Human Dignity “Except for these Chains.”:
The Enduring Worth of the Criminally Convicted
This paper is an exploration of how those who experience incarceration should be considered. Do they maintain their inherent dignity? Looking to the situation of the Apostle Paul in Acts 26, it is asserted that the criminally convicted can maintain their sense of self-worth.
As the incarcerated Paul speaks before King Agrippa in Caesarea, he not atypically uses the opportunity to evangelize. The king comments, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul replies, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am – except for these chains” (Acts 26:28-29). The exception clause, “except for these chains,” alludes to the condition of Paul’s incarceration under Roman custody. He desires they be like him in the sense of being a convert to Christ, but he does not wish them to be in literal jail. It reads as an aside comment yet has significance of interest, especially pertaining to the theme of human dignity.
In the United States there are approximately 2.2 million men and women presently experiencing incarceration. The parallels between first-century Roman detention, such that Paul experienced, and modern-day correctional conditions in the United States are similar and dissimilar. Regarding similarities, both the ancient and modern prisoners face deprivation of dignity, scarcity of resources, constriction of freedoms, loss of autonomy, and personal safety insecurity. In exploring these conditions helpful insight may be identified to inform Christian thinking about the persistent dignity of the incarcerated.
Along with these conditions of incarceration, there is a societal stigma placed upon the criminally convicted. Communities harbor suspicion and fear toward prisoners and ex-convicts. This is true no matter the culture. This cultural stigma manifests itself in ways like diminished job opportunities, citizenry privileges, and community trust. Do these impairments also ring true in the Christian community? Whereas there may indeed be wise reasons for limiting the ministry roles of Christians who have a criminal record, their dignity as image-bearers remains intact. We should make a clear distinction between their worth, which abides undiminished, and their particular function in the body of Christ. Christian belief about human dignity affirms the enduring worth of the criminally convicted.
For two years I have taught student-inmates in a Texas jail helping to facilitate completion of their high school equivalency. Working with a local community college, I spend fourteen hours a week inside a correctional facility managing classroom instruction for fifty-five male and female inmates separately. A common sense among my students is a loss of human dignity. Can those experiencing incarceration overcome the stigma of their “chains” and maintain a right self-image? How do inmates keep hold of their dignity and live into the reality that they are divine image bearers? How should the Christian community treat those experiencing incarceration and those who have reentered society?
The apostle Paul, with his unflinching sense of human dignity, even for himself in jail, provides guidance to our thinking about how we regard those experiencing incarceration. Furthermore, our Christian understanding of humans as persistent image bearers guides our treatment of one another.