As we unveil the latest issue of Journal of Urban Mission that focuses on the criminal justice system, we do so with grief in our hearts.
During the course of the last few months, the entire world has been plunged into a pandemic, and cities around the globe have become battlegrounds that have experienced incalculable loss. In the US alone, the death rate recently passed 100,000, a previously unthinkable mark. Around the world, the pandemic has ravaged city after city, and we have been watching with apprehension spikes in infection numbers rearing up in cities of South America and Africa as the coronavirus has made its way there from Asia, Europe and North America.
Even as we pray for healing and a speedy end to the plague, as well as comfort for those who mourn, we are wondering how the coronavirus is remaking cities, how urban life will be shaped for the years to come, and what it means for urban mission. What we do know is that what has been true before the pandemic has become even more so. The words of Martine Luther King, Jr. uttered decades ago is even truer today: “Every city ends up being two cities rather than one.”1 This crisis has brought into a shockingly sharp relief the yawning inequality whose chasm continues to widen in our cities. Those most adversely affected by the pandemic have been residents of poor urban communities, segregated and excluded along racial lines, both in deaths from the virus and in job losses from the economic fallout. These communities are also homes to many “essential workers,” whose services the rest of society vitally needs and yet whose continued employment means risking daily exposure to sickness and death while others can afford to work from the safety of their homes.
These are the same communities that have been devastated for decades by mass incarceration policies, and the same communities that continue to lose lives at the hands of police or others who see themselves as enforcing the law. That brings us to the subject of this issue: the criminal justice system in the US. Recently, we have added the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd to the list that includes Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and to many others. In the kingdom of God, it shouldn’t have to be pointed out because it is all too self-evident; but in our fallen world, we must keep up repeating the phrase that has become the lament for our times: “Black lives matter.”
These events demonstrate just how urgent this issue’s theme is. As we prepared to go to press, peaceful protestors have turned up en masse in the cities across the US to express their anger and grief, speaking out against an unjust criminal justice system and a broken law enforcement, demanding reform. These peaceful protests, however, have been accompanied by fiery chaos and looting; the TV is showing our cities burn as we write.
We offer this issue of the Journal with a prayer for our cities in pain, but especially for those behind bars, knowing that this demographic is especially susceptible to the spread of the virus. COVID-19 is ravaging jails, prisons, and detention centers. According to the Marshall Project, which has been gathering data in state correctional facilities and federal prisons, at least 34,584 people in prison had tested positive (as of May 27, 2020). The conditions of confinement are especially conducive to viral spread.2 May they be safe, protected, and healed. May the church remember them. But more than that, may our criminal justice system undergo reform, and come to more closely reflect the justice in God’s kingdom. We hope this issue can help us go further down that road.
Here are the contents of Journal of Urban Mission Volume 6 Issue 1:
Kimberlee Johnson, the newest member on our editorial board whose passion led the way for us in this issue, and who (as she shares in her article) has been involved in providing education behind bars for years, has written “Prison Education and the Church”. Often, churches simply imagine Bible studies and worship services if they think of prison ministry. But can they imagine ministries that deliver real services and opportunities for those behind bars that accompany these more traditionally religious ministries? Johnson has answered through her years of work in teaching and organizing for education of students behind bars, and she has much to teach churches in this regard.
Donna Jones, in her article “The U.S. Church and Youth: Incarceration or Restoration?”, informs us that US is the leading incarcerator of youth in the world. She points to the church as a main contributor to this state of affairs; however, she still maintains great hope that the church can lead the way to a better future, through practicing restorative justice, for which it is specially suited. Likewise, Mako Nagasawa advocates for restorative justice in his article, “Restorative vs. Retributive Justice and the Implications for Public Life”. Penal substitutionary atonement, in his mind, has led the church to support retributive justice; medical substitution is a better theory of atonement, leading to restorative justice practices. Many of our readers might disagree with Nagasawa’s theology; we believe, however, that we will learn and grow better through open-hearted dialogue with those with whom we don’t agree on everything, and better theologizing and better discipleship on this critical issue is a worthy goal, especially in our time.
Shane Claiborne is no stranger to many of our readers–he has been active, among many other projects, in campaigning for the end of the death penalty. He is one of our Urban Voices in this issue, and his piece is called “Executing Grace”. Another Urban Voice this issue is Scott Larson, who penned “How Those Incarcerated Suffer Most in the COVID-19 Pandemic” to shine the light on the plight of the incarcerated population in the midst of the pandemic, even when they get released.
David Garlock, himself a formerly incarcerated advocate for those behind bars, introduces us to another in the Profile, “Miea Walker: Modern Day Harriet Tubman”. This issue’s Case Study is brought to you by Stephen Stallard, whose work with African American pastors in Brooklyn, New York City, as they minister in a community gripped by epidemics of violence, is told in “Voices in the Violence: How Black Churches in Brooklyn Can Help Us Find Our Voice As We Minister in Violent Contexts”.
Three reviews are included in this issue. One is of the film, “Just Mercy” (reviewed by Sheryl Van Horne), recently released and starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Another is of the book, Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom by Adam L. Gustine, reviewed by Susan S. Baker. The final review is of Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores by Dominique DuBois Gilliard, reviewed by Kyuboem Lee.
These are crucial conversations for our time, for the brokenness of the criminal justice system in US is intimately tied to urban socioeconomic inequality and to the harsh law enforcement tactics directed against communities of color. In this season of Pentecost, may the Spirit of God’s mission fill the church and lead us to go into our hurting cities and neighbors behind bars with the good news of Jesus’ kingdom that proclaims freedom, restoration, and Jubilee.
Susan S. Baker
1 Martin Luther King, Jr. Quoted by the Editorial Board. “The Cities We Need.” Opinion, New York Times, May 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/11/opinion/coronavirus-us-cities-inequality.html.
2 The Marshall Project. “Coronavirus: A Curated Collection of Links.” https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/8718-coronavirus?fbclid=IwAR0rtP0wasnGbZYb7adeYu-l0GvDPQGcvuoDtFTN9ak671Wlu7ImtrMChtw