Easter, Ramadan, Passover, and Human Rights

Resurrection Sunday and The Need for Criminal Justice Reform

Rev. Dr. Wanda Thompson, Ambassador Baptist Church

As we approach Easter, also known as Resurrection Sunday, the parallel between Jesus’ capture, trial, conviction, crucifixion, death, and resurrection becomes clearer to me as I consider the need for criminal justice reform. It begins with the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. There was no such presumption for Jesus. He was innocent. His only acts in defiance of religious law, such as healing on the Sabbath day, were acts of mercy and kindness. Jesus was profiled as a troublemaker. He was betrayed by what we would consider an informant whose only interest was profit for himself. We have to ask how many individuals are there who have been pipelined into prison because of others’ self-interests that lead to poverty, racism, hopelessness, and despair?

How many incarcerated people are there because of false testimony and witnesses out for themselves only? Jesus was convicted with no real evidence. He had no representation, no public defender. He was railroaded, convicted, and sentenced to death. There was no jury of His peers who were screened to prevent bias in reaching a fair verdict. There was no fairness in Jesus’ sentencing. Thrust into prison, even temporarily, He was taunted and physically abused. Our prison systems often do the same thing. They dehumanize the individual. Abuse by correctional officers; exposure to violence by other inmates; and, prolonged solitary confinement are just some of the abuses seen in prisons.

Jesus was forced to carry His cross and then crucified, left to die, hanging on that cross in agonizing suspension. How can anyone think that inflicting barbaric modes of torture and death on inmates is justified? Yes, some individuals have committed crimes who need to be held accountable, and, yes, imprisoned. But the concepts of atonement and forgiveness still need to be present. Rather than further hardwire criminals into even more dangerous individuals, should not they have the ability to seek the Kingdom of God as did the one thief on the cross next to Jesus? The irony in all of this is that Jesus came and that the sins of the world might be forgiven. From the cross, He asked that his tormentors and killers would be forgiven.

The Merciful was not shown mercy. Death without appeal, physical and mental abuse without any accountability, the abuse of power to maintain the status quo - all of these are akin to some of the abuses we see now in the prisons. This is what Jesus endured. His resurrection signified the burying of all our sins and our emergence as new creatures through Him. Ought not everyone have a chance at being redeemed and becoming new creatures? The Good News is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus shine a light on evil, including the lack of compassion for, and on the evil often perpetrated both by and toward, those imprisoned. He was all about forgiveness and redemption.

I believe that compassion, rehabilitation, forgiveness, and restorative justice are what Jesus expects us to show to our incarcerated brothers and sisters. Criminal justice reform is necessary to prevent abuses before, in, and following incarceration. Let us be more like Jesus to look beyond faults to see needs.

Happy Resurrection Sunday!

Passover: Outrage into Action

Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe, Temple Rodef Shalom, Fairfax, VA

The Pesach, or Passover, the holiday was created to pursue two very different imperatives: celebrating freedoms gained thousands of years ago and, at the same time, inspiring us to act on injustices that exist today. The one is easy to accomplish. The other, not so: there is little urgency garnered by reclining on pillows, drinking four cups of wine, and singing songs late into the night, although these things make for an enjoyable and meaningful holiday. The urgency must come from telling the story itself.

The rabbis call on each person to hear the story of Passover as if it were they themselves, not their ancestors, who came out of Egypt. This is the same empathy one needs to more fully appreciate and react to injustices in our own generation. In recent years, I have found myself comparing the bondage of the Israelites to the inhumane treatment of too many people currently incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons. The experiences of suffering within our criminal justice system may not be happening to us, but we have an obligation to see ourselves in this story as well.

While we sit at our Seder tables, countless people (literally countless, because there is no reliable reporting of how many) will be spending time in solitary confinement, defined as the housing of an adult or juvenile with minimal or rare meaningful contact with other individuals. This is a cruel and damaging measure that should be called torture, and yet it is routinely used at many facilities, sometimes for months at a time. Months, without an opportunity to share a meal or a conversation with another person! We should be outraged, but it is difficult to move from outrage to effecting change.

This is part of the message of Pesach. In the story of the Exodus, we might say Moses’ journey to becoming a liberator begins with anact of outrage. He witnesses a Hebrew slave being beaten by his master. It must have been commonplace and perfectly acceptable for a master to beat his slave. Like so many injustices today, I imagine it would not even have been worth noticing for most people. Does Moses react differently because he identifies with his fellow Hebrew? Or, is he filled with a heightened sense of responsibility due to his privileged status? For whatever reason, what he witnesses upsets him enough that he reacts violently. It takes him years to learn to lead in more constructive ways. Passover calls us to have the courage to witness injustice, become angry, and find righteous ways to act. I am grateful for IAHR’s work in channeling our outrage into action.

The Observance of Ramadan in Prisons 

Zainab Chaudry, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Ramadan is the holiest month on the Islamic calendar. It’s a period of increased introspection. Muslims deprive our bodies of water and food during the 14+ hours long fast in order to nourish and strengthen our spirit. This brief time is an opportunity to recalibrate our focus and priorities, the practice to increase God-consciousness, and engage in community service and charitable giving.  We not only spirituality rejuvenate and rededicate ourselves to our faith, but we also have an obligation - through our hunger and sacrifices - to remember those who’ve been forgotten or denied opportunities to reconnect with their faith. And we have a responsibility to take action to support them. 

 As the world’s nearly two billion Muslims reflect on the significance of this holy month, we cannot forget those populations who are observing the holy month of Ramadan under oppressive, unjust circumstances including war zones, famine-stricken regions, “re-education” and refugee camps and the prison system here in the United States. Muslims make up a significant and growing segment of the U.S. prison population. Yet, many correctional facilities across the country continue to employ harsh, unjust, and outdated policies and practices when accommodating their religious rights. Incarcerated Muslims frequently face hurdles for basic concessions such as access to halal meals, prayer rugs, religious texts, and congregational prayers. 

 During Ramadan, those obstacles are compounded, with one of the major issues reported to Muslim civil rights groups being the denial of suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, and iftar, the sunset meal to break the fast. Sometimes, the meals arrive late; sometimes, they don’t arrive at all. In some cases, the portion sizes are unusually small, or it’s impossible to identify the contents of the meal trays or ascertain whether they're halal.  Many reports indicate prison staff use harsh language and abusive practices such as taunting and derogatory slurs, mishandling or theft of religious texts, and subjecting Muslim prisoners to unhygienic conditions with relative impunity in a system where there’s extensive negligence and lack of oversight and accountability. 

 The good news is that national civil rights groups have increasingly stepped up their advocacy and outreach to departments of corrections nationwide. As I type this, my organization CAIR’s national office is in touch with the Virginia Department of Corrections to ensure that pre-dawn and sunset meals are being served to Muslims at a correctional facility in Lawrenceville after we received a complaint from an incarceree earlier this week. Last year, the Maryland Muslim Prison Project has launched ahead of Ramadan in my home state to raise awareness about the challenges Muslim incarcerees face in prisons here during and beyond the holy month. 

 But it’s not enough. More awareness must be raised about the evils of mass incarceration and the abuses and neglect occurring within our prison system. More resources need to be redirected toward meeting the needs that exist in these spaces. This Ramadan, as we renew our commitment to God through our fasting and worship, let’s also renew our commitment to serving His creation by using every tool at our disposal to work for dignity and justice for our communities’ most underserved populations. 

New Life

The Rev. Ann Moczydlowski, Episcopal Church

In the Christian tradition, the celebration of Easter is one of new life rooted in the story of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. After witnessing his trial and horrific crucifixion, his family and other followers were left bereft, frightened, and totally unsure of their future. A few years prior to his arrest, they had been captured by his message of God’s enduring and unlimited love for all, experienced power and new life through his teaching and healing ministry and now, he was gone. But mysteriously, he came to them several days later, assuring them that loving God and neighbor was the key to experiencing new life, even in the face of suffering. We don’t know what this resurrection, this new life was to Jesus but we do know that to his followers it was everything.

He urged them to live as he had, not focused on resurrection after death, but on offering the possibility of a new life for others who are suffering, through the followers’ compassion and acts of non-sentimental love. Our word solidarity speaks to his message. Episcopal priest, Stephanie Spellers shares: “Solidarity is love crossing the borders were drawn by self-centrism, in order to enter into the situation of the other, for the purpose of mutual relationship and struggle that heals us all and enacts God’s beloved community. Solidarity is the voice that finally comprehends: ‘You are not the same as me, but part of you lives in me. Your freedom and mine were always inextricably entwined. Now I see it, and because of what I see, I choose to live differently, I will go there, with you, for your sake and for my own.

”1 This is the work of Interfaith Action for Human Rights as people of various faith traditions come together as pen pals and advocates for people who are incarcerated in America. Being separated from the freedom to live one’s life “on the outside” is punishment enough – withholding medical care, adequate food, and resources that prepare one to live differently on release, using attack dogs on 1 Stephanie Spellers, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline and New Hope for Beloved Community (New York: Church Publishing 2021), 107,109.

Compliant residents of prisons and deepening mental health issues through the overuse of solitary confinement are cruel. Such actions benefit no one and ultimately bring harm to all. We learn from those who have returned from prison and those who are presently held in a 6-9’ cell for 22-23 hours each day for no legitimate reason. We believe in the humane treatment of all people, regardless of their race, economic status, address, or past actions. We choose compassion over judgment and rehabilitation over punishment – because we are entwined in the lives of one another whether we choose to be or not. Solidarity through various means of connection and advocacy can only improve the chances of a new life for those incarcerated in America. And, as one returning citizen shared “When I was treated like a human, I became humane.”

Interfaith Perspectives on Community and Isolation

Rev. Dr. David B. Lindsey, Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington

Faith traditions across the world have a variety of specific beliefs and practices, yet they often hold major values in common. One such value is that people are designed to live in community with one another. In Jewish and Muslim traditions, this often means shared food practices and gathering together on Fridays for prayer and reflection. The majority of Christians regularly get together on Sunday mornings for worship and fellowship, whether they are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. South Asian religious traditions like the Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian communities bring people together for meals, festivals, and holy days. Even the monastics among the world’s faith traditions who enter into solitude often enter that solitude with a community of peers, gathering in monasteries and convents. And when such solitude occurs, it is always by choice on the part of the monastic, not by force.

This core human belief in the importance of community stands in stark contrast to the practices of isolation and segregation in the U.S. prison system. The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that over 15,000 prisoners are in isolation at any given time. Among them, prisoners regularly experience such isolation for up to 23 hours per day. Brief breaks to shower or encounter other prisoners are often highly supervised, and when an emergency or staff shortage occurs, a prisoner who is already unwillingly in isolation may experience solitary confinement for days or even weeks. The level of psychiatric illness is already higher in the prison population than in society as a whole and segregating a prisoner in isolation can cause such stress that even a psychologically healthy person may start to evince symptoms of mental illness. All of this runs contrary to the world’s religions and their shared understanding that people are meant to live in regular connection with each other in authentic communities.

Regardless of what crimes have been committed, prisoners are still part of the larger human family. And according to the world’s religious traditions, they are therefore meant to live in community. Practices of isolation and segregation in prisons run counter to such teachings, thus constituting a violation of a prisoner’s right to practice their faith.

Most prisoners will at some point reenter society outside of the penal system, and experiences of solitary confinement cause sufficient stress and agony as to make that reentry difficult or even impossible. Whether or not a prisoner reenters society, however, they are nevertheless human and thus possessed of inherent worth and dignity. The work of keeping them in connection and community with their fellow humans may be a challenge, but it is one that the world’s religious traditions tell us we must face.

Fear of God

Rabbi Charles Feinberg

When the tenth plague strikes the Egyptian firstborn, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and orders them to leave Egypt. The Israelites leave in the middle of the night. The next morning Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues the Israelites to the edge of the sea. Just before the Israelites sing their triumphant song of redemption and freedom, the Torah states, “the people feared God, believed in God and Moses his servant.”They saw they feared, and then they broke into song. The fear engendered the song. What did they fear about God? A key to interpreting this question is the phrase “They were walking on dry land in the midst of the sea.” This phrase occurs four different times in the narrative leading up to the song at the sea. 

When did they sing the song? When they were walking on dry land in the midst of the sea. Four times the Torah mentions that the children of Israel are walking on dry land in the midst of the sea or that they are coming in the midst of the sea on dry land. They feared that Pharaoh would catch up to them before they crossed the sea. They feared that they would drown and not make it to the other side. At the same time, they knew that they had to cross the sea to live and be able to sanctify God’s name. The choice they faced was death/enslavement or life/freedom-redemption. They realized that they might die trying to realize the promise of life and redemption. But they also feared whether they can sanctify God while fighting their enemies.

Can they still have compassion for the Egyptians even though the Egyptians are trying to destroy them? The great Jewish French commentator on the Bible, Rashi, says that God is the only one who can fight His enemies while still being compassionate toward them. There is a deeper fear on behalf of the Israelites: that by fighting their enemies they will become like them and that God will punish them for becoming like them. He will punish them just as He punished the Egyptians: with plagues and terrible diseases. The song then celebrates this living on the edge: death and life, suffering and joy, justice and mercy. There is not a simple split between Egyptians and Israelites. There is this affirmation of a certain commonality.

Both are afraid, both are afraid of God, and both are confounded. Today we are fighting many enemies: the Russians in the Ukraine, covid-19, people who want to undermine democracy here and abroad, and people who commit terrible crimes. While fighting our enemies can we still affirm their humanity? Can we try to make war and make peace at the same time? These are the critical moral questions that we face today. We who believe that every human being is created in the image of God must be able to summon compassion for those who have committed acts of violence because we believe that they have the power to change. We also must summon compassion for correctional officers who may abuse the incarcerated out of fear or anger.

They too have the potential to change. We too need to fear God. The Israelites realized that the fear of God is what prevented them from becoming like the Egyptians. When they realized that, they and Moses followed by Miriam sang a song. They rejoiced that they had resisted the urge to become like their enemies. For this they were grateful. May we fear God so that we will not become like our enemies. Then we too will sing the song of gratitude.