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22 August 2014

Censoring Matthew 25: Do prisoners deserve our sympathy?

Censoring Matthew 25: Do prisoners deserve our sympathy?

If you've watched any US prison or crime drama, you'll be familiar with jokes about 'dropping the soap' or how 'friendly' a new 'roommate' with an amusing name is going to be. But the thing is, none of us would ever dream of making a joke about gang rape, spousal rape or date rape without expecting a massive backlash;yet jokes about prisoners getting raped are seemingly acceptable on our TV screens.

The logic of this attitude, as far as there is any, is that the rape is happening to criminals, so it's okay.

Personally, I'm not so fussed about what people make jokes about but, for me, the key question is what the joke's message is. And the message of these prison jokes is that it is funny when prisoners get raped, because they deserve it.

What's horrifying about that is that jokes like those are seen as acceptable, because there is a stream of thought in society that believes that whatever happens to prisoners is pretty much okay.

It's this pervading idea that prisoners are 'less than', which you could say has allowed our government this week to suggest that there is no crisis in our own prison system, amid reports of rocketing rates of both murder and suicide in our prisons.

I say "our prisons", not just to differentiate between the British and American situations, but because we all share responsibility for them. As citizens of a democracy, prisons exist to keep us safe (or feeling that justice is served), and we have the power to make sure they are humanely and safely run.

But as I say that, I know what you're thinking: "Safely? Humanely? Who cares?!" And I get it. I feel it too. Most prisoners have hurt people. Do they really deserve my sympathy? But here's the thing: I'm an evangelical Christian, a sinner saved from eternal punishment by grace alone, so people getting what they deserve is an awkward thing for me to want.

I recently read this story titled 'Convicted Child Rapist Sues After Being Raped in County Jail'. The comment introducing it on Facebook was: "Karma." And, again, I get it. We've all felt uncontrollable rage at the perpetrators of the worst crimes. But, given the choice, would I really sanction an official punishment of rape for rapists? Why not public beheadings for murder?

As a human being, the idea of someone guilty of housebreaking being punished with rape or repeated beatings, sanctioned by the state is abhorrent to me, as I hope it is to you. As a Christian, it is even more concerning, because I believe it angers Jesus. Because that scenario is no hypothetical ethical conundrum. It is the reality if we allow suicide-inspiring abuse to run rampant in our prisons.

Christians in this country have a deserved reputation for taking the latter part of Matthew 25 seriously and putting it into practice. Yet we seem to have missed out a crucial bit. So many of us have been involved in foodbanks, serving the destitute and campaigning for the world's hungry, thirsty and those left naked through poverty. Far fewer have focused on the prisoners.

Jesus doesn't give us the easy get-out-clause of saying 'in prison for minor offences or due to religious persecution'. Jesus simply makes it clear that prisoners, despised as they are, are a priority for him. Are we so conformed to our culture that we cannot say the same?

Jonathan Langley is a freelance journalist and commentator