American justice and locked-up nuns

February 5th, 2015

At 85-years-old, Sister Megan Rice is still living out a life of ministry and social justice, but she’s doing it from a surprising place: behind bars. In the summer of 2012, Rice and two other activists, Michael Walli and Gregory Boertje-Obed, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a highly secure facility with nuclear processing capabilities. In an act of anti-nuclear protest, they painted phrases advocating peace in human blood on the walls of a bunker containing bomb-grade uranium. 

In February of 2014, Rice was sentenced to almost three years in prison, while Walli and Boertje-Obed received more than five due to "previous acts of civil disobedience." Now, almost exactly one year later, Rice is again making headlines for her efforts to shine light on problems within U.S. correctional facilities. 

According to a story released today by NPR, Rice is being held on the ninth floor of a high-rise prison building in Brooklyn, NY. Lacking adequate health care, social reintegration programs, or even outdoor space, Rice is using her current incarceration situation to draw attention to systemic issues in our country’s prison system. 

While the problems are systemic, Rice gives us one face to focus on — something we desperately need in a conversation that so often turns to numbers and statistics without acknowledging that prisons hold people: living, breathing individuals with complex identities and multiple needs. Sister Rice is 85 and a nonviolent offender; it seems contrary to common sense that she’d be anywhere other than the most minimum security facility possible (that is, if you would argue that she should even be in jail at all). I’m not denying that she broke the law. But one of the main features of the U.S. justice system is that punishments are tailored to fit the crime. 

The actions and experiences of this one Roman Catholic nun open up a big discussion, not just for Christians but for all citizens under the law. Still, her situation raises profound questions for people of faith. How do we honor the humanity and dignity of God’s children even when civil law necessitates incarceration? How do we justify an ever-expanding prison system that ignores healing and rehabilitation in favor of an “out of sight, out of mind” approach? How do we make sure that justice doesn’t end up meaning persecution for entire segments of the population? In short, how do we make sure that the teachings of Christ guide our thoughts and actions when we deal with our neighbor, no matter the situation?

At the very least, Christians should be in prisons all the time, living out ministry and extending love to those inside no matter their crime. Why? Jesus tells us that doing so is part of how we inherit the kingdom: “I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36, CEB). Given those words from Christ, Sister Rice is calling out an issue we should already be talking about and living through daily.

Sister Rice is a beacon in this particular case. It’s easier to point to an elderly nun in prison and say, “Hey, maybe that’s not what justice should look like.” It’s much harder when we have to look for that truth through the murky waters of systemic issues like racism or classism. When that happens, relying on the transformative grace and love of Christ, given to us so that we might show it in kind to our neighbors, to the least of these, is better than hoping the corrections system will get it right for us.

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