Unbinding Lazarus: Why we should care about mass incarceration


The story of Lazarus is an account of a man who got sick and died. Lazarus’ family and community had given up hope that he would ever live again, so they wrapped him up in grave clothes and buried him. Four days later Jesus shows up, after having determined that Lazarus was not sick unto death, and commands him to get up.
In some ways, the story of Lazarus is the story of mass incarceration. More than 7 million Americans have found themselves wrapped in grave clothes and confined in the graves of a broken criminal justice system. The war on drugs has resulted in a proliferation of mass graves that have been dug to house the bodies of our sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers. We have given up hope that they can live again, and have covered their graves with thick, black, suffocating dirt they have yet to shake off.
Although the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Georgia’s statistics are no less discouraging. We have the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country. According to the Pew Institute, one in 13 Georgians is either behind bars, on probation, or on parole. 
Some may believe there is nothing that could or should be done. After all, we all have to face the consequences of our actions. The bad economy and a bad childhood are not excuses for breaking the law. Systems and structures are broken, but we all have choices. Many of us have been victims of crime. We have loved people who have lost their lives due to crime. Why should we care about prisoners?
We should care because, in spite of our tough-on-crime policies, we’re not safer. Recidivism remains unacceptably high. We should care because this issue impacts not only the lives of persons incarcerated and their families, but the communities they come from and the places where they return. We should care because mass incarceration impacts our churches, schools, economy, and every facet of our lives. And we should care because we want to honor the memories of those who’ve lost their lives as a result of crime, and bring healing to the families that have been left behind.
Everyone won’t leave the grave behind. Some will spend their lives in and out of prison, but we have to start somewhere. Like Jesus, we must hold on to the hope that Lazarus can still live. We must answer Jesus’ call to unbind Lazarus so that he can become a productive part of the society again.
In February, I was part of a group of United Methodists that travelled to Chicago to attend the annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. We gathered together to discern how we could be part of the solution to the problem of mass incarceration. We invite you to join us as we advocate for the end of private prisons, increased access to employment, health care, housing, and education, and continued support for those engaged in ministry in prisons and with crime victims.
The unbinding of Lazarus takes both dedication and compassion. We have to pull the binding tape off and sometimes that hurts. Not only does it hurt Lazarus, it hurts all of us. We get discouraged. We get fed up. Yet we are a people brimming over with resurrection hope. We are a people who believe in new life, and that the glory of God can be revealed in any person, in any place, and at any time.
 During the past several months we have addressed several facets of criminal justice so that we may all develop a more well-informed understanding of the issues. As committed followers of Christ, we are called to respond to the hurt and brokenness in our community and the world.
For more information on public policies in the State of Georgia and becoming involved in the policy-making process, contact Renee Snead, Director of Public Policy Advocacy at Central Outreach & Advocacy Center, 404-601-3147.