See Appendix B for recommended additional resources on this topic.
Read and set aside 10-15 minutes to reflect on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-20 using the meditations below. Please read the Scriptures twice. The first time you read it, read the text to become aware of the story. The second time you read it, read a little slower. Let God guide you to the words or phrases that God would like to draw your attention to. We will study the Scripture together in our group.
Read the proposed 2021 Social Principles: The Political Community, Preface, A. Church and Governments, B. Civil Disobedience, C. Restorative Justice, E. Criminal Justice, starting on page 32.
Read UM Resolution 3379: Stop Criminalizing Communities of Color in the United States
Read UM Resolution 5031: Humanizing Criminal Justice
This video, Restorative Circles, explains what restorative practices are and how they are used in a handful of Baltimore City schools, with great results, as a way to resolve conflict and build positive relationships, including a drop in suspensions, more positive school and work climates, and increased levels of trust, empathy, and respect. (2 min)
This week’s Lenten Scriptures introduce two very strong scriptural images that point to the power of transformation: the snake and the light. Both seem to appear in liminal spaces, where people in the text find themselves caught between suffering and healing, life lived in despair and life longing for hope. Perhaps, you can relate to that space. These are places where the covenant promises seem most fragile and where we need to be reminded that God is present with us in every situation, even when we doubt God is listening, or moving or willing to act.
What needs to be transformed? Both the current and proposed Social Principles and Resolutions invite us to specifically address how racism influences the criminal justice system, and calls us to question how laws in our society could be changed to focus on restoring relationships and repairing harm. Christians have a long legacy of public witness in relationship to the governments that maintain systems and political order in society. By the end of the session, we may sense where God may be calling us to take a risk and restore broken relationships.
We believe that God is present in the darkness before dawn;
in the waiting and uncertainty,
where fear and courage join hands, conflict and caring link arms,
and the sun rises over barbed wire.
We believe in a with-us God,
Who sits down in our midst to share our humanity.
We commit ourselves to work for change and put us on the line;
to bear responsibility, to take risks, live powerfully and face humiliation;
to stand with those on the edge;
to chose life and be used by the Spirit,
for God’s new community of hope. Amen.
(An optional activity is provided in the sidebar to enable a customized experience.)
Read the two Scriptures as a group.
The once-enslaved and now liberated Hebrews were impatient as they hiked across the Sinai Peninsula. They felt caged by the inertia of the situation, unable to move forward and yet fearful of moving backward. Was their new covenant worth it? How do we live the covenant when we cannot see the promised land?
Brainstorm around the images of endless wandering and that gnawing feeling of impatience that come up in the Numbers text. When was the last time you felt like you were wandering aimlessly, or lacking clear direction, growing more and more impatient with yourself and with others? What sensations do you notice in your body when you hear this text?
The Hebrew people were free but they had not yet experienced all that their freedom would mean for them. Even worse, many had little clarity about where God was taking them or why. They yearned for an assurance that there is a different world than the one their ancestors knew as enslaved people back in Egypt. Those who have experienced incarceration or who have a relationship with someone who has been incarcerated, locked up, confined and then released back into an unhealthy, unsafe, and unwelcoming environment, may particularly empathize with this story.
Imagine what it would be like to lack clarity in where God is taking you and to feel anxious about the environment that you find yourself in. What would you need? How would you find support?
Read aloud this excerpt, below, from Dr. Martin Luther King’s brilliant Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which expresses this sense of impatience with the way things are. (See also a reading of the letter.)
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ As one of our distinguished jurists once said, ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘Wait.’
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society... when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
How do we hear Dr. King’s words and understand the relevance for his commitment to direct acts of civil disobedience to change laws today?
The snake is a powerful allegory for naming what has harmed and injured the community and that now creates momentum and movements for change. We can actually renew our purpose by “defanging” and uncloaking the causes of pain, sickness, and oppression and begin the process of restoration and healing, even though we know we have not yet reached the promised land. John 3:14-20 employs yet another image that we may be even more familiar with: light. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. … But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God." Light reveals what is hidden. Light has a way of bringing to the surface and out into the open that which has been denied, avoided, and neglected in our society.
What practices that support racism still need to be brought into the wonderful healing light, especially in situations regarding the U.S. mass incarceration and criminalization of Black and Brown communities, and health care disparities among communities of color?
Who economically and socially benefits from these unjust practices? This week of Lent, when we practice being antiracist, how will we slowly welcome the light and find ourselves bathed in its strength?
Discuss UM Resolution3379, Stop Criminalizing Communities of Color in the United States
Have you or someone you know experienced racial profiling?
Do you see parallels between the Scripture and what is happening in our society today?
(Choose one or more actions that fit where your group is right now and what you are able to do as a team.)
- Advocate with your legislators to make the enforcement and protection of international human rights law central to criminal justice and immigration policy.
Set up a meeting with your local law enforcement and demand an end to racial/ethnic/religious profiling and an end to “zero tolerance” policies in public schools.
Learn about the situation of immigrants in your community and meet with immigrant communities to learn about how family detention may have affected them. Invite an immigration attorney from Justice for Our Neighbors, immigration clinics supported by The United Methodist Church, to speak to your group.
Advocate for an end to all incarceration of children in compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (2012 Book of Resolutions, #3281).
- Invite your congregation to watch the movie “13th”, about the 13th Amendment and the history of incarceration and racism in the U.S.
Based on the film, which is available on YouTube and Netflix, determine how you can lift your voice to end mandatory sentencing laws and mandatory detention policies, affirm judicial discretion in sentencing and deportation rulings, and restore the full citizenship rights, including the vote, to US citizens with felony convictions.
- Map the businesses in your area and work with them to remove barriers to employment and increase the ability of those who have been incarcerated to secure housing and supportive services.
Jesus Christ, Son of God,
who promised in his first sermon,
to break the chains of the oppressed and set the prisoners free,
break apart our wrecked and ruined (in)justice system.
Do not let profits strangle your prophets any longer,
but be with us and teach us not to tolerate these practices,
from this day forward.