Note: As you listen to or read my sermon today, you may be wondering why I am not preaching about the tragedy of this past week. I beg your forgiveness. I simply have no words left to speak after so many years of the same tragedies happening again and again. May God have mercy on our souls.
“But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” Acts 16:19-24
Traditionally when the church has talked about Paul’s many arrests they have been attributed to his preaching of the Gospel. The thinking has been that somehow preaching the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God was offensive to people and so they imprisoned him and eventually put him to death. In other words, Paul’s arrest was about disputes over religion. But I recently read a book by Ryan Schellenberg, Abject Joy, that gave me a different perspective on Paul’s arrests.
Schellenberg’s main thesis is that Paul was arrested and imprisoned because he was an imprisonable person. He was poor (his profession prior to becoming an apostle was tentmaking). He was an itinerant person, therefore a stranger that aroused suspicion as he travelled about preaching about Jesus. He was homeless, moving from place to place and relying on the hospitality of others. And as a Jewish man he was of an ethnicity that stamped him as an outsider. All of these pieces of his identity meant that Paul’s body was a “whippable body,” one that could be hit or locked up by authorities for something like what we would today call “disorderly conduct.”
Look at our reading from Acts for this morning. Paul and Silas don’t actually do anything illegal. He doesn’t seek out the demon-possessed slave girl to heal her. He heals her because he is annoyed by her. And in turn he inadvertently disrupts the lives of the people who owned the young slave woman. She was valuable to them only because she made them money through her fortune telling. Paul has upset the apple cart. These were people who were probably accustomed to getting their way. They feel entitled. They have the power to punish Paul and so they do.
And look at how they get their revenge. They don’t go to the authorities and say, “he has lost us money, arrest him.” They go to the authorities and point out all the ways that Paul and Silas are vulnerable people who can be arrested simply because they have no power–“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” They are imprisoned because they are vulnerable people who threaten the bottom line of the powerful. The crowds attack them because their very existence makes them feel unsettled and uncomfortable.
Ancient prisons were places where disease, hunger and scarcity ran rampant. Demosthenes said of fourth century Athens, “If you want to understand how a slave differs from a free person the answer is this: whereas slaves are answerable for all offenses with their bodies, the free can preserve theirs, even in the greatest misfortune; for in most cases, it is money that is exacted from them as punishment.” Paul was poor. He could not offer bail in order to be released from his imprisonment. Had he had money and status he would have been able to offer sureties for his appearance or been placed under house arrest.
Schellenberg goes on to say that Paul looked a lot like those who get overpoliced and thrown in jail today—poor, homeless and of an ethnicity that marked him as part of an occupied people. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of the statistics I’m going to share before.
Incarcerated people have a median annual income that is 40% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages prior to their incarceration. About 60% of the prison population lived in poverty prior to going to prison. We send large numbers of people with low levels of education and skills to prison and when they leave, they are just as penniless as they were when they went in. Many poor people spend months or years in jail even before they go to court because they cannot afford their bail. Data shows that poverty makes a person more susceptible to being arrested and more likely to be charged with a harsher crime and to receive a longer sentence.
Black people make up 13% of our population and 38% of the prison population. Blacks receive sentences that are 20% longer than whites for the same convictions and with the same criminal backgrounds. 55% of inmates have a mental health problem and 25% suffer from serious mental health issues.
In the past 50 years there has been a significant increase in laws criminalizing various behaviors relating to homelessness—sleeping, sitting, lying down in public, sleeping in your car, begging, loitering. Several major cities have passed laws that make it illegal to share food with a homeless person. It is hard to be homeless and not break the law. This is all happening at the same time that housing is becoming unaffordable to more and more people.
The data shows that being poor, black and/or homeless makes you an imprisonable person in this country.
If you are imprisoned in Maine, you will most likely be given a job which will pay you somewhere between $1000-$6000 per year. Most jobs earn wages at the lower end, with only a handful of jobs earning the high end wages. For hypothetical purposes we’ll use the low end number. At least half of that will be garnished to pay court costs, fines and other fees, leaving with you about $500 per year. Out of that you are expected to pay for all your hygiene products (toothpaste, toothbrush, feminine hygiene products, soap, shampoo, etc), any snacks, phone calls, e-mails, texts, computer usage and so on. Vendors who provide products and services in prisons are allowed to charge whatever they want and usually provide payment to the prison so most goods and services sold in prisons cost at least 4 times as much as they do on the competitive market outside the prison. Family and friends can transfer money to prisoners for a fee in Maine prisons of 5-12%. They cannot send cash directly to a prisoner. Hunger, scarcity and disease run rampant in our prisons too (just look at how we failed to protect our prisoners from COVID).
If Paul was actually similar to the people currently held in America’s prisons, perhaps America’s churches should be treating incarcerated people the way that the followers of Jesus treated Paul. And how did they treat Paul? Well, we only have to look at Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi to find out. The church at Philippi provided resources to Paul during and after his incarceration, meeting his physical needs and becoming his social safety net. The Philippians sent Epaphroditus to Paul to make sure he had the means of surviving behind bars. They prepared a guest room for when he was released. They visited, sent letters, and helped him when he was released from prison. When he was released, they treated him not as a charity case but as a friend.
We can also work for justice and prison reform. Why have we criminalized social problems experienced by many people living in poverty (who are disproportionately black)—homelessness, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and debt? There are many working to change this. Will we join in their work? And what about those already in prison? Will we work to create prisons that are primarily about rehabilitation rather than revenge and punishment? The Police, courts and/or threats of punishment have never succeeded in creating public safety. Only strong bonds of community can do this. What these institutions have succeeded in doing is to maintain the current balance of power in which some have more than they need, and others don’t have enough. What do we need to say as followers of Christ to those who make and enforce our laws and create our prison systems?
It is the way of the world to punish the vulnerable in order to maintain the balance of power for the powerful. This is not the way of those who follow Jesus. Jesus himself was arrested and put to death because he was homeless, of an ethnicity that marked him as less-than, poor and a nuisance. He was arrested and put to death because he was arrestable and imprisonable. God incarnate in Jesus has sided with the vulnerable. As followers of Jesus, we are called to do the same. Will we have ears to hear? Amen.