During a recent visit to prison, I saw what justice is all about. But not in the way you might think.
On Easter Sunday, I saw a vision of the future for Prison Fellowship -- and discovered something I’d never fully appreciated before.
There’s much talk among evangelicals today about social justice, an often-misunderstood term. In fact, for some people, it’s become a code word for getting government to eliminate social and economic inequalities in society. That’s hardly the biblical model.
The roots of justice go back to the Greeks, who defined justice as seeing that each person gets his due. Over the years, conservatives have looked upon this in terms of retribution, that is, appropriate punishment, like when America’s Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to view justice as people being given what they need: distributive justice. We find both concepts in the Bible.
But last Easter Sunday I saw biblical justice in a whole new light. I realized it encompasses far more than just people getting their due; it’s about creating conditions in which people can truly flourish and achieve all they are meant to in God’s sight. It’s about achieving what the Jews called shalom -- man living in harmony with God, his fellow man, and creation.
In other words, justice is relational, the consequence of God reconciling us to Himself through Christ, and then reconciling us with one another. That’s what I saw Easter morning -- shalom, taking place, of all places to find it, in an Alabama prison.
At the Bibb Correctional Facility, I witnessed an excited, worshipful crowd -- something I’ve seen hundreds of times in other prisons. What was different was the fact that 59 of the worshippers were part of Prison Fellowship’s transformational ministry model. They had bonded like nothing I’ve seen since my Marine Corps days. These guys acted differently; they stood and recited in unison the lengthy mission statement for their unit, and they joyfully embraced. They were on fire for the Lord. Prison Fellowship works with church volunteers and recruits mentors; the men actually run the unit pretty much themselves.
Watching the inmates and guests at Bibb, I realized we weren’t just building discipleship units; we were bringing together Christian inmates who could demonstrate the glory of living in community, men flourishing even behind bars. That is shalom.
Many inmates in the back of the crowd were skeptical and cynical. But they could see it! “Look at these guys and see how they live,” I told them. “You don’t have to be stuck in a life of crime. You can be just like them.” When I closed in prayer, I know many made that choice.
It’s not just at Bibb that shalom is being achieved. This is what we’re striving to do in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative units and now in mini-IFI units that can be planted inside prison walls.
Folks, this is real social justice: People justified, that is, becoming just by God’s action when He purchased justice for us, and then living in a whole new community where true shalom can be experienced.
The warden at Bibb jokingly announced that she had issued a warrant for my arrest so I’d stay in prison. The inmates howled. By the end of the service, I almost wished she had. Or better yet, that I could take those 59 men and drop them right into my church and other churches around the country.
I can’t think of anything that might revive our churches better than that.