Offender Ministries (General Conference Mennonite Church, 1977)

From Anabaptistwiki

Offender Ministries (GCMC, 1977)



Whereas the Good News of salvation in Christ includes the proclamation of release for prisoners (Luke 4:18);

and, Whereas many individuals in our churches have become involved in ministry to the offender and several conferences and conference agencies support programs of ministry to the offender;

Be It Resolved that we affirm this gospel and this ministry of our churches:

  1. By adopting "A Statement Concerning the Offender," already accepted by the Central District, as an official statement of the General Conference Mennonite Church.
  2. By preparing a study guide to be used as a resource for congregational study and action.
  3. By encouraging the Mennonite Central Committee to continue exploring alternatives to prison systems.

Submitted by the Peace and Service Committee of the Central District

Walter Dyck, Chairman

A Statement Concerning the Offender

Purpose of Statement:

Mennonites should look at themselves and at the whole concern of Jesus, as found in Matthew 25:34-36, with special concern for 36b, "I was in prison and you came to me." Mennonites have shown compassion for the sick, hungry, and naked. But what has been done for the offender?

Mennonites, building upon the heritage of the past, have an unprecedented opportunity to break new ground in their ministry to the criminal justice system, including correctional institutions. The Church should be moving forward with the same kind of innovative action that in the past has made differences in the way people have been treated and served.

The gospel urges that the Church offer meaningful ministries to the thousands of people in the criminal justice system who have been too long neglected, and sometimes abused. These persons require competent professional, paraprofessional and volunteer services. Too often people with serious problems have received second best assistance, and sometimes none at all.

The Church needs to respond to the gospel. This statement intends to alert the Church to its responsibility to the offender.

Historical References

Several writers have made statements about the value of persons, including the offender.

The Peace and Social Concerns Committee of the General Conference Mennonite Church, in The Church, the State, and the Offender (1961), deals with the thought of a higher law within the Church.

"Recognizing the law of the land as good and proper in intent and purpose and as serving in this respect God's purpose (for fallen society), the Christians nevertheless recognized a higher law under the lordship of Christ within the fellowship of the church. They were not to return evil for evil (retributive justice); they were not even to resist one who was evil. There was to be love among the brethren and even love toward enemies, praying for them and ministering to them whenever possible. Forgiveness and reconciliation were to be sought at all times.

"The real ethical and religious thrust of the New Testament is the love of God. The great facts of the New Testament -- the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection -- all arise from the previous fact of God's love for mankind. 'God so loved' that He sent His Son 'to seek and to save that which was lost.' The great teachings of the New Testament, stemming from these facts, also emphasize this love. Certain things are made obvious, e.g., God's love does not discriminate though He appears to be specially mindful of the helpless and the hopeless, the sick and the needy. He does not separate our love directed to Him and our love for our fellowmen.

"The Christian mission is to demonstrate this same love which we have seen in Christ (John 15:13). It is to embrace both friend and foe (Matthew 5:43-48); it is to manifest itself in spiritual attitudes and in concern for bodily welfare (1 John 3:1418). Furthermore, the Christian is to see Christ in every needy person (Matthew 25) and minister to that person in his need."

John Howard Yoder, in The Christian and Capital Punishment, states, "When Jesus himself was asked to rule on an offense which by the laws of the time called for the death penalty, His answer was clearly such as to abolish it; not directly by declaring it a wrong institution, but indirectly by demanding that the judges and executioners must first be sinless (John 8). This is in line with everything He taught about the worth of every life before God (Matthew 6), and our responsibility to see Christ himself in the needy neighbor (Matthew 25). The reason for this respect for life is not a literal interpretation of the sixth commandment, but a deep spiritual principle; the life (the soul or the personality) of the neighbor is sacred because man is made 'in the image of God' Genesis 1:27). If we love God 'whom no man has seen' (1 John 4), it must show in our love for our fellowman, and this love always includes a concern for his bodily welfare. Far from being purely otherworldly, Christian faith is more 'this worldly,' more materialistic in one sense than any other religion; it knows of no way to love a man without also caring for his bodily life."

Karl Menninger, in his book, Whatever Became of Sin?, says "The penalties for sins converted into crimes tend to be punitive and vengeful, although these motives are denied by the law. They are remnants of tradition somewhat modified by legislative enactment and bargaining procedures. They are nearly all senseless and cruel, expensive and futile. No intelligent person believes that they deter or change anyone. Detention has a proper rationale -- for investigations, for protection, or for temporary holding prior to transfer. But people are not 'cured' of the propensity for writing bad checks or picking up cars by being made to sit in an iron cage for five years while their families disintegrate. No thief is rehabilitated by having a hand cut off, as in some countries, or by being subjected to tedious boredom, as in our country. George Bernard Shaw wrote an essay fifty years ago on the Crime of Imprisonment. Some way or other this message has never reached the ears of the public.

"The Quakers thought they were acting in a humane and Christian way when, in 1789, they sought to substitute quiet (solitary) incarceration for the floggings, brandings, tongue slicing, ear amputations, and the uncomfortable and humiliating stocks. But these old-time punishments, while painful, were public and relatively brief. Intentionally fearful hardships of incarceration were gradually added and the duration of the imprisonment became longer and longer. Six months was once considered a very long sentence (as indeed it is!). All American sentences are far greater than in English and continental practice.

"So long as the compulsion to make the offender suffer and remain 'secure' hands over the penal system, no matter how high the ideals of the administration, the actual process will be destructive. One sin becomes the basis for a long list of sins and crimes."

Reasoning Behind Incarceration -- The Church's Concern and Neglect:

The concerns and actions of the Church in relation to the segment of society called the "criminal" need to be examined in the context of society's normative response to those who do not adjust to normal social standards. Such people have historically been treated as threats to society. Society's historic response to them has been some form of labeling and isolation. These included exile or segregated housing in tombs or villages; and in addition, as punishment for crime, mutilation or branding, flogging and the pillory, and its ultimate form, various means of execution. Such practices by society have come to be looked upon as cruel and inhumane. The concept of placing such people in institutions emerged as a more humane method of protection and punishment.

Also, in the late 1700s and 1800s in this country, the idea of trying to change the behavior of offenders against society's law rather than exiling or exposing them to public ridicule and disgrace, or even executing them, was introduced. This was a radically new idea, and thus was born the modern penitentiary as a so-called place of penitence. Of greater significance was the birth of the concept of treating the inmate with the purpose of redemption or rehabilitation.

The method of treatment was isolation and silence, combined with productive work and reading, especially the Bible. The theory was that such treatment would induce penitence, and hence would lead to restoration to useful citizenship. The so-called Philadelphia and Auburn systems of prison philosophy and practice emerged out of these ideas, instituted by the Quaker Church. They influenced profoundly the development of the modern American correctional system and the systems of many other nations.

Advances in institutional treatment of illnesses have been dramatic, in corrections not so. This can, however, be changed or alleviated with the help of the churches and society as a whole.

The establishment of institutions with their avowed purpose of providing humane and redemptive treatment has not changed the basic nature of society's response to its offenders and deviants. Today they are banished from normal society as they were in earlier years although this is now accomplished by sophisticated institutional walls and bars.

Some institutional isolation may be valid because it serves the essential function of protecting society from the more rebellious and violent offenders. However, society's traditional indifference and fear, which have been shared by the Church, are responsible for isolating state institutions from the consciousness of society.

Such isolation may accomplish another result which is the crux of the problem on which this statement is focused, namely, clients and staff are both forgotten and isolated from the consciousness and presence of society and of the Church.

This isolation creates a climate in which all that is unsatisfactory or deficient in institutional functioning can and does develop. The lack of personal knowledge and identification permits the community and the churches to assume that their responsibilities have been discharged when people are committed to institutions; henceforth, attention can be focused on other matters. The result is that the isolated institution and its clients are almost invisible until a dramatic (usually violent) crisis erupts. Even the crisis is looked at emotionally, or from the perspective of non-involvement, rather than from firsthand knowledge and understanding of the situation.

The Church should accept some responsibility for this condition of institutional isolation. The Church has been responsible for many efforts to improve society's treatment of the citizens with specialized problems, but its sustained response, as a whole, in relation to the criminal justice system has been lacking. The potential resources of the Church have not been fully used to serve these institutions. For this failure the Christian community can only confess its sins of omission and ask God's forgiveness.

Biblical Dimensions of the Church's Relationship to the Criminal Justice System:

Our church should think biblically and ethically about the criminal justice system. Since this is a relatively new undertaking the declarations of this section should be considered as in process of formation, and therefore subject to continuing critical study by the Church.

The Church needs to he concerned for persons from a biblical perspective. The Scriptures clearly teach that faith in God is demonstrated by identification with "the least of these my brethren" (Matthew 25:40). A major thrust of the gospel is towards the dispossessed and powerless. The test of the Church and also of society will be the way they respond to this "outer circle."

Jesus was saying something very profound about the nature of reality in Matthew 25; in the parable of the lost sheep in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, and in other Scriptural sources. Compassionate self-giving response to the lost, the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the mentally ill and the prisoner, has its roots in the "foundation of the world." That is, in such outreach to the needy, the nature 'of God's total creation, including human beings as created in God's image, is affirmed.

The following four propositions about the nature of persons and society provide a biblical foundation for this statement:

  1. That men and women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). Created in the image of God, men and women are to rule over the earth as God's representatives. This rule is one in which they respond in freedom to God as lord. It is also u rule in which they cooperate with each other, recognizing one another's essential equality and freedom from oppression as they together rule over the earth.
  2. That men and women are in rebellion against God. While created in the image of God to cooperate with God in His rule over the earth, men and women rebelled against God to insist upon their own wills. This rebellion results in oppression of one human being by another and affects men and women individually as well as corporately, climaxing in the institution of the state with its claims to sovereignty and its exercise of coercive powers.
  3. That God has come to save all men and women from their rebellion and oppression. God does not permit rebellious humanity to be cut off from the Source of life and thus to fall into chaos and death. He comes with saving power to include all humanity in His promise and in covenant of providential care accepting even institutionalized violence as the servant of His wrath to further His saving will (Romans 13) Outside the body of believers are those who reject the lordship of Christ. The Scriptures speak of this non-Christian society as the "world." However, Christ's victory over the powers is a demonstration of that lordship to which every knee shall bow, thus Christ is Lord both over the Church which recognizes His lordship and the "world" which denies it. God so loved humanity that He leads men out from the rule of law and wrath by His coming in Christ, who by His life and death atoned for the rebellion of the world and who calls humanity to a new pattern of leadership for institutionalized life (Mark 10:42-45). The Church is that body of believers which accepts the lordship of Christ. Under His lordship she walks in obedient commitment and discipleship. Those who wish to be His disciples accept the cross which a coercive society lays upon them, but refuse to lay the cross of coercion upon others.
  4. That God in Christ has sent the Church to proclaim the good news of the leadership of Jesus: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18,19). Proclamation of the good news to the prisoner must not be an empty word but a word which changes the inner life of the prisoner, writing God's law of love upon his heart (Jeremiah 31:33). This proclamation must also be a proclamation to the state that the state should not bear the sword "in vain" (Romans 13:4), but only to obtain minimal order in which the higher order of the call of the gospel might have its effect. In cooperating with the state in rehabilitation of the prisoner, the Church stands on the side of freedom. This does not mean that the Church stands for lawlessness, but for the genuine response of the prisoner to the love and new order of God. To state and society the Church should proclaim that they also are caught up in the grace and judgment of God, that even in rebellion they cannot be unaffected by God's act of becoming which has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus.


The Church is to be aware of all persons-the poor, the offender, the victim of offense, the persons in places of power and authority-and witness to the love of Christ to each.

Specialized institutions, such as prisons, and other institutions of care, are products of society's concern for the welfare of people, individually and corporately, and are products of society's capacity to organize itself in such a way as to maintain, protect, and promote the common welfare.

The Church's mission under God, in relation to state institutions, is to mediate the love and compassion of God as well as His wisdom, judgment and power into the policies and practices of institutions, and hence into the lives of residents and/or clients they serve.

The Church should play a major role in overcoming the offender's problem of isolation and abandonment. It has it in its power to re-educate the public mind and to create an awareness of state correctional institutions which will correct this condition of isolation.

The correctional institutions need the "conscience factor" of the Church, which is one of its contributions as understood in the Christian tradition. This factor reminds all concerned that "criminals" are human beings, made in the image of God, and therefore must be treated with dignity; and that the policies and practices of the institution and all its employees must submit to the judgment of God.

Passed by the Central District Conference April, 1977