My undergraduate degree is in Communications, so I approach pretty much all mass communication with a hermeneutic of suspicion. I am always thinking about the source of a message and the intended outcome of the message. Communications do not happen in a vacuum and they cause things to happen. The easiest examples of this are advertisements. In particular, look at those for prescription drugs.
It becomes a little more insidious when we look at propaganda campaigns. Propaganda is a dirty word to some people, but I am using it in its most genuine sense right now, the presenting of only one side of an issue in order to gain support for a certain viewpoint. One of my favorite examples of this that I studied during my undergraduate years was the documentary, Atomic Cafe, which is a collection of film clips produced by the US government to assure citizens that the atomic bomb was not a threat to them and to quell some of the hysteria around it. The documentary is offered without much commentary from the filmmakers, but archival footage from the government is interspersed with coverage of the actual effects of the nuclear arms race on humanity. It is a fantastic film. I highly recommend it. But I digress.
For our case study this week, criminal justice, I am going to posit that the United States is engaged in propaganda. As a nation we like to use military terms to show that we are really serious about something, "War on Terror", "War on Poverty", "War on Drugs." Our country is one that likes nothing more than to rally around a cause, particularly one with patriotic overtones, and be righteously indignant about it. The War on Drugs was said to have started with Richard Nixon in 1971, who was concerned by drug use among returning Vietnam war vets. Of course substance abuse is a major issue and no one is going to argue that. It destroys lives and communities. Drug use brings catastrophic damage to communities, including property crime and violent crime such as rape and murder.
But where we went wrong was in our own telling of this story. Drugs and crime are systemic problems, rooted in racism, inequality with regards to healthcare and education, and generational poverty. Locking up offenders for drug offenses is merely putting a bandaid on an arterial bleed. Yet as a nation we are locked into the idea of "progress at any cost" and getting "tough on crime" fits into the mythology that we tell ourselves. If we get one low-level drug dealer or gang kid off the streets and into jail, we feel like we have done something great.
And the media tells this story over and over again. Which is why we need to be critical about the places from where our information comes. Who is putting it out there and why? And where is the money coming from? And in a context collapse such as with the advent of social media, we need to be ever more careful about what Rheingold calls the "echo chamber effect" in his Crap Detector Chapter in Net Smart or repeating only that which agrees with our own personal convictions. We want to believe that our world is getting better and safer and more prosperous. So we repeat only those things that affirm that. We want our communities to be safe, so we look at what might contribute to that and getting offenders off the streets seems to fit with that. So we repeated half-hearted success stories to convince ourselves that something is really improving.
The Charlie Rose Interview on Incarceration tells a different story. Not only is mass incarceration (incarceration as social control rather than criminal justice) not effective, the problem is FAR bigger than we ever could have imagined. There is an entire industry built up around prisons (privatization) and systematic racism is rampant. Our propaganda is all lies.
So what do we do as people of faith? We speak truth to power just as we have been called to do all along. The ELCA draft Social Statement on Criminal Justice (set to be voted upon at the churchwide assembly in August 2013) outlines some moves forward. It outlines the problem and calls Christians to "confess that we, as individuals and in our common life together, have fallen short in responding to criminal justice--both in respond to crime's harm and to problems in the justice system." It outlines four responses, hearing cries of injustice, showing hospitality, offering accompaniment and engaging in advocacy. It calls to renewed ministry on behalf victims and their families, the incarcerated and their families, affected communities and those who work in the system.
Because Jesus says it best in Matthew 25:36, "I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me."
God is among the least of us. Meaning God is most surely present with those in prison. The second that we start drawing lines between ourselves and the other, God is always on the side of the other.