A new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration must flow from narratives of faith. Isaiah 58 is a natural starting place.
The setting for this prophecy is the hard years following the return from Babylonian captivity, approximately 500 BCE. The people who made the trek back to Jerusalem quickly became disillusioned. The walls of holy city were still broken down. Solomon’s glorious temple lay in ruins. Work began on a new temple, a modest structure a fraction the size of the building it replaced, but progress was slow.
The people had expected more. Much more. They couldn’t understand why God was letting them down. Their commitment to Torah had strengthened considerably during the hard years of exile. Worship attendance, sabbath keeping and tithing were all way up.
Still the people struggled. They couldn’t understand why such bad things were happening to such good people.
Isaiah’s response speaks for itself.
Isaiah 58:1-12 (Revised Standard Version)
1 “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. “If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.