Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court (Proverbs 22:22 (NIV))
Five or ten years ago now, I led a summer-long Proverbs Bible Study using Ellen Davis’s Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, an insightful study supported by Prof. Davis’s stunning translation.
Proverbs is a guide from a teacher to a young man of influence on ethical living and the right use of power in public life. The teacher says things like “Wisdom is a woman who stands at the gate.” The gate in this text is the place of judgment of disputes, also translated as the court, as you see above in Proverbs 22:22. Lady Justice blindfolded remains the image of justice on our courthouses in this country. In Proverbs they are referring literally to a gate of the city walls where the elders and the powerful sat to negotiate conflict. It is a compelling image of what should be involved in discerning justice by describing where justice is considered, at the gate of the walls that keep out danger and protect the community.
It seems then as now that the ways of “the world” permitted the powerful and the emerging elite to exploit women and the poor, the ancient world’s version of the politician’s school yearbook. Why else would these words in Proverbs be necessary? It seems then as now that there was also a profound sense of justice, holy justice, that defied the ways of sin.
This week at an interfaith and activist breakfast at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City in a room packed with a wonderfully unlikely mix of all kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, criminal justice reform advocates and elected officials, New York State Senator and Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris began his talk by quoting for us from memory Proverbs 22:22. Senator Gianaris is the author of excellent bail reform legislation for New York. He is a passionate leader on criminal justice reform. He told us that morning that he was involved in the Dukakis presidential campaign as a young adult when George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign ran the race-baiting Willie Horton ads that ushered in the era of mass incarceration. Willie Horton was a parolee who was accused of committing a terrible crime. The ad played the kind of race card this country still plays in political campaigns painting black Americans as fundamentally criminal and dangerous. This particular ad and its success brought us the politics that created the racialized mass carceral state we have today -a horrifying reality that is finally being exposed and dismantled.
We started the morning with a meditation on freedom. Jesus tells us we visit him when we visit the prisoner, Matthew 25. All of the faith communities gathered in that room privilege the plight of the prisoner in their sacred texts. It is our faith communities that carry the record that the state has punished the poor and the outsider through incarceration as far back as we can remember, and all of our communities teach us to help the prisoner. This is the faith context of our fight for criminal justice reform today, and we started our morning there. A trustee of an AME congregation who was held in jail as a youth for lack of ability to pay bail spoke powerfully about his experience. Rabbi Stephanie Kolin from Central Synagogue told us a story about Maimonides educating rabbis about the greatest law of them all –which is, as it turns out, to redeem the person held captive for money and to pay the money necessary to buy that person’s freedom –because all of the other teachings of compassion are wrapped up in the plight of the prisoner. So, we must free the prisoner. I was surprised when the State Senators who spoke next chose to quote the Bible from memory to ground their commitment to fight for bail reform.
You can find resources for the campaign at www.trinitywallstreet.org/bailreform.
I am sharing this because I am regularly asked how we know when to engage a political issue and how to do it. How did we pull that off? Lots of people worked a lot of hours for months to get things just right. There is a lot of negotiation that is tedious and has to get done. We talked our way to #bailisbroken, a collaborative discerning for the right words and the right strategy, of the kind church groups do well. It was a discerning on our part that this issue needs our voices because dignity and freedom for the poor is a moral claim. The racist argument of the inherent dangerousness of poor black and brown people, exemplified by those Bush ads, designed to obtain power for the Republican party at the cost of black people’s safety and freedom is an abomination, a moral outrage. Speaking up for the dignity of people is our territory. Doing so effectively in the public square is our work.
Our faith communities can stand together alongside people affected by injustice and manipulation and help to tell a true story of who we are and who we can be, faithfully through our texts and communities.
#bailisbroken is our part in a campaign to make pretrial detention a thing of the past and radically reduce the number of people incarcerated in New York. If you are wondering what happens to the Dylan Roof’s of the world pre-trial, you will note that a judge does not have to set bail. A person can be remanded, held, until trial because they are known to be a great danger. In that case, you do not just set a high bail. There is no bail, and in the best systems, you get a mental health evaluation. You try to figure out what is happening so that restoration can take place, to make us all safer. As we know in this country, that kind of reasonable practice is very selectively applied.
Right now people sit in jail, brutal, violent, horrific jail because they cannot afford to be free until their trial. Like Kalief Browder in New York, many insist on their innocence and because they do not take a plea deal, languish in our jails. In our system, these are innocent, poor, overwhelmingly black and brown people. Innocent. The constitution declares a reasonable bail as a pillar of the free society the founders envisioned. Instead, we have a bail system that jails the poor as they wait for trial. While, as one of our Senators reminded us, Harvey Weinstein is at home awaiting his.
Well, church. Read your Bibles. Gather your community. Fight for freedom. #bailisbroken