh year of captivity or the more conservative fiftieth year of Jubilee, Hebrew faith and tradition place a premium on releasing human beings from captivity.  As Claudia described it this morning, Deuteronomy 15 tells us, “If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you for six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.”  And in Leviticus we read, “You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years…  And you shall hallow the fiftieth year – the year of Jubilee - and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.”

Yesterday was Juneteenth, a day that marks the end of slavery in the United States, fully two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  In fact, the earliest celebrations of emancipation were called jubilees, after the Old Testament practice.  On Thursday President Biden signed into law the establishment of the day as a national holiday, and it provides the opportunity for us as a nation to study and learn from a difficult and painful past.  The state of Connecticut got into the celebration a little early, as the statehouse began flying a Juneteenth banner over the capitol on Thursday.  Of course, as many have observed, there is a difference between designating a holiday and doing the hard work of racial justice.  As Kate Masur wrote in yesterday’s New York Times,

“Juneteenth, then, should serve not only to remind us of the joy and relief that accompanied the end of slavery, but also of the unfinished work of confronting slavery’s legacy.  Thanks to the effort of generations of activists, laws that explicitly discriminate based on race are a thing of the past.  But today’s [politicians] echo their 19th century predecessors when they justify federal inaction on voting rights with arguments about states’ rights and spurious claims of electoral corruption.  These arguments join a growing attack on the teaching of American history itself.”

In other words, the establishment of a federal holiday may be a milestone, but it is not the finish line.  There is still a lot of good work, or as John Lewis put it, “good trouble,” and plenty of it, for us to get into.

            Earlier this week I finished a different kind of John Grisham novel.  It was a taut mystery like so many of his books, but it also bore a deeper meaning.  The Guardians is about a kind of Innocence Project organization, that seeks to set free men and women in prison who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, most often of violent crimes.  It was a good tale Grisham told, and the ending was a satisfying one.  Now, I don’t always read the Afterword of a book, but I did this one, and the surprise it revealed makes me so glad I did!  Grisham said that The Guardians was the result of the research he had done for an earlier novel.  In that research, he came across the work of a group called Centurion Ministries, which, nearly a decade before The Innocence Project began its work, was already defending and working to free the wrongly convicted.  Because not everyone who is incarcerated is guilty of a crime.  Grisham’s research on Guardian Ministries took him to Princeton Theological Seminary where, in 1980, a seminary student who was also a prison chaplain established Centurion. Ministries.  Jim McCloskey, a second-career seminarian who was a classmate of mine, was working with a prisoner who insisted he had been framed for a murder he did not commit.  McCloskey became intrigued with the case, took the trial transcript home over Thanksgiving weekend and read the entire thing.  When he returned to visit the prisoner, he admitted the man might well be telling the truth.  The man’s reply hit him straight in the gut:  “What are you going to do about it?” he asked.  “Are you just going to go back to your nice little safe seminary and pray for me?  I need someone to free me from this hell on earth. Whether you like it or not, you are that man.”  Well, Jim McCloskey took up that challenge, assembled a group of volunteers who did the painstaking detective work that was required, convinced a judge to reopen the case, provided evidence of innocence and won a reversal, setting free the prisoner, and from there Jim went on to create Centurion Ministries, on which Grisham’s Guardians are patterned.  The organization has so far exonerated more than 65 men and women – two of whom were on death row and within days of execution – over the past 40 years.  “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

            Now I recognize that at first blush, it may appear as though I’m conflating two different subjects, the emancipation of the American slave, and the release of the prisoner from prison.  But the scriptures don’t seem particularly interested in parsing out the difference between the two.  Setting the captive free is a common theme in the Old Testament, and as we have heard, the mandate covers more than one kind of captivity.  In fact Isaiah turns things on their head when he prophesies, “The captives will take their captors captive, and rule over those who have oppressed them.”   Liberation.  Liberty.  Freedom.  Emancipation.  Deliverance.  Salvation.  Every one of these receives robust attention in the scriptures.  “So what are you saying Alan, that we should just open up the jails and prisons and let everyone go free?”  No, I’m not, but I am saying that we cannot afford to ignore the scriptural call for release. We cannot ignore the fact that not everyone who is incarcerated is in fact guilty of a crime.  We cannot ignore the fact that people of color, the poor, the immigrant, all those folks for whom the Bible reserves a preferential option, do not receive the same justice as the rest of society.  We cannot ignore the fact that people of faith have a special obligation, a dedicated mission, to serve and set free the captive in the name of Jesus:  “Lord, when did we see you in prison and visit you?”  “Inasmuch as you do for the least of these my brothers and sisters, so you do for me.”

As Kate Masur wrote in the Times, our work is far from over; there is much to be done.  And as former President Barack Obama has written, “Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are.  It’s a celebration of progress.  It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible – and there is still so much work to do.”  Inasmuch as we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, so we do for Jesus.

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