By Jackie Newsome, recipient of the first annual Nancy E. Roach Memorial Scholarship for Seminary Students
It was an old custom during the Feast for the governor to pardon a single prisoner named by the crowd. At the time, they had the infamous Jesus Barabbas in prison. With the crowd before him, Pilate said, “Which prisoner do you want me to pardon: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus the so-called Christ?” ...
Meanwhile, the high priests and religious leaders had talked the crowd into asking for the pardon of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus.
The governor asked, “Which of the two do you want me to pardon?”
They said, “Barabbas!"
-Matthew 27:15-21 (The Message)
What is the church called to do with Barabbas? In the biblical text we learn that Barabbas was a murderer. Yet he was pardoned. Surely the crowd could have requested that both Barabbas and Jesus be executed, but they did not. Why not?
I believe there is something to learn from the story of Barabbas. God was foreshadowing how we should respond to guilty people in our criminal justice system. God was telling us what our heart posture should be toward people in our communities who have broken important covenants. Jesus died so that Barabbas might live. The church, like the crowd in the scripture, is called to welcome Barabbas back into the community with open arms.
The issue of how the church is called to think about and engage with the Barabbases of our society is an issue near to my heart. This issue is the reason why (I believe) I was called to seminary. I believe that God called me to be a Movement Lawyer and a Movement Pastor—one who uses faith-based principles to advocate for a change in the way congregations, communities, and the legal system view criminal offenders. Specifically, I feel a call to use liberation theology and theology of reconciliation to encourage both people and systems to view “guilty people” as human beings loved by God, redeemed by Jesus, and worthy of being full members of society.
As a Movement Lawyer and Pastor, I know I have to be able to provide biblical support for why social justice (and more specifically criminal justice reform) is a cause the church and community are called to engage. I know I have to be able to gain the trust of people who have been hurt by criminal offenders and convince those same people that Jesus calls us to forgiveness and reconciliation. And I have to be able to not just preach about reform, but also live out reform in my church and in my community.
This was my inspiration for creating a “restoring Barabbas” program geared toward teaching lay people about the church’s calling as it pertains to guilty people like Barabbas. We need a “restoring Barabbas” program in order to transform the hearts and minds of congregations, communities, and key players in the law and policy arena.
The theology of “restoring Barabbas” reflects the belief that God is everywhere, in everything, and with everyone. We are not bringing God anywhere but rather underscoring how God is already working. People in the United States who are poor, of color, identify as women, identify as queer, experiencing homelessness, and/or differently abled, often find themselves involved with the criminal legal system. The “restoring Barabbas” program stands on the claim that Jesus is pro-criminal defendant, pro-guilty person, pro-marginalized person, pro-oppressed person, pro-downtrodden person, and pro-child (juvenile). The goal of the program is to teach, train, and mobilize Christian believers in Christ-centered criminal justice reform so that they can uncover the God-light in all of those involved in the criminal legal system.
The ultimate goal of the program is to convince state courts and police departments that we must stop bringing people into our penal system. I recognize that this goal is unlikely to be achieved in my lifetime. More short-term goals of the program include: educating the church population about the criminal legal system; encouraging the church population to advocate against putting people in prison; encouraging persons involved in the criminal legal system to think about the moral implications of allowing human beings to be locked away in cages; encouraging partnerships with churches and schools, restorative justice and diversion programs; showing children and adults in the community that the church supports them, that the church is not judging them, and that the church does not believe they are bad people but rather children of God deserving of love and support.
If executed correctly, I think this program can be an example of how the Christian faith is called to be a catalyst for social change, showing the community and the legal system that Christ loves guilty people. My hope is for public defenders to see a program like “restoring Barabbas” and feel confident in defending their clients. My vision is for prosecutors and judges to see this sort of program and feel compelled to listen to their moral consciences. My aspiration is for law enforcement to see congregants and community members in court and change the way they speak and treat the accused, both in and out of court. So that one day victims of crimes see Christians present in court and feel that they can forgive and love offenders as Christ has forgiven and loved us all.
Jacqueline (Jackie) Newsome has degrees from both NYU and the University of Chicago Law School. In law school, she learned that criminal justice reform was her cause. While clerking for the Minnesota Supreme Court, she felt the call to Christian ministry. In May 2015, Jackie became a licensed attorney in the state of Illinois, and one year later she became an ordained Reverend. In December 2017, Jackie was sworn into the Georgia bar. Jackie considers herself a Preachin’ Movement Lawyer. Follow her @jaxin_thebox on Instagram and Twitter.