Scriptural Manna: Do not take advantage of the poor

Bread Blog is exploring passages from The Poverty & Justice Bible. Photo: Joe Molieri / Bread for the World

Editor’s note: Today is the final blog post in the year-long series exploring passages from The Poverty & Justice Bible published by the American Bible Society (Contemporary English Version). The posts, a theological exploration at the intersection of social justice and religion, were written by members of the church relations staff at Bread for the World.

“Don’t take advantage of the poor or cheat them in court. The Lord is their defender and what you do to them, He will do to you.” This warning points to the particular form of wrong inflicted on the lowly by unjust judges, who could give sentences from which, however iniquitous, there was practically no appeal.  (Proverbs 22:22-23)

By Diane Ford Dessables

Today, almost 1 in 100 American adults is incarcerated. America’s prison population, which has increased by 500 percent over the past 30 years, is the largest in the world. Mass incarceration has affected individuals and families across the nation, but has had a markedly disproportionate impact on communities of color. The reason that we advocate to end mass incarceration is that there is a clear correlation between hunger, poverty and mass incarceration in the United States.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 37percent of its current prison population is African-American and that 34 percent is Latino. These appalling numbers are the legacy of the misguided and overly punitive sentencing policies that were instituted beginning in the 1980s and 90s. As a result, mothers and children were torn apart from each other, and men and women all but vanished from the labor market. Entire communities have faltered economically and socially as prisons have become bloated. Over the past 20 years, federal and state lawmakers imposed legal barriers — known as “collateral consequences” — such as voting-rights restrictions and the ongoing reporting of an individual’s conviction. These rules effectively hindered returning citizens from getting a job, an education, or even a house. Furthermore, mandatory minimums have been applied to minority defendants at a staggeringly disproportionate rate. 

Comprehensive criminal justice and sentencing reform is desperately needed to address these systemic problems and inequities affecting these American citizens.   

The Bible tells us that Jesus has a particular affinity for the poor and systematically oppressed (Matthew 25:34-40).  Jesus spent much of his ministry healing the afflicted — the would-be prisoner who has been wronged, as well as the spiritual depravity found in ill-intentioned public authorities who advanced their careers by adhering, protecting, or advancing public policies that disadvantaged the poor.  

The sentencing reform legislation currently moving through Congress is a blessing because the “three-strike” penalty that mandated life sentences for certain individuals would be reduced to a term of 25 years. The bipartisan bill also includes prison reforms, promotes programming for individuals currently incarcerated, and gives judges more flexibility when handing down sentences.  

These measures work toward ensuring that strict mandatory minimums are not imposed on individuals who have limited criminal history and whose alleged conduct was not the sort envisioned by these strict penalties. These reforms to the federal mandatory minimum sentencing scheme represent an acknowledgement that the draconian sentencing approaches have failed. 

We as Christians must push our government closer to the vision presented in this Bible passage – a society in which the poor are not taken advantage of and are treated fairly. With God’s help, we must see that Jesus’ deep desire to heal and restore impoverished communities prevails.

Diane Ford Dessables is the senior associate for denominational relations at Bread for the World.

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