NUMBERS 35: WHAT DO CITIES OF REFUGE HAVE TO DO WITH THE PROBLEM OF MASS INCARCERATION?
What were the cities of refuge for? Did these cities serve the same function as prisons? We often hear that Australia contained a colony for criminals, so we have a fairly modern example of a whole region being set off from society.
Maimonides boils the explanation down to a simple but profound reason for the cities of refuge, even in the case of manslaughter, where the reason was judged as accidental death or unintentional. The Torah scholar says the reason is very practical for refuge cities: to put distance between the offender and the avengers.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says one has only to imagine the endless cycle of revenge of stories like The Godfather or West Side Story that depict mafia and gang violence, or look at the back and forth murders of revenge and revenging the revenge to see why the cities of refuge would have been important.
This is the reason we often feel the need to be out of site of people who have deeply offended us. We'd like to send them away or we need to go away, because we don't want to see the person who wrecked our lives everyday walking down the sidewalk or driving down the street. Cities of refuge allowed "out of sight out of mind" for those suffering the death of a loved one and in the same way that Cain was protected, so also the offender could be protected from the avengers.
Now a word about prisons today. There are way too many people incarcerated. If we want to faithfully read scripture, we also need to faithfully read the culture and understand where the issues differ or where they may in principle be similar and application can be made. So here are three important realities in my state:
- Oklahoma has one of the highest overall incarceration rates in the country.
- Oklahoma has been ranked as having the highest incarceration rates of black men in the country.
- Oklahoma is number one in incarceration rates for women.
Most of us think there is simply nothing we can do about mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex (that is the business of running prisons by private firms that perpetuates incarceration as first response to society's problems, even incarcerating mentally ill and non-violent as criminals or incarcerating for non-payment of child support). What can we do? We can start caring about this as a problem, rather than thinking everyone in prison had it coming to them. Not everyone in prison has it coming to them, and prison doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion in our society. Not every society polices, prosecutes, and incarcerates like the United States does. There are other answers to our society's problems other than mass incarceration. I became more aware of these issues when my son, Jacob Taylor, wrote a paper on this for school. I have also spoken with advocates for prison reform, and I vote for representatives of government who are aware of the huge problem our state has with thinking incarceration is the first answer to someone breaking the law.
Another step for you and me is reading or hearing more about perspectives other than our own on issues such as incarceration. I'm reading a book by Angela Y. Davis called Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Davis points to movements around the world struggling for freedom and how they are connected, and I had not thought of this important idea before, that the struggle for freedom is human and powers of nation states or other private interests try to segregate and divide up the struggle so people think they are virtually alone in their struggle. Freedom is not just being granted some "civil rights" by the state but a human struggle that goes back to the Exodus and is inherent in the human spirit.
I'm praying that I will continue to grow and learn to apply texts like this on cities of refuge to the constant struggle for freedom, and to remember that even someone killed, you still responded with freedom. When Cain killed, you punished him but you did not incarcerate him. When Moses killed, you followed him to the wilderness and made him a leader of people out of bondage. When David killed, you broke his heart. Show us how to stop killing, caging people and start learning how to return people to their families and to reconciliation.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.