How to Avoid Building a Prison

So I am deep into Exodus territory amid God’s instructions for how to deal with the issues that are likely to cause conflict between people. We’ve had the Ten Commandments and now He’s being precise about a wide variety of things that have the habit of making people roll their eyes and poopoo the whole thing. So I was thinking and pondering and wondering trying to understand.

They don’t have prisons was my answer. Read it, there’s not one single place where God says if somebody steals your stuff throw them in jail. It’s not as if there were no jails anywhere; Joseph was thrown into a cell by Potiphar and there was a head jail keeper. Today we have them all over the place, bursting at the seams and refilling with the same offenders as well as new ones. In fact, our system of doing things in every single aspect of life is so far from God’s ideal that we are living in different worlds.

That’s another topic cos I was thinking about prisons. I wondered why God didn’t tell them to build prisons. It’s not because they were traveling, He talked about houses and planting fields of crops so these laws also applied once they were settled in the future. The laws were fast, often painful and to the point. People got immediate justice. No-one would look at a building and think ‘that person who killed my father is in there’, or ‘the thief who ruined my life is having three meals a day while I have to beg for sustenance’. There’s no wiggle room when it comes to taking advantage of the poor or widowed or orphans – they had recourse to the highest authority; respect for parents and rulers and God was built in.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life was the law. Somewhere, deep down that makes sense to us because it’s immediate visceral justice. Until perhaps we realise that it applies to every bit of life. If we speak badly of someone then justice requires our reputation gets shredded. If we cut corners in our work to get an advantage then we reap the harvest of losing something in exchange. Something for nothing does not apply.

Harsh? Absolutely. Fair? Absolutely. It’s the same today whether we realise it or not. The same law applies to us. Let me summarise God’s law for you: love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s the ten commandments summed up. That’s the whole of the law summed up. God didn’t tell His people to build prisons: He told them to avoid causing harm in the first place and to put things right straight away if they go wrong.

But we do imprison people, we judge them and find them wanting because they don’t do things the way we would. We condemn people for something that is actually the same thing we do in different clothes. We name people and refuse to see they are more than that thing they did or do.

My first concern is not with changing the world and its systems (I am not advocating the closing of all prisons and removal of all courts). My first concern is with my heart, with my attitude, with my ‘systems’. Love God first with everything I am. Love my neighbour as I love myself.

I have to live a transparent, honest life. I have to forgive others as soon as a quarrel arises, think the best of others, honour others. I need to be more concerned with love than with keeping account of offences, to the point of letting things go when they are unimportant. Maybe I should even allow God the space to change people without my help but with my love.

Most of all, love each other steadily and unselfishly, because love makes up for many faults.

1 Peter 4:8

We have a duty, to be honest with and accountable to each other. We have a duty to love each other and that’s sometimes – often – the hardest thing of all.


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