Scenario #1. At the Jersey shore in July, people ran in and saved a drowning man. They were at a beach wedding and saw the situation; they hauled him out and one man performed CPR and revived him. I saw it on the Philly news, and asked myself: Would I have taken that risk in order to restore him to his life and to his family?
Scenario #2. My favorite photo of the Civil Rights Movement is from the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-In. So, my question: Would I have done even the bare minimum, and stopped to give them a word of encouragement? Given that I might get beaten up on the sidewalk upon exiting?
But in the long run, what good is it to daydream about saving a man who is a 4000-mile drive from my house; or standing alongside men at a Woolworth’s counter back when I was not quite two years old? They are out of my reach, and my imaginary intervention helps no-one.
Good theology is the bedrock of good practice: Before God we get no commendation for what we woulda-shoulda-coulda done, but for what we actually do. To paraphrase James 2, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have the courage and the good will to do righteous deeds but does no actual righteous deeds?”
To apply some insight from C. S. Lewis – It is the devil’s work to see that we never think of the present moral choice as the important thing. Rather, he delights that we focus on the past (“what I should have done, could have done, would have done”) or a vague dream (“what I hope I would do if I had the chance”), rather than the present: what shall I do now, when there are plenty of opportunities![i]
Here’s one application: In the end, what does it matter whether I might have supported civil rights a half-century ago? What matters is, what will I do to support them now? Once our friend Kimberlee shared with us the facts of the situation, I became convinced that our treatment of the incarcerated is a key civil rights issue in America, and a self-evident expression of Christian righteousness in our society, as it has been since Jesus said, “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt 25:36).
Visiting imprisoned people is excellent; helping them get out and stay out, even better! Let’s see how we can help people to return to their families and communities.
Which brings us to August, 2020
Dr. Kimberlee Johnson has been a dear friend for 30 years now! She was a seminary student of mine, we are friends with her church, Tasker Street Baptist in Philly, and for many years has served on the faculty at Eastern University.
AND she is the founder of the Prison Education Program, which offers courses and workshops to incarcerated men and this year is expanding to offer accredited Associate of Arts degrees in the PA Department of Corrections in Chester, PA.
I am asking everyone to help me celebrate another year of life by remembering men in prison and helping them to rebuild their lives. The need is great. We cannot help families and communities rebuild without assisting those in prison – 95% of whom will return home. So my birthday party is a fundraiser.
I started the Prison Education Program (PEP) at Eastern University with the assistance of a wonderful advisory team of formerly incarcerated people, educators, staff, and community stakeholders. You’ll hear from some of them at the party, including formerly incarcerated persons who know the benefit of educational opportunity. Research shows that postsecondary education in prison lowers recidivism, reduces crime, makes prisons safer, motivates the children of incarcerated parents, saves taxpayers money, and is personally transformative.
So will you help me? More importantly, will you help inside learners who are thirsting for opportunities to improve their lives so that they can come home better prepared to unite with their families and contribute to their communities?
[i] Screwtape Letters, Chapter 6, one of my top five Christian books; read the whole thing for free HERE. Lewis is dealing primarily with human fear, but it applies just as well to any situation where we face a moral decision: ‘It is your business to see that the [Christian] never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier and is usually helped by this direct action.’