Wednesday, August 15, 2007

When did we see you?

There are two types of people society really doesn't like to deal with: prisoners, and the sick.

It's almost unseemly to lump them together like that, since prisoners are presumed to be victims of their choices, and the sick are presumed to be victims of chance. But we put prisoners away because they scare us, or because we want them isolated from "decent society." Indeed, as social animals, the punishment we seem to prefer most is removing "criminals" from human society. Given this, it's odd we don't think about how subversive the parable of the sheep and the goats is.

Jesus, of course, asks those on judgment day: why didn't you visit me in prison, or when I was sick? We don't visit the sick unless we know them personally. Family members visit their sick; friends sometimes drop by, too. We don't do it because Jesus told us to; we do it because we are social animals. We put the sick in hospitals, places most of us don't go unless we have to. We don't mean to be cruel, but we put them away as surely as we put people in prisons. And how many of us visit prisons? Well, why should we? Isn't that what prisons are for, to put people away from society, as punishment?

I bring this up because Democracy Now! reports this morning that 5000 more prisoners have been added to US run prisons in Iraq in the past four months. The total number of prisoners in Iraq is now 23,000. I have no idea how this compares to population in Iraq, or to the percentage of Americans behind bars; though I know we incarcerate more of our own citizens than almost any other industrialized country in the world, and certainly at a rate we used to associate with "police states" like the former USSR. And it leads me to wonder: do we have an obligation to oppose the state in this matter, to object to the bloodless idea of incarceration? Or do we, we Christians I mean, have an obligation to subvert the system by refusing to allow those people to be made invisible?

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