Prisoners have a special place in the Christian imagination. It matters that Jesus himself was a prisoner. To speak the language of American law enforcement, his death was a death in custody. His most influential followers, Peter and Paul, were also prisoners. They too died in custody. John the Baptist, who first acclaimed Jesus as Messiah, was beheaded in a Roman prison. Christianity is a religion founded by men in deep trouble with the law, men familiar with the inside of prisons, whose message was "the last shall be first, and the first last."
In religious ethics as formulated in our monotheistic traditions, what is owed to the neighbor is simultaneously owed to God himself. The Christian way of imagining this double duty exploits the fact that Christianity's God has appeared in human form. Thus, when doing good deeds for our fellow human beings, we as Christians seek to imagine that we are simultaneously doing them for Christ in person. Jesus taught his followers to imagine themselves hearing his voice saying, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you came to me," and finally: "I was in prison and you visited me" (Matthew 25:35-36).
Allow me, if I may, at this dark and shameful moment in our history, to linger over the last entry on that list: "I was in prison and you visited me." Jesus gives every item on his list twice-once in a positive formulation, for praise, and once in a negative formulation, for blame. Thus, "I was in prison and you did not visit me." Can you imagine what it is like to be in prison waiting for a visit that does not come? But let me ask an easier question: Do you know where the nearest jail is?
Ten years ago, when I was still working for the Los Angeles Times, I discovered Los Angeles County Jail almost by accident. At that time, I had worked out a back-streets route to escape rush-hour traffic. I grew so familiar with my zigzag shortcut that I knew every building along the way. I didn't fail to notice, then, when a large new building started to go up on a brick-strewn no-man's-land northeast of Union Station. Octagonal in shape and windowless, this building-set well back from the street-appeared to be some kind of power plant or transmitting station. After the first month or so, I noticed that there were actually two octagonal structures under construction.
This sort of thing doesn't ordinarily much interest me; but leaving one Friday for a three-day weekend, I noticed that a large sign had gone up of the usual sort that one sees in front of construction sites. I decided to park and walk across the rubble to read what it said. It was then that I learned that the two octagonal structures were in fact additions to the Men's Central Jail and that, after all, they were not windowless. What looked at a distance like seams were actually tall, narrow, slit-like windows.
What I took away from my discovery was a humbling and somewhat disturbing reflection on, as it happens, the Shoah, the genocidal slaughter of Europe's Jews by Nazi Germany. In discussions of the Shoah, I had heard the question asked more than once: "Did the Germans know?" Almost always, the conclusion reached was that, yes, they surely did know. Were I a German living in that era, I had wondered, would I have known? Would I have spoken out? The fact that until stumbling upon the largest jail in my own city in this way I had not known its location and that this bit of ignorance had never bothered me in the slightest seemed a damning commentary on my social awareness.
Now, unlike the concentration camps, County Jail is not a secret facility; it is not located outside the borders of the United States. Nonetheless it had never occurred to me to ask even the first question about it. If I had been a German living in 1946, would it have been an adequate defense to say that I didn't know about the death camps simply because it had never occurred to me to ask? Yet in Los Angeles this flimsy excuse seemed to be my only defense.
I found this implausible. Surely, I thought, the authorities would not be so foolish as to release a convicted criminal penniless onto the street. But the man had not been panhandling when I almost literally stepped on him. A skinny, crewcut white guy with a couple of teeth knocked out, he was sitting disconsolately alone with his feet in the gutter of a street that had at that hour neither vehicular nor pedestrian traffic. I gave him ten dollars.