Christa Fisher is a student at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa where she is pursuing her Masters of Divinity Degree. Her studies this semester are focused on women's jail ministry. Under the supervision of Chaplain Julia Weaver, Christa is functioning as a chaplaincy student in the Dane County Jail.
When is the Time Right?
Christa J Fisher
"While confined here in Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities 'unwise and untimely.'" Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr, April 16, 1963
Looking back on the Civil Rights Movement, it is hard to imagine anyone criticizing Martin Luther King Jr's pursuit of justice and equality. Yet he and his colleagues were condemned and rejected by many people including those they believed to be their advocates – liberal whites and economically advantaged blacks. Worried for their safety, security, and comfort, King's "advocates" insisted he was being irrational, risking too much, and acting impetuously. They implored him to stop and wait until a more appropriate time. After weighing the "brutal facts" of racism against the potential consequences of action and inaction, King found himself with "no alternative." Working within the constraints of an unjust system, King did the very best he could with the resources available to him. Despite his great hope and brave actions, he found himself in jail, confined to a cell and labeled a "criminal."
Some may consider it a stretch to compare King's incarceration with that of the men and women residing in our correctional institutions. Yet, according to the law, King was a "criminal." The justice system does not differentiate between the intentions of those who violate the law. If that were the case, King would have never been arrested and our jail and prison populations would be significantly smaller. Like King, the crimes committed by many of the men and women in Dane County Jail are a result of best choices made under tenuous circumstances. Unlike King however, who had a well-organized, educated, and expansive support network, many of the men and women in Dane County are navigating this complex and impersonal system on their own. With limited resources, ineffective support systems, and fading hope, people often end up rationalizing and accepting what would otherwise be unacceptable options. The run-away teen who was forced to choose between returning to an abusive home or trading sex for "safe" shelter; the single-mother who stole groceries when her minimum-wage paying job fell short each month; the man who choose to sell drugs in order to earn money for expensive medical treatments and prescriptions; and the woman who took drugs to numb the pain of unhealed trauma or to medicate untreated mental illness.
Stories like these are common - stories of people who violated the law because they believed they had "no alternative." Each doing the best they could with their limited resources. I'm not suggesting that selling drugs or trading sex are good or noble choices. Rather, I am suggesting the system King endeavored to fix is still broken. A system is broken when people are forced to choose between criminal activities and human rights (food, shelter, health care). A system is broken when people consider sexual exploitation, theft, and drug dealing to be their best options. The system the Civil Rights Movement sought to transform was one which forced King to choose between violating the law and compromising human dignity; a system in which life-threatening, civil disobedience was considered a best option.
When is it wise to strive for justice and equality? When is it timely to persevere on behalf of human dignity? For whose rights do we align ourselves, our time, and our money? According to King, social and civil transformation is necessary anytime "the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair." What do our actions or inactions tell our exhausted and despairing brothers and sisters throughout Dane County who are, at this very moment, considering criminal activity to be their best option? When is it time for us to "wait" no more? When is it wise and timely for us to create systems which support all people, equipping everyone with the resources necessary to truly make the best decisions possible?