Let’s face it — Prophets can be a pain in the neck —-
They poke us in our comfort zones – calling our attention to the things we’d rather not think about, shattering our notions of a safe and relatively peaceful existence
– Their cries can pull the rug of complacency out from under our comfy-slippered feet;
– Planting voices in our heads that we can’t drown out with the radio on the way home from work or
– Leaving dramatic images in our minds-eye that refuse to recede even at bedtime
Now not all bad news is prophetic – but it’s the kind of thing that you kow it when you hear it
I had that experience a few weeks ago when the US Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case called Brown v Plata involving the brutal effects of extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons
I was in the kitchen cooking dinner and listening to the news when this story came on.
The ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and affirming the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment provided by the Eighth Amendment and ordering an end to the overcrowding states:
“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. Courts nevertheless must not shrink from their obligation to “enforce the constitutional rights of all ‘persons,’ including prisoners.” Before I had ever heard of Brown v Plata my awareness of the facts of incarceration in the US was limited – I knew that far more people of color are in jail than white people and that harsher drug laws have exploded the prison population in the last few decades. What I didn’t know was that despite a steady decrease in crime rate over the past 15 years we now incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country in the world – (a 400% increase since 1980) more than Russia, Rwanda, Cuba, 5 times more than China or India; and that the racial impact of sentencing guidelines have been devastating- for example: the chances of being jailed in America is 1 in 4 for black men and 1 in 6 for Hispanic men versus only 1 in 23 for white men.
Now I can tell you that the particulars of the California prison case are not for the fainthearted:
In a matter that has been before the state and appellate courts for more than a decade and in which the state of California has never denied the life threatening consequences of its systems’ unrestrained overcrowding –the facts are hard to fathom, hard to take in, hard to believe about one of the largest states in America, in 2011 no less.
Indeed the descriptions of the suffering, agony and preventable death particularly among those inmates who are either physically or mentally ill sound more like something you’d picture in a third world country – a war zone or a dictatorship; not here in our America.
In his decision, Justice Kennedy wrote “For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result.”
Some of the facts in the case that he found most compelling include
— Nearly 150,000 prisoners reside in a system designed to house just under 80,000– and it has been operating at 200% capacity for more than a decade.
— As many as 200 may live in a gymnasium, with only 2-3 guards
— A suicide rate on average of one per week. A rate 80% higher than the national average.
— Inmates wait as long as12 months times to see a mental health counselor
And those are only a few of the disturbing details you will find in the decision
It would have been easiest to turn off the radio – and I admit I have done that on occasion – just turned off news of something,– some atrocity I could not bear to hear about– something I was afraid would stay with me, disturbing sleep and straining my hope in some level of basic human goodness
Doing so makes me no different from most of the Israelites who dismissed their Old Testament prophets. It’s one of the most recurrent themes throughout the OT — that of folks ignoring the pleas of God and God’s prophets to renew their covenant – ignoring the pleas of prophets like Jeremiah
He is one of the most vivid prophets of the 7th century BCE and he struggled mightily with his assignment
He was never in the inner circles of power like some other prophets –like Isaiah, but preached instead at the Temple door
He fretted openly even bitterly sometimes about the task set before him and the deaf ears in his audiences
He is one whom most Hebrew bible scholars will tell you was never really heeded in his lifetime but was much more likely thought of as a nut
Yet throughout his prophetic life Jeremiah focused on how Kings treated peasants – on how they used and hoarded their power and privilege, and how greed among the most powerful created and maintained an impoverished class. His job was to be a critic – but a critic who hadn’t lost hope for the realization of God’s kingdom, (something he learned from Moses) he was a verbal stone in the shoe, one who pointed out injustice, who begged the elite, the privileged, the powerful to imagine a different reality than the one they were pursuing – one rather in which knowing God and living out a covenant with God meant recognizing and caring for the poor & the needy not ignoring them
In a couple of short sentences we read from Matthew this morning, Jesus makes a similar and stunningly simple claim
Echoing Jeremiah’s pointed reminder that all world history revolves around the question of justice
Jesus tells us it all comes down to a cup of cold water
This simple imagery is not lost on anyone who has ever been thirsty – ever experienced real thirst – after a long hike, a game of soccer or work in the yard on a hot day. The sheer force of this analogy of our interdependence upon one another is in its physicality and that it is universally common to every one of us
It’s that real and that simple he declares
For all of our inclination toward complicating the rules and requirements for attaining salvation – Jesus insists it is really about how we treat one another- especially the “little ones” known elsewhere in Matthew and other gospels as the “least of these” the forgotten, the excluded, the marginalized, the imprisoned – Afterall –who is more marginalized and forgotten by our society than those in jail?
Through his actions- especially sharing meals with the outcasts of every kind in his day, Jesus constantly reminds us that you can’t pretend they aren’t there – act as though they don’t exist – and also that there’s a cost when we do – not just to them but to our moral beings as well
It’s hard to be asked to think about those we have relegated to the shadows – about those who have been forgotten – excluded – but there it is – exactly what he is asking us to do
Maybe that’s why the Kennedy decision came to mind when I read today’s readings and was reminded of all the times I have been guilty of turning away from news of how we fail one another, tuning out the most despairing stories of our shortcomings as a species. It makes me think that one of the greatest privileges of class, of being financially comfortable enough to live in a safe neighborhood, in a small town is just that– choosing what suffering to let in – choosing to distance myself from the real suffering and anguish of others and act as though they aren’t there
Some may think it’s a stretch to think of Justice Kennedy as a prophet – but it seems to me that his courage to stand with the little ones, with the least among us– fits with Walter Brueggemann’s definition of prophet as ‘poet of critique and of hope”. In his ruling Justice Kennedy addresses directly the practical difficulties and public safety issues posed by the order which the court handed down but also points to a higher calling based on human decency and compassion. “As a consequence of their own actions” he says “prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty. Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.”
Despite a vigorous dissent from several of his colleagues, Kennedy held fast to his conviction that we are called to do everything we can to protect the basic integrity of all. His decision declares that knowing what he’d learned of the circumstances in California’s prisons meant that he could not act as though he didn’t know- he could not pretend that the inmates there – fellow human beings –deserve the conditions to which they are subjected. In his role as a Justice he felt compelled not only to call out the injustice so plainly before him in this case, but to hold up his hope in our ability as a society to end it.
We are better than this, his ruling declares, insisting that we must and we will find some way forward toward treating even the imprisoned as our brother, as the children of the God we pray keeps us all close.
Jesus’ simple words force me to think about how and when I can offer that cup of cold water
So what if I don’t know anyone in jail? – what can I do? There are options – like finding specific ways to offer support –sending books or writing letters to someone in jail, or finding ways to support the families of so many who suffer often silently under the stigma we assign in our society to having someone behind bars. Maybe too it’s just as important to hear the larger message of refusing to participate in a collective ignorance about the frightful state of American prisons, about not pretending that a prison sentence, or poverty or homelessness releases me or anyone of us from our obligation one another.
Let us give thanks for Justice Kennedy’s courage, and let us pray for the strength not to turn away from hard news about how we treat the least of god’s children, let us pray for the imprisoned, for the people they have harmed, for their families struggling outside, and for all those who work in prisons, let us ask for God’s abiding love and mercy.