The events of this past summer were a wake-up call for Christians, including Evangelicals. From acknowledging centuries-old, endemic racial inequality from the pulpit, calls to prayer, protest, and action, many are trying to find ways to step from the sidelines to the playing field in the pursuit of justice.
Indeed, our faith calls us to action and accountability as God’s people. The Old and New Testaments of the Bible express a preoccupation with justice. For example, biblical teaching found in Isaiah, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” and Hebrews, “… remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” are just two examples of the ancient Judeo-Christian witness to a God with unwavering commitment to justice.
Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship®, prioritized the Hebrews mandate to come alongside those affected by crime and incarcerated. We believe God created humanity in God’s own image, and no life is beyond God’s redemptive touch. Our faith drives us to work to bring the restorative justice envisioned and empowered by God and His Word into the broken lives, relationships, and communities we serve.
Redeeming systems as well as souls
Along the way, we have witnessed firsthand racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Stark racial imbalances at every stage of the nation’s criminal justice system confront people of color, particularly Black Americans. For example, at the arrest stage, while only 13% of Americans are Black, 27% of those arrested are Black. Similarly, the 2018 adult probation population was composed of 55% white individuals but 30% Black individuals. The remaining probation population included 13% Hispanic, 1% American Indian/Alaska Native, 1% Asian, less than 1% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and less than 1% individuals who identify as two or more races.
Communities of color are subject to higher-than-average rates of traffic stops and police searches, and African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be subject to the threat or actual use of force by police. African Americans are significantly more likely to be arrested for a drug crime, even though rates of drug use and trafficking are roughly equal across all races. Further, federal sentencing data indicate that when convicted, Black males are often subjected to harsher-than-average sentences and less likely to receive any form of reduced sentence, charge, or plea agreement, when compared to similarly situated individuals of non-African American descent.
Historically, evangelical Christianity has greatly emphasized an individual faith commitment that transforms the whole person. Not surprisingly, Barna found 93% of evangelicals agreed their values make caring for prisoners important (compared to 75% of Americans generally).
In our focus on the individual, evangelical Christians—including me—sometimes lose sight of the Gospel’s community implications. Not only do souls require redemption but so do societal systems and structures. Yes, we should “visit the prisoner,” but we must also ask ourselves whether or not it is just that they’re there in the first place, or for so long. Further, in the U.S., some 44,000 legal barriers to housing, employment, and other opportunities prevent people with a criminal record from flourishing. While we share with incarcerated men and women that all things are possible through Christ, we cannot be complacent about a system that, upon their release, holds them back.
Living faith—inside and out
Matthew Charles spent decades caught in the disparities of the system. Arrested in 1995 for selling crack cocaine, Matthew received a 35-year sentence in federal prison. Not long after his arrest, another incarcerated man gave him a Gideon Bible. After reading it cover to cover, Matthew gave his life to Christ. “From that point on, things just started dramatically changing for the better in my life. It was just amazing,” he said.
But while Matthew experienced personal transformation, the system that imprisoned him was slow to change. The disproportionate sentencing that mandated higher prison terms for crack than powdered cocaine kept Matthew in prison 16 years for his nonviolent crime. And though his term eventually was reduced, and Matthew left prison in June 2016 under the Fair Sentencing Act of in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice won an appeal claiming that he was ineligible for early release. Matthew then was sent back to prison in May 2018, on the grounds the law could not be applied retroactively.
Matthew’s story caught the nation’s attention. Thousands demanded his release. Then, on January 3, 2019, Matthew Charles became one of the very first people set free under the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act (FSA), which Prison Fellowship helped craft and supported alongside an extraordinary range of partners. And we continue the work of creating constructive culture for the restoration of incarcerated men and women, but we can’t stop there.
Charles Colson often repeated Abraham Kuyper’s words: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This includes the criminal justice system. Concerned Christian advocates must help transform our system with biblical values like fairness and restoration. According to the Barna poll, communities of color—those most adversely impacted by the systems’ failings—already know this and are, unsurprisingly, more likely to agree the Church should support second chance reforms and to consider elected officials’ positions on justice when voting.
Toward a more just society
According to Barna polling, most Christians already believe the primary purpose of the criminal justice system should be restoration. They believe in redemption and second chances. At this time when the tide is turning toward racial equality, Christians must not let anything, including a lack of knowledge—both about America’s current state of criminal justice and about how to apply what the Bible says about justice—hinder taking action on our beliefs.
The changes we need to make are not abstract but readily within our grasp. Church leaders can educate themselves on the state of the criminal justice system and how to use biblical values to address its current ills, including racial injustice. They can lead their congregations to embrace second chances as a public expression of grace.
After all, it’s not a new calling but a fuller realization of our oldest one—to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
 U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau, (April 2020), https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219; Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the U.S., 2018: Arrests by Race and Ethnicity, 2018, Table 43A, Uniform Criminal Reporting,: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/tables/table-43;.
 U.S. Department of Justice, Probation and Parole in the United States, 2017-2018, Appendix Table 4, By Danielle Kaeble, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August. 2020,https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ppus1718.pdf .
 U.S. Department of Justice, Contacts Between the Policy and the Public, Table 1, By Elizabeth Davis, Anthony Whyde, Lynn Langton Ph.D, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Nov. 2018, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpp15.pdf.
 Results obtained by calculated data obtained from, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the U.S., 2018: Arrests by Race and Ethnicity, 2018, Table 43A, Uniform Criminal Reporting: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/tables/table-43;.
 United States Sentencing Commission, Demographic Differences in Sentencing, at p. 2, Nov. 2017, https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2017/20171114_Demographics.pdf.