The great religious revivals of the Anglo-American past have focused on the downtrodden and despised. Out of each revival came a new emphasis on prison reform, as a reaction against the brutality and inhumanity of the penal system of the time. If you were a Quaker, for example, believing that “there is that of God in everyone” and that everyone has access to the Inner Light, then you actually believed that this thief, this drunkard, this drug addict, was—no less than you—a child of God, worthy of respect and love. If you were a follower of John and Charles Wesley, a “Methodist,” you believed that we were all sinners, and that no human being was beyond redemption.
All of which leads me to marvel at the “religious revival” of the last twenty years, which has been a willing partner of the most hateful and vindictive political ideologues in America’s conservative boom. Fundamentalist churches are the core supporters of the right wing agenda, including its emphasis on expanding the death penalty to cover more and more offenses, imprisoning as many people as possible, imprisoning them for longer and longer terms, and eliminating programs designed to educate them or help them in any way to improve their lot. It doesn’t seem to bother these Christians at all that prisoners, in massive numbers and on a routine basis, are being treated worse than dogs.
“What would Jesus do?” they frequently intone. I have to assume it’s strictly a rhetorical question rather than a felt demand on their lives. Do they honestly believe Christ is a cheerleader for the gas chamber and lethal injections? For life sentences for drug possession? For stun guns? For the Bush administration’s treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?
At Guantanamo the administration has thrown prisoners into a jail built from international shipping containers. Three sides of each cell are steel mesh. The cells are less than 7 foot by 8 foot, and more than half of each cell is taken up by a metal bed welded to the wall. Prisoners are kept in that space, in metal containers, in broiling tropical heat, for one hundred sixty seven and a half hours per week. Each week, a prisoner gets to leave that metal oven for two fifteen-minute periods. That’s his time to shower and exercise. Do you suppose that’s the kind of prison Jesus would have designed, given the chance?
January 15 will mark the first anniversary of their imprisonment, with no end in sight. They have never been charged with anything. They have never been allowed to see a lawyer. They have never been allowed contact with their families. Their imprisonment violates, among other things, the Geneva Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the U.S. Constitution. That’s not the America I grew up in. It’s not the America of Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson or Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth or …. But I forget myself; we’re talking religion here, not our American heritage. Jesus didn’t sign the Geneva Convention or the Constitution, so let’s dismiss them as irrelevant here, and get back to the key question: What would Jesus do? Apparently their Jesus says, “Fry the sons-of-bitches,” or “Cage ‘em and throw away the key.”
© Tony Russell, 2003