The Preaching of the Law to Lawbreakers

[1] It is the Word as received by the congregant, not as spoken by the preacher, that makes the impact. The Law portion of that Word is intended to inspire repentance and thus drive the penitent towards the arms of Christ. The Law and the Gospel are dissimilar and distinct concepts which are nonetheless inextricably paired. Their relationship is illustrable through correspondingly paired concepts: demand and promise, justice and mercy, condemnation and forgiveness, consequence and reprieve, death and resurrection, what is and what can be. The Law and the Gospel are seemingly irreconcilable, but in fact have been reconciled by God’s love through Jesus Christ by pairing the divine demand for justice through his death with the promise of mercy to people through his resurrection.

The Preaching of the Law to Lawbreakers by Oliver E. Brown

[2] But the Sitz im Leben of the adult male, Federal prisoners who comprise two of my Sunday congregations is the filter through which the Word is heard. The prisoners have already been processed through the legal system. Prisons are charged with keeping order and preventing escapes, and this is accomplished by administering local rules through a hierarchical social structure. Staff are at the top of this social pyramid, and inmates are at the bottom. In addition, the prisoners have unwritten, but real, jailhouse codes of their own. The picture that emerges through this filter is more clearly Law than it is Gospel to the inmate.

[3] This dynamic feeds into an existential paradox which tends to generally affect inmate spirituality, regardless of actual specific religious preference. The paradox is: inmates are typically unsuccessful in keeping rules; yet they tend to be legalistic. The paradox shows itself at many junctures. They have contempt for civil law and its due process, yet prison gang codes are stringent and unforgiving. They will complain at the slightest perception of discrimination, after which they will segregate themselves in the dining hall and on the recreation yard. They will dispute negative information about themselves in their own records, but attempt to pressure other inmates into revealing their own private records, and then take that same negative information about others at face value. They defy authority even while they remain preoccupied with rank, power, and influence.

[4] The prisoners’ approach to religion in general is just as paradoxically legalistic. New converts, including to non-Christian religions, want to know what the rules are. The Ten Commandments are not enough for them; they want more commandments. New Christians memorize Bible verses as legal code regardless of context or literary genre. Questions of faith tend to be posed as questions of legal casuistry: Should a Christian play cards? Should a Christian cuss? Inmates uncomfortable with Christianity’s antinomian streak may decide to convert to Islam instead, in which the relationship between theology and legal casuistry are significantly closer. Life-long rule-breakers tend to convert to obsessed religious rule-keepers.

[5] What purpose does this serve? Inmates tend to be concrete thinkers who prefer a religion that is cut-and-dried. Lawish religion is easy to understand. More dangerous is their pathological need to manipulate and control others, even other inmates. Rules are useful in accomplishing this. Inmates are usually poor at self-criticism, but freely use rules to find fault in others. Most importantly, prisoners frequently try to use the rules of the criminal justice system against itself, hoping to use them for purposes ranging from mere annoyance of staff to exploiting major unforeseen legal technicalities. On a parallel spiritual level, prisoners often try to use the Word against God as well. Just as they may seek legal relief from the very law they broke, prisoners try to use the Law, through which only comes the knowledge of sin, to obligate God to fulfill selfish wishes and desires. Herein lies the appeal of “name it-claim it” heresies which attempt to impose a covenantal obligation on God to grant “blessings” such as houses, cars, and early releases from custody.

[6] Underneath this legalism is the desire not to control the self, but to control authority, of both divine and human origin. Further underneath the prisoner’s desire to control is a crippling inability to receive Good News. They understand debt and punishment as concrete realities, but grace and forgiveness are cloudy abstractions. They do not freely give; therefore, anything that looks like a gift has a catch, an angle, a hidden condition, like bait on a hook. They can see the tattoo that marks them as Crips, Dirty White Boys and Latin Kings, and they know what the claims of these groups on them mean. They cannot see or readily understand the mark of baptism. Now, prisoners must die to sin like everyone else. But if this is to be accomplished by preaching the Law, how does one preach it to a population for whom the Gospel is not readily understandable within their frame of reference? Here follows principles I try to keep in mind when preaching the Law to lawbreakers.

[7] On the matter of properly interpreting the Bible, I recently preached: “If you read the Bible in such a way as to correct others, then you may, or may not, be on the right track. But if you read the Bible in such a way as to correct yourself, then you are on the right track.” Prisoners tend to learn two uses of the Law: for themselves, to find loopholes and exceptions; for others, to control them. I try to get prisoners to focus on how the Law characterizes how they have lived — not what they think it says about their co-defendants, snitches, cops, judges, lawyers, society, or anyone else they want to blame for their unhappiness. It does little good to preach about such popular concepts as structural evil to a population naturally averse to the idea of personal accountability. Thus, instead of talking about the relationship between racism and the disproportionate representation of minorities in prison, I am more likely to preach about white and black inmates not eating together in the chow hall, and what that means for Christian witness. We correct ourselves, we give good news to others, and not the other way around.

[8] Prisoners need to be taught the distinction between Law and Gospel, as is the case with everyone else. “You have never been good at keeping the law before. Why do you want to start now?” is a challenge that I have preached as both Law and Gospel. As Law, it confronts the prisoner with both his own nature and the futility of what he is trying to do through legalism. As Gospel, it suggests that there is no need to do that which Jesus has already done for him.

[9] This distinction between Law and Gospel must be homiletically made through concrete descriptions based on life as it has been, versus the promise the Gospel holds. This is because most prisoners are concrete thinkers. For instance, Law may be illustrated by the claim gangs have on them, symbolized by the tattoos that mark their bodies. This mark symbolizes the belonging that they craved, having been denied it through their poor relationships with their fathers. The tattoo is the mark of bondage. The Gospel is the claim God has on them. Baptism is the mark of that claim, invisible to people but apparent to God. Baptism means they belong to a heavenly Father. This imagery is not popular in the seminary, but it is necessary and meaningful to male prisoners who predominantly come from backgrounds in which fatherly love is distorted or absent. The love of God is the gift that comes not through skillful manipulation or other attempts of people to get it; it flows from the core of the divine nature, at once offering healing and modeling what they could be transformed into through the forgiveness of sins.

[10] Therefore, the prisoners may be warned that works-righteousness and attempts to manipulate God through legalism are actually two versions of the same sin. The Law for prisoners means that God is not a chump, a pigeon, a punk, or a fool. This is how Galatians 6:7 might be explained. Therefore, the forgiveness of sins is given through God’s strength, given not out of obligation but as an act of divine will. Prisoners respect strength, and the God who cannot be “played” and yet still chooses to be merciful impresses them strongly.

[11] The unique challenges of preaching the Law to lawbreakers are posed by their seeing both Law and Gospel through the lens of many years of cynicism, despair, fear and hatred of authority, and a lack of respect both for themselves and others. This world-view makes it hard to believe both that they are responsible for their actions on the one hand, and that God still loves them in spite of their actions on the other. Careful preaching of the Law must take into account that the mindsets of prisoners have developed over many years. As all humans typically do, the prisoner will re-frame such concepts as Law and Gospel into terms he already understands. There will be some things lost in the translation because prisoners understand debt and punishment better than they understand grace and forgiveness. When the Law is preached, the prisoner has to be educated in concrete terms as to what the Law really is — a confrontation with the reality of their situation as sinners — so that, having done with any hope that the Law will give them what they need, they may be driven into the arms of Jesus Christ. This becomes most possible through time, patience, and a positive, comprehensive pastoral relationship with the prisoners.

O. E. Brown

The Rev. O.E. Brown is the Supervisory Chaplain of FCI Schuylkill, Minersville, Pennsylvania.