In the Bible, prisons are only found in pagan, violent nations. We in America have a luxury the early Church did not enjoy—our “Caesar,” a constitutional republic—tells us we own the government and thus have the responsibility of deciding what laws we will hire government officials to execute on our behalf. This is an extraordinary responsibility, one afforded by two thousand years of Jesus’s cultural influence on the world as he weakens strong, tyrannical structures that were once taken for granted in the ancient world.
Thus, Christians—83% of the population—have no excuse in allowing violent anti-law laws to be created that foment chaos and family breakdown not justice as Jesus desires.
Jesus wants us as a society to “turn the other cheek” to shameful vices like greed and addiction as a proactive means of defeating the cycle of escalating violence that develops when we “strike our neighbors’ cheek first.”
The only nations that had prisons in the Bible were Egypt, Rome, and Babylon. They were created on the principle of strike the other’s cheek first if they offend you, domination makes right, and sacrifice your neighbor lest he hurt you in the hypothetical future. This is why these nations are dead. They collapsed because God-driven history saw to it that Jesus’s social order would infect the world slowly through history wherever its Good News is spread.
With that said, we have to work with the system we currently have. In our system, we can have prisons—albeit more humane ones—for actual violent crimes such as fraud, theft, rape, assault, and abuse of children.
Over time, if we are to be serious followers of Jesus, petty theft should be handled without the use of prison cages. The Bible is a great road map for this in counseling a two-to-one restitution of what has been stolen. This is restorative justice that saves citizens’ money, heals criminals with responsibility and hard work, and puts the victim’s restoration as paramount.
However, as a standard minimum today, no Christian seeking to imitate Jesus can hire any politician or measure that maintains laws that use armed agents and deadly force to place nonviolent human beings in cages. Forcing a human being in a cage for nonviolent acts is a rejection of the image of God and the imitation of Jesus. It is especially barbaric and inhumane to force defenseless, nonviolent persons to be confined with actual violent rapists and murderers—such laws based on the rejection of Jesus often harden and denigrate nonviolent persons into violent, antisocial people upon release.