Incarceration, Community, and Mercy

Every Sunday evening, our residents at the Tennessee Prison Outreach Ministry gather for a community meal and then a Christian worship service. When I speak occasionally at TPOM on a Sunday night or deliver a message in one of the local prisons, I often address the subject of community. What does it mean to live in a Christian community? What does community look like and how should I treat those that I come into contact with in my daily life? 

We live in a world today where a healthy community is often lacking. When we are solely focused on ourselves and our own self-interests, communities break down and chaos reigns. Our prisons are often violent places and a cursory review of the evening news reveals that our neighborhoods are often not much better. 

In order for us to have a healthy community, we must be one who shows mercy to others. Jesus, in the Beatitudes, focused upon the importance of mercy. Matthew 5:7 reads: “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.”  The word “mercy” means “compassion.” This is defined as the ability to feel sympathy with the misery of another and especially sympathy manifested in action. This mercy that we are to show is linked to God’s mercy on us. Jesus said: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” Luke 6:36.

Also, this beatitude strikes at the very heart of humanity’s problem, which is self-centeredness. Whether incarcerated in a correctional system or living in the free world, we must all overcome self-centeredness if we desire the continued compassion from God. In the parable of the rich fool, the fool’s statements were mostly “I” or “my” (Luke 12:16-21). Although we may never be this selfish, we all need to realize that we can easily put ourselves before the needs of others and before God.

The Bible illustrates how we are to be merciful. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan “had compassion on him” and this resulted in action (Luke 10:33-35). The ten lepers cried: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13).  These lepers were not just seeking someone to feel sorry for them. They wanted healing.  Likewise, we must put our sympathy into action (Micah 6:8). I just smile when I see our residents helping our neighbor at TPOM. I have witnessed them helping our elderly neighbor to cut wood for his fireplace, mow his yard, or clean out his gutters. We have a group of residents who have volunteered to provide food for the homeless in our community and they deliver this each Sunday night. Many of our residents truly are understanding the concept of community. In fact, some returning citizens understand it better than those of us who have never resided in a prison.

We all need to also realize that showing mercy is strongly connected to forgiveness. This is a matter that many struggle with in our world today. Even when someone serves their time for a conviction, they are often met with trepidation and fear from others upon their release. We need to remember that without mercy, God would have destroyed all the Israelites following their sin or refused to ever let them enter the Promised Land. “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7).  In Luke 18:13, the publican prayed: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” In this story, the one who sinned was asking for forgiveness. In the parable of the Prodigal Son., the father did not give the wayward son what he deserved otherwise he would have shut the door in his face (Luke 15:11-32). Instead, the father showed mercy on his son indicating how God is merciful with our sins. 

We also need to temper our desire for justice in our criminal justice system with mercy. Unfortunately, there are elected officials in Tennessee who are seeking to pass legislation that would eliminate parole and even eliminate a reduction in sentence for good behavior. Already our prisons are often violent places and this would only exacerbate the problem. Instead of locking people up and throwing away the key, we ought to be focused on rehabilitation and believe in giving people a second chance in life. In a nation with the highest incarceration rate of any democratically elected government, we could also benefit by considering the message of Jesus. 

If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it with people who are interested in learning more about TPOM and our mission. You can view last month’s blog post here.  

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