Churches, Prisons, and the Powers That Be, Part 3

In my previous posts (Part 1 and Part 2), we explored the story of Kalief Browder, a former inmate who took his own life after three years of incarceration.

We are considering his story as a window into the violent “powers that be” in the prison system to which many in our congregations minister. For a better explanation see my last two posts.

When we talk about confronting this power, what do we have in mind? A story in Daniel 10 is particularly helpful for thinking about the possibilities.

We arrive on the scene in the third year of the Persian King Cyrus’ reign. We find Daniel in the midst of an intense fast. For three weeks he has cried out to God on behalf the many Israelites still scattered in exile.

He thinks nothing is happening.

But then a figure shows up. An incredible figure, with a “face like lightening” and with “eyes like flaming torches” (Dan 10:6 NRSV). This is no human, and Daniel knows it.

Then this heavenly visitor speaks and explains that the last three weeks have been pretty intense for him too. He says that God sent him to Daniel on the first day of Daniel’s prayer and fasting but he ran into trouble. He was intercepted.

Intercepted by whom?

The angel of Persia, of course. An angel who engaged this messenger in a heavenly wrestling match, until Michael (“one of the chief princes” or angels) was able to tag in (Dan 10:13-14).

What in the world is this angel talking about?

Pause here and take a look at Deuteronomy 32:8-9, a curious passage about God’s organization of the nations of the world based on the number of “gods” in the heavenly council. It’s enlightening, but also strange for monotheistic Christians to think about.

“When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.” (Deut 32:8-9)

See what I mean? It makes us uncomfortable.

But it also reminds us of the ancient belief (and I am not equating “ancient” with “wrong”) that nations had their own gods, angels, or princes. And that wars waged on earthly battlefields mirrored wars between these gods, raging in the heavens.

The gods had a job to do: protect the interests of their nation using all the power at their disposal.

So, to return to our Daniel story, the Persian angel is protecting Persian interests. It’s not best for Persia to send these Jews back home.

As Walter Wink humorously but aptly puts it: “The angel of Persia at the very least does not want foreign angels entering Persian air space.” [1]

What does this have to do with prison ministry?

A lot.

If this scene in Daniel 10 is an example of how the powers operate, and of the influence of human intervention (prayer) on the heavenly powers, then it does inform our discussion.

Simply put, prayer motivates the true God to powerfully intervene against other powers—particularly powers hostile to God’s purposes that we are incapable (as in the case of Daniel) of redirecting ourselves.

Do we believe that?

Increasingly, I do.

I am convinced that the angel of Persia was so propped up and fed by years of violence and conquest that the prospect of going soft threatened his (Persia’s) self-identity. Because of that, he would resist such threats at all costs.

In the same way, much of the rhetoric surrounding the justice system in America, hinges on the fear that we will become “soft” on crime. This language is telling. Our very words prop up a spirit of violence because we are fearful of its opposite.

The result: a power that is threatened by every proposed legislative amendment, every kind guard, every soft warden . . . and especially by every gentle Christian who dares to “trespass” behind those barbed wire gates and lead a Bible study.

Can’t you see her—this prison power— the panicked look on her face, backed into a corner, lashing out this way and that?

If Daniel’s story is true, then when Christians identify a power at work that is hostile to God’s plans for rehabilitation and restoration—like what we see in some prisons—our first course of action should be intense prayer.

Even before we arrive to lead a Bible study.

Will you join me for the next month? I’ll be praying that God will send his forces to confront powers like those at Rikers Island and elsewhere. That in places of violence and fear, hope and peace will win out.

Then next month we’ll consider some examples of places where that’s already happening.

[1] Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 89.
Header image: Header image: Jar (). Liberation. November 2, 2014. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.

Eric and his wife Lindsey have been at Highland Church in Memphis since 2012. You are likely to find them walking the local Greenline with their sons Noble, Foster, and dachshund Tucker. Eric cares deeply about preaching and social justice. He has a BA in Biblical Text and a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Eric is a board member for HopeWorks, an organization that provides hope and job training to the chronically unemployed and formerly incarcerated in Memphis.

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Author:  Publish Date: September 2, 2015

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

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