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The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.  Luke 4:18

I was hurrying through the court house to find my son who was tied up in district court motions and pleas.  As I rounded a corner, a deputy was escorting two prisoners dressed in blue prison garb, the man and woman were handcuffed and shackled as they were being directed, a bit roughly, through the hallways to the court room.  Their eyes and bowed head reflected their embarrassment at being displayed to the onlookers in the hallways.

I’d seen prisoners before, but something about being “up close” and seeing the helplessness, maybe shame, in their eyes caught me and pulled me out of my preoccupations.  I felt for a moment deeply saddened by their “prisoner” status.  Sensing my own discomfort, I then tried to dismiss my feelings of compassion for these prisoners by reminding myself that they surely had brought this on themselves.  After all, they were most likely guilty in fact, and would be so declared in the courtroom for which they were headed.

But this “reality” somehow didn’t free me from the image of these shackled, despairing prisoners.  As I left the court house into the streets, walking in the sunlight headed to my car, the reality of their confinement and lack of freedom reinforced the images.

As I reflected on this, it struck me that nowhere in the teaching of Scripture, or in the direct words or behavior of our Lord was compassion ever conditioned on innocence.  Guilt was never an escape clause, an exception to the call to compassion.  Innocence was not a condition precedent to loving care.

Indeed, our Lord’s compassion is increased when there is guilt.  “Where sin abounded,” after all, grace was abundant too.

And, theologically, hadn’t we all been constantly taught that the Lord’s love for us was extended, “while we were yet sinners.”  God’s compassion for us did not arise at our repentance, but indeed predated it.  In reality it was His love that drew us to Him.

Yet how hard it is for us to apply that same practice in our relationship to the “guilty” around us.  Our churches, our own families, our communities instinctively withdraw from, even are repulsed by, prisoners.  They are our untouchables.  We may have abstract compassion, but have little contact.  Prisoners are the “other”, not “us” but “them.”  Our best hope is often that we don’t encounter them.  We may affirm ministries to prisoner, but “not in my backyard.”

It is quite apparent that many Christian law students reject the idea of a criminal law practice, and indeed Christian lawyers often studiously avoid criminal law – surely in part because of the perceived moral ambiguities in much of criminal defense work, but also, I suspect, because these are not always “nice” people to work with.  Their lives are a mess.

Yet if one tried to think of an area where a Christian lawyer might have a profound opportunity to touch people’s lives which are in crisis who are consciously confronting issues of their accountability, their futures, their guilt – criminal law would seem to leap to the forefront.  Didn’t our Lord find reception to the “good news” precisely among those caught in the tangled webs of sin and guilt. The Word tells us that he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.

And how symbolic that our Lord Himself becomes the prisoner, the convict!  Perhaps if we had a picture of Jesus not simply in a robe, but in the striped garb of a prisoner, we might catch the power of the prophecy “he was bruised for our iniquities.”

In our society, constantly building new prisons, aflood with crime and prisoners, desperately seeking a way out of the cycle of crime in families and communities, the biblical recognition of the spiritual, psychological and physical needs of prisoners ought to come home with force to us, and the call of the gospel to “set the prisoner free.”

Lynn R. Buzzard


– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”