The Convict Christ

A reflection on the Cross and criminal justice1CC

by Jens Soering

When God chose to take on human flesh, he did not become a priest or a monk, a king or a general, a poet or a philosopher. Instead, he became a death row prisoner, a condemned criminal executed alongside two thieves. Nothing else would do: The living image of the invisible deity could take no truer form than a "dead man walking," the lowest of the low.

Yet we somehow manage to overlook this central fact of our faith. When we think of Jesus, we prefer the beautiful baby in Mary's arms, the miracle worker, the eloquent preacher, or the resurrected Son sitting on a cloud next to his Father. Christ is indeed all of these—but he saved us by submitting himself to capital punishment as a convicted felon. His most important work was to die as a common criminal.

Jesus saved us by submitting himself to capital punishment as a convicted felon. His most important work was to die as a common criminal.

Of course we know that Jesus broke neither God's nor man's law, but mere innocence is no protection against the vagaries of human justice. Like Joseph the Israelite, who was wrongly convicted of trying to rape Potiphar's wife, Christ was tried by a properly authorized court, made a prisoner just like any other sentenced defendant, and—unlike Joseph—put to death as part of a random group of three outlaws. "If he were not a criminal,… we would not have handed him over to you," the Sanhedrin told Pontius Pilate (John 18:30).

And, indeed, having his Son classed as a felon was part of God's plan, as Christ explained at the Last Supper: "It is written, 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment" (Luke 22.37; Isa. 53:12).

Moreover, becoming a convict was not merely a role that Jesus assumed like a divine play-actor, as though he were not "really" a prisoner. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, he said explicitly, "I was in prison and you came to visit me. … whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matt. 25:36, 40). Just as Christ became a full, true human being at birth, he became a full, true jailbird at death.

Just as Christ became a full, true human being at birth, he became a full, true jailbird at death.

So scandalous is this fact that even our major Bible translations subtly obscure it. Luke 23:32, for instance, is often rendered, "Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed," implying a difference between the two thieves and Jesus. But the original Greek text of this verse reads de kai heteroi kakouroi duo sun auto: "the two other criminals also with him." Thus the evangelist Luke recognized an equivalence between Christ and the thieves that is apparently considered too shocking by modern translators.

For the earliest Christians, however, becoming a prisoner was nothing to be ashamed of. "Whoever serves me must follow me," their master told them, and virtually all the apostles did time behind bars and were eventually executed by the state—just like Jesus. In the Roman amphitheaters thousands of 1st- and 2nd-century believers died as criminals, members of an illegal revolutionary movement.

Perhaps those early followers of the Way accepted a convict's death so readily because they had a deeper insight into the full meaning of the Cross than we do today. Of course, all Christians then and now understand that, through the crucifixion, Christ revealed to us the self-sacrificial nature of divine love: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son" (John 3:16). Or, as the beloved disciple put it, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers" (1 John 3:16). However, the Cross also illustrates perfectly the human sin for which the Son of God died in expiation.

At the Last Supper, he told his disciples that "this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: 'They hated me without reason'" (John 15:25; Psalms 35:19, 69:4). The "this" to which Christ referred here was "persecut[ion by] the world": his imminent trial, conviction, sentencing, and execution (John 15:20, 18). Because "they have hated … me," Jesus' opponents deliberately put him to death as part of a judicial proceeding and thus stand "guilty of sin [and] have no excuse for their sin" (John 15:22).

So perhaps we can complete the apostle John's thought in his above-quoted letter by saying, "This is how we know what sin is: hating Jesus Christ enough to execute him. And we ought to refrain from doing the same to our brothers."

That is a provocative restatement of the meaning of the Cross, of course. To see Christ's self-sacrificial death as the ultimate expression of love is comfortable and familiar—though not especially challenging, since none of us really expect to have to give our own lives for our brothers. But to see Jesus' execution as the sum and substance of evil is strange and unsettling, since it calls into question our own criminal justice system. For how can we justify using police and court procedures today that are virtually identical to those used to prosecute Christ 2,000 years ago?

How can we justify using police and court procedures today that are virtually identical to those used to prosecute Christ 2,000 years ago?

In our own, supposedly more civilized age, the authorities still hire undercover informants—just like Judas. Tactical squads still go out at night to make arrests—just like the soldiers at Gethsemane. And under certain circumstances, interrogators still slap suspects around to obtain confessions—just like the Sanhedrin.

All of us still enjoy a nice, spectacular, high profile trial—just like the crowd outside Pilate's palace. Judges are still sometimes swayed by public opinion to find defendants guilty despite their own doubts—just like Pilate. Appeal courts still tend to uphold a trial court's verdict even when there are procedural errors—just like Herod, who refused to overturn Pilate's decision.

Unfortunately, some prison guards still humiliate and abuse convicts—just like the soldiers who had charge of Jesus. And in some cases, we still cheer when the death penalty is imposed on an especially heinous criminal—just like the rabble at Golgotha.

Are we supposed to believe it was wrong to do all this to Jesus, but right to do it to the two thieves," one on his right, the other on his left" (Luke 23:33)? Or is it possible that our Father wants to teach us, through the Cross, that we should not do such things to any of his children? Christ himself answers those questions directly and explicitly in the Gospels:

  • At the very beginning of his public ministry, immediately after his temptation in the desert by the devil, Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and laid out a detailed campaign platform for his mission: "to preach good news to the poor, … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, [and] to release the oppressed" (Luke 4:18, emphasis added).
  • "Freedom for the prisoners" apparently referred not only to metaphorical prisoners of sin, but to a literal convict jailed for assault: the Gerasene demoniac, who "had often been chained hand and foot" but was now freed by Christ from the improvised jail in the town cemetery (Mark 5:4; cf. Matt. 8:28).
  • When confronted with an ordinary criminal found guilty of a capital offense—the woman caught in adultery—God's Son did not hesitate to intervene and released her from death row (John 8:1-11).
  • Perhaps in reaction to incidents like these, Jesus evinced a low opinion of man's justice: his parable of the persistent widow featured an "unjust judge," and he advised his disciples to "settle matters quickly with your adversary" on the way to court because human judges must be assumed to be merciless (Luke 18:6; Matt. 5:25-26).
  • In the parable of the sheep and the goats, mentioned earlier, Christ explicitly threatens us with the "eternal fire prepared for the devil" if we fail to recognize his face in the faces of "the least of these brothers of mine … in prison" (Matt. 25:41-45).
  • Perhaps most significantly, the Son of God described the Holy Spirit as a defense lawyer (parakleitos in Greek, advocatus in Latin) who protects us from an accuser or adversary (satanos in Greek) (John 14:16, 25-26, 15:26, and 16:7-15).
  • During his final moments on earth, knowing he was about to die, Jesus did not utter a few last words of wisdom to his disciples or cure one last leper, but instead ministered to the two common crooks on the crosses next to his—and succeeded in saving one (Luke 23:38-43).

Those final actions of our Lord are the most eloquent answer to our earlier question, whether the Cross is meant to tell us something specific about sin and criminal justice. The very first person whom God's Son took "with me [to] paradise" was a convicted thief (Luke 23:43). Just a coincidence? And if it was not a coincidence, how are we answering the challenge of the Cross in concrete, practical ways today?

Do we hire ex-prisoners in our own businesses—the way Christ hired the Gerasene demoniac as his missionary "in the Decapolis" (Mark 5:20)? Do we actively oppose the death penalty and other excessively punitive sentences, such as mandatory minimums and "three strikes, you're out"—the way Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery? Are we working to reform a court system that sends African American men to jail at seven times the rate of Euro American men—the way God's Son spoke out against the "unjust judges" of his own time? Have we joined the "sheep" who visit prisoners, or are we still "goats" who fail to recognize our Lord's face even in those difficult, broken, angry people behind bars? Do we approach any of these issues as a parakleitos—a defense lawyer—or as a satanos—a prosecutor? If we conduct a weekly 12-step program at our local jail and have a success rate of "only" 50 percent—just as Jesus saved "only" one of the two thieves—is that cause for joy, or too little reward for our precious time?

How are we living out the message of the convict Christ?

Author's note: Some readers of this article may see my description of Jesus as a prisoner as self-serving, since I have been in jail myself since 1986. To this charge I plead guilty. Christ did "not come to call the righteous, but sinners," so I believe he has a special interest in lowlifes like me and "had to be made like [me] in every way" to redeem me (Mark 2:17, Heb. 2:17). I selfishly claim Jesus as my older brother and Savior.

Jens Soering is the author of many books, including Convict Christ: What the Gospel Says About Criminal Justice (2006), The Way of the Prisoner: Breaking the Chains of Self Through Centering Prayer and Centering Practice (2003), Church of the Second Chance: A Faith-Based Approach to Prison Reform (2008), and An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider's Perspective (2004). His work has been featured in Christianity Today, The Christian Century, Sojourners, National Catholic Reporter, and PRISM. Learn more.

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