I have been meditating on a disturbing juxtaposition of images that is meant to be provocative. I do not mean to equate these images in every respect. They do not represent exactly the same thing. What they do suggest is a certain historical continuity in our social structures and the way in which they shape our perception of who is, and is not, human.
The first image is a photograph of overcrowded prison conditions in California.
The second image is a recreation of the way in which slaves were stored aboard ship as cargo for the middle passage from Africa to North America.
While the mass incarceration of men of color in historically unprecedented numbers is not the same thing as chattel slavery, it is another moment in the evolution of racist social structures that seek to keep black and brown people locked in an inferior racialized under-caste. What story do these images capture? How does mainstream culture tell that story? How do people of color tell their own story?
As people of faith, we understand the importance of images and narratives. Whoever controls the narrative, controls our interpretation of reality and determines what we are allowed to see. In one sense, Jesus’ whole ministry was spent trying to open people’s eyes and ears. “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind’” (John 9:39). Jesus is changing the narrative, empowering those considered “blind” to trust their perception of reality, while challenging those who control the interpretation of reality to recognize just how blind they are to the truth. Jesus knows what every community organizer knows: if we are not telling our own story, somebody else will tell it for us in ways that serve their self-interest rather than the truth.
Conversely, it is important for us to listen to people tell their own stories, rather than hearing about them from someone else. I’ve come to believe very deeply that to understand these images, I’ve got to listen very carefully to people of color as they tell me their stories. And so I was in East Oakland this week at the Elijah Muhammad Cultural Center listening to black colleagues talk about their experience of the War on Drugs (which, in truth, has been a war on poor communities of color) and gun violence and mass incarceration and police brutality in their communities.
There, I heard Dr. Alvin Bernstine, pastor of Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, open up the "Good Shepherd" passage from John’s Gospel in a new way. He broke it down real simple. If Jesus came so that we may have life, and have it more abundantly, then we have to value life. We have to value the lives of black men and boys enough to question why it is that they are being warehoused in prisons like livestock - like sheep, if you will.
Looking at these images of people treated like livestock challenges me to reconsider Jesus’ figure of speech about the shepherd and the sheep. The first thing to note is that Jesus is employing a metaphor. He is neither talking about fuzzy pets or animal husbandry, nor is he deploying this metaphor in the ways we might assume as 21st Century people. We think of sheep as dumb animals who do what they are told. It is insulting to be referred to as sheep.
For 1st Century people, sheep were the animal of choice for ritual sacrifice. Sheep were victims sacrificed as scapegoats in lieu of human beings, both as sin offerings and thanksgiving offerings to God. They are made to suffer for the benefit of others. Remember that Jesus here is addressing the religious leaders in the Temple, where such sacrifices were offered on a daily basis. The connection is clear.
Jesus is also drawing on prophetic traditions in which God is seen as a good shepherd of the people who brings justice, unlike corrupt human leaders; a shepherd who feeds the flock rather than simply fattening them it for slaughter. God desires that we care for one another, rather than exploit each other. Another stream of prophetic thought imagines the Messiah, God’s anointed leader, as one who identifies with the suffering of God’s people, and even chooses to endure suffering for their sake. God desires mercy, rather than sacrifice.
In his peculiar use of the shepherd image, Jesus brings both of these streams together. For Jesus, the sheep are human victims of injustice, exploited by the very leaders who are supposed to guide and protect them. Jesus speaks of himself as both the “shepherd” who goes before them and the “gate” through which the sheep pass. What does he mean?
As shepherd, Jesus knows the victims of injustice intimately – by name – and they recognize his voice. He is one of them. In fact, he tells us later that he will even give his life for them. Unlike the thieves and bandits who kill victims for unjust gain, and the cowardly hired hands who run away at the first threat of violence, Jesus willingly becomes a victim so that others may live.
In Jerusalem, there was an actual Sheep Gate through which the herds were brought to holding pens to be ritually slaughtered. That Gate led in only one direction – toward death. In claiming the gate image for himself, Jesus emphasizes the reverse: through him, victims are led out into freedom and new life. When we walk through the Jesus Gate, we enter into a spacious and generous reality in which forgiveness replaces retribution, justice restores relationships, and the abundance of God’s love brings life out of death.
In walking through the Jesus Gate, we begin to be transformed into a people who identify with victims and act in solidarity with them. Compassion moves us even to take some risks on their behalf, but always in such away as to avoid the making of new victims. Jesus makes clear that he is not like the bandits – the revolutionaries of his day who simply kept the cycle of violence churning, replace one unjust regime with another. Jesus sacrifices his life in protest against the making of victims, completely trusting in the ever-renewing, creative power of God to renew life.
Which brings me back to the images of black men warehoused like sheep awaiting slaughter. They are among the victims with whom Jesus so compassionately and forcefully identifies himself. They are being exploited by a system of social control reinforcing white privilege; criminalized to politically and economically disenfranchise them in some ways even more subtle and devious than slavery or Jim Crow.
Since 1982, the War on Drugs has provided a veneer of legitimacy to an unprecedented assault on communities of color that has swelled the prison population in the U.S. from some 300,000 to more than 2 million inmates in just thirty years (larger even than the prison populations of Russia or China). The increase is due overwhelmingly to new harsh sentencing for nonviolent, drug-related felonies, massively disproportionately targeting communities of color and especially men of color.
Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control (including prison, parole, and probation) than were enslaved in 1850. As of 2011, because of laws prohibiting convicted felons from voting, more black men are disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was passed to protect their right to vote. In major urban areas, more than 50% of African-American men have felony, again mainly drug, convictions. If you add the men who are in prison currently (who, by the way, are not included in calculations of poverty or unemployment), that number shoots up to 80% in some states. This has led to massive social dislocation and economic inequity.
Jesus knows these victims intimately. He knows there names and they know his voice. Do we know their names? Do they recognize our voices? Who will lead them out through the Jesus Gate if the Church has not entered the gate in solidarity with them?
A faith-based movement called the Lifelines to Healing Campaign has begun to do so. The Campaign is committed to ending the public health crisis of gun violence in communities of color AND the mass incarceration of men of color feeding the distress and hopelessness that fuels the violence. Here in California, the Campaign is working concretely to lead victims through the Jesus Gate by passing the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act of 2014, a voter initiative that will be on the ballot in November.
This law includes four components that will help reverse the school to prison pipeline:
1. Reducing nonviolent drug possession and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and authorizes resentencing for anyone incarcerated for these offenses who poses no threat to public safety – both juveniles and adults. The vast majority of those eligible are men of color.
2. Redirects hundreds of millions of dollars from prisons to education and drug treatment programs. Since 1981, the percentage of California’s general fund going to prisons has increased at a rate 22x that of K-12 eduation spending. We spend more than $60K per year on each inmate, and less than $8.5K on each student. That has to change.
3. Protects public safety by limiting prison release to nonviolent offenders, and focusing law enforcement resources on violent and serious crimes and programs that can stop the cycle of crime.
4. Eliminates the collateral consequences of nonviolent felony convictions by reducing prior convictions to misdemeanors, eliminating barriers to employment, professional trades, housing options, and public assistance programs faced by convicted felons.
Jesus came so that victims may have life and have it abundantly. Let us share that abundant life, beginning today with a commitment to value the lives of black men and boys victimized by mass incarceration. Let us hear their stories, and let them hear our voices calling for justice.