Making a difference when we are faced with an enormous social problem can begin with something as simple as pulling on a thread and following where it leads.
One of the great injustices in our country is mass incarceration.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. In 1972 the prison population was less than 200,000. Today there are about 2.2 million people in American jails and prisons. Staggeringly, the United States has five percent of the world’s population and yet twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. Mass incarceration disproportionately affects persons of color, especially young black and Latino men. There is overwhelming evidence of disproportionately high rates of incarceration for small crimes committed by minority male offenders. These findings are widely documented, recognized by bipartisan lawmakers, and can be found in Bryan Stevenson’s award-winning book Just Mercy and Ava Duvernay’s documentary film 13th.
To handle that level of incarceration America has turned to prisons run for profit. Today there are basically two kinds of prisons. One kind of prison is a prison run by the state or federal government. The other kind of prison is what’s called a “private prison,” which is a jail or prison that is built and/or operated by organizations with which state or federal governments contract. The profit that these organizations make is usually determined by how many people are in their prisons: the more people in jail, the more money they make. This dynamic of the prison industrial complex directly affects our entire criminal justice system and is one of the main causes for mass incarceration.
What’s the Connection to Redeemer?
The Redeemer family of churches is part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Our denomination’s retirement and benefits are handled by PCA Retirements and Benefits, Inc., or “RBI” for short. RBI provides retirement services for Redeemer’s staff, as they do for many churches and organizations within the PCA.
In 2016 it became clear to Jolene Halzen, part of Redeemer’s staff as well as one of the leaders for Redeemer’s Grace & Race ministry, that investment managers for RBI could invest retirement plan participant funds in some organizations that are directly involved in the private prison system. When organizations serving the private prison system are earning profits, the PCA retirement plan benefits.
Taking a Step
Recognizing the injustice present in the prison industrial complex, Redeemer’s Grace & Race ministry wanted to act. Led by the efforts of Jolene, the Grace & Race team began working on a proposal requesting that RBI prevent PCA Retirement Plan investment managers from purchasing private prison companies now and in the future. A letter outlining the request, along with significant research supporting up our theological and practical convictions, was sent to RBI in early February 2018. That letter was signed not only by the Grace & Race team, but also by Redeemer’s founding pastor, Tim Keller, as well as Redeemer’s senior pastors, and Redeemer’s executive team.
At the end of March 2018 Gary Campbell, the President of RBI, responded. We were thrilled to learn that the board of RBI approved our request and has officially added three major private prison organizations to their exclusions list. Now RBI is screening for organizations that work with private prisons as they are investing monies from PCA churches. The following is an excerpt from the report of RBI’s board and Exclusions Committee:
The fundamental problem with this model [prison industrial complex] is that for-profit corporations are hard at work supporting, proposing, and writing laws designed to bring greater profits to the bottom line without limitation. This incentivizes more incarceration, which heightens the already disproportional burden on racial and ethnic minorities and the poor — citizens who are less able to defend themselves from a system designed to place increasing numbers into incarceration ... Whether or not one agrees with the racial injustice position in this analysis, it was quite clear to the Exclusion Committee that the business models of private prison corporations are severely misaligned and biblically conflicted.
Celebrate and Keep Working
The prophet Isaiah declared that the Lord is a God of justice (Isaiah 30:18). The Redeemer family of churches thanks RBI for joining us in taking this step that reflects God’s heart of justice for our world.
We celebrate this step, small though it may be, towards a more just world. And with joy and encouragement we resolve to keep working, in the power of the Spirit, with confidence that one day God’s justice will cover the earth as waters cover the seas.