Churches, Prisons, and the Powers That Be (Part 2)

Churches, Prisons, and the Powers That Be (Part 2)

In my last post, we considered the heart-breaking story of Kalief Browder, a young man who was unjustly imprisoned for three years at Rikers Island. During that time, both fellow inmates and guards brutalized him repeatedly. The damage was lasting. A few months ago, even after being released, Browder committed suicide.

Browder’s tragic story is a window into “the powers that be” in some realms of the prison system.

What am I saying?

Simply this: that the spirit or atmosphere at Rikers seems to have been governed by violence and aggression, fear and paranoia. And that, as both inmates and prison staff submitted to that spirit, they gave it authority and power over them.

The power took on a life of its own.

To explain this phenomenon, let me use an example that Walter Wink uses in his book Naming the Powers.

Think about a mob violence, something easily called to mind considering recent riots around the country.

Imagine if you were to single out nearly any individual present at one of these riots and take them away to another city on another street corner with no mob or riot surrounding them. If you then asked that individual to throw a rock through a window, loot a storefront, or charge on a line of police, they probably wouldn’t do it.

But something powerful happens in a mob. Some spirit or power takes over and spreads like a wildfire through the group. Suddenly people do things they would not otherwise do. We call this the mob mentality, although we could just as well call it the mob power.

(My intent is not to critique any particular recent riot or the motivation behind it. In fact, for an interesting read on the nuances between riots and uprisings, see this NPR piece. For a thoughtful reflection on the possible biblical warrant for violence against property, see this piece from Richard Beck.)

Is it possible that the same thing happens in prisons? That the same type of power takes over? Violence and aggression become the governing norm?

After watching and reading about Rikers, it would seem that it is possible.

My fear is that this phenomenon is not unique to Rikers, and that as churches send members into prisons around the country to minister to the incarcerated, they are running headlong into a serious conflict of powers, and they need to know what they are up against.

Paul knew.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers and authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12, emphasis added)

Walter Wink is a helpful resource here. He explains Paul’s words about enemies, rulers and authorities, powers and spiritual forces with these words:

[They are...] not only divine but human, not only personified but structural, not only demons and kings but the world atmosphere and power invested in institutions, laws, traditions and rituals as well, for it is the cumulative, totalizing effect of all these taken together that creates the sense of bondage to a “dominion of darkness” (see Col 1:13) presided over by higher powers. [1] (emphasis added)

If that the case, it is very possible our prison ministry workers are not just studying the Bible with a couple of inmates here and there. It is possible they are confronting powers beyond their imagination.

Which is exactly what Christians are called to do.

But how do we do that?

While I am certainly no expert, in my following posts I want to explore a biblical example of conflicting powers, think a bit about prayer, and present some hope that this incarceration power can be redeemed.

Until then, please read Kalief’s story and watch the video of violence at Rikers (links above). What emotions do you experience while watching the video and reading his story? Now that you are looking for the influence of “powers,” what do you see in the video? Should Christians be concerned about this?


[1] Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 85.

Header image: Jar (). Liberation. November 2, 2014. Retrieved from Some rights reserved.

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