Justice and Prisons: God’s Grace Behind Bars
by Grace Burney[Last term, Just Love Oxford hosted a panel discussion “Jail, Justice and Jesus”, where we thought about our response to prisons. Here, Grace tells us about her reaction and how she followed it up.]
“God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.” – Jackie Pullinger
I feel like this applied to me. I was hard-hearted towards prisoners, yet I’d never actually met one – I’d never even set foot in a prison. So, I decided to go. At the start of December, I visited Bullingdon Prison with Susan Cuthbert and a group from St Aldates. In some ways, it was exactly what I had imagined – hundreds of men all in the same grey tracksuits, beige walls, a million keys and locks and bars and guards, and an often tangible sense of desperation and misery.
But amongst all that, there was hope. We held a church service in the middle of the prison, and more than 50 prisoners turned up! Not only did they turn up, but they worshipped, listened, responded, and asked for prayer. One of the prisoners asked me to pray for him and I was struck by the authenticity in his prayer. He wasn’t pretending – he came honestly, simply, and asked if I could pray that Jesus would help him to put his sinful ways behind him and to grow closer to God. Many asked for healing but most simply asked to be closer to Jesus and to find out more about Him. It struck me that that should be my prayer also – I mustn’t think of myself too highly or be too proud to admit my desperate need for God. God places value on us, but we still need Him each day. I think I learnt more lessons from them than they did from me.
Before the Just Love talk, I think I had too many misconceptions and prejudices of prisons and prisoners. Not only that, but I didn’t really give them much thought. But there are over 90,000 prisoners in the UK alone. That’s not a small number to be overlooked and ignored. I wonder, what do you think of when you think of prisoners? Does God think the same way? I was challenged and reminded that God loves each person, each prisoner, each of His wonderful creation, more than we could ever comprehend, and He wants them to know Him. If the God of the universe isn’t too busy, or too good, to spare them a thought, a prayer, half a day – why do we think we are?
The fact is, God loved us while we were still sinners. He tells us to love our neighbours and pray for those who persecute us. So we should care about prisoners – more than that, we should pray for them, and love them. We should actively desire to see God’s Kingdom come not just in the ‘comfortable’ places, but within the whole of our lives and the whole of our world. The Bible tells us again and again that we are equals in God’s sight and that we are to love and respect others just as much (if not more) than we do ourselves. God made each one of us in his own image: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 BSB).
I think a lot of people feel trapped, although for different reasons. But I wanted to know what physical prison was really like. I was fed up of just hearing about it on the news and not knowing for myself. The Just Love talk opened my eyes to the ways in which God values and respects these people, and how He has given us the responsibility to be His hands and feet on the earth. We are salt and light. But salt’s purpose is not to be eaten alone but to bring out flavour. Light is not meant to be the object of attention itself but to reveal more strongly what is already present. Both are only useful because of their relationship to another. Similarly, we are not the answer ourselves, but we bring out the good flavour of God or shine light pointing to Him and His Gospel – that’s what we’re here to do. He uses us for His Kingdom to come – that is an honour and a privilege.
A man who models this well is Bob Goff. Amongst actively caring for those whom society has ostracised, he once got 72 children freed from a Ugandan prison. Without him, they couldn’t afford to go to court. He explains the premise of his book, Everybody Always, like this: “to see people who creep us out for who they’re becoming. Don’t tell them who they are, tell them who they’re becoming – and in Christ, they’re becoming love. I’m just reminded that God makes people, and people make issues, but people aren’t issues. People are people.” God wants us to have soft hearts – to show his love to all those we meet, no matter how judged they might be, and to have hard feet – to be willing to go where He calls us, even if it may be uncomfortable. God loves us in our weaknesses, so that we can love others in their weaknesses too.
If you want more information or to get involved, including visiting/volunteering at the prison yourself or signing up to a weekly prayer newsletter, please email Lottie here.
Grace Burney is a first-year Law student at Exeter College.
Opinions expressed are those of the author, not of Just Love Oxford. Just Love Oxford is not responsible for the content of external links.[image description (inline): a close-up of Grace smiling at the camera.] [image description (cover): Grace standing in a college quad. Behind her is a grass lawn, and a building wall with plants growing on it.]