Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11
Most Americans have no idea that someone convicted of a crime in the United States is condemned to a lifetime of discrimination.
Individuals with a criminal record are required to declare their conviction to prospective employers, who are overwhelmingly averse to hiring them, and to prospective landlords, who are averse to housing them. They are prohibited from practicing a wide range of professions, many of which bear no relation to the crime of which they were accused. They are barred from public housing and limited in their recourse to government assistance programs.
The effect of these laws is systemic, legalized discrimination against individuals with criminal records. Moreover: militarized policing tactics focused on poor and minority neighborhoods, combined with sentencing laws dictating harsher penalties for certain crimes, have overwhelmingly and disproportionately increased incarceration rates amongst persons of color. Discrimination on the basis of race may be illegal, but discrimination on the basis of criminal record is not only legal but widespread.
What has Ezekiel to do with this systemic injustice?1
The book seems hardly the most likely source of relief. Its moral and theological outlook is unremittingly “tough on crime”: Israel’s punishment is described as the consequence of its failure to follow the laws laid down by the LORD for Israel’s well-being.
Chapter 33 marks the most climactic moment of the book, in which the destruction of Jerusalem is finally announced. After chapter upon chapter emphasizing Israel’s sinfulness, its message is startling: “As I live, says the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” (verse 11). Immediately following the lectionary selection is an even more explicit statement of God’s convictions: for the wicked who repent, “none of the sins that they have committed shall be remembered against them; they have done what is lawful and right, they shall surely live” (verse 16).
That the wicked will suffer the consequences of their wickedness is one of the most fundamental tenets of the book’s moral logic, connecting the crimes that the people have committed with the punishment that they now experience.
And yet—despite the urgency with which the book presses this point, Ezekiel allows that even the most inveterate sinner might turn aside from wickedness and sin no more.
God’s desire that even the sinful might live—and God’s promise to reckon past sins as though they were nothing—is a powerful condemnation of discrimination against the formerly incarcerated. Rather than offering ex-offenders a genuine chance to turn their lives around—to “turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right,” as 18:21 puts it—ex-offenders are turned out into a discriminatory system all but designed to ensure recidivism.
Ezekiel condemns this. Although Israel’s punishment is a consequence of its failure to obey the law, it is not punishment for its own sake. Rather, it is meant, first, to draw the people’s attention to the detrimental consequences of their current behavior—for the well-being of their community, as well as for themselves personally. Second, it is meant to provide a route to future obedience. After Israel’s punishment is over, the people will be able to “follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them” (11:20). Punishment is meant to bring about a change in the people’s behavior—change that leads to law-abiding membership in the community. Warehousing human beings without seeking to transform them is antithetical to Ezekiel’s theology. If criminal justice proceeds through incarceration, prison must include routes to rehabilitation that enable ex-offenders to enter fully into society upon their release.
With this in mind, Ezekiel’s depiction of the change Israel undergoes during the term of its punishment merits attention. Israel’s reformed future will not come from some spontaneous transformation, but from changes in their circumstances, brought about by the LORD in order to facilitate obedience to the divine law: “one heart” and a “new spirit” (11:19; 36:26; see also 18:31). The goal of the LORD’s dramatic intervention in Israel’s history is not merely a temporary disruption, undertaken in resigned expectation of the Israelites’ eventual return to their previous circumstances. Rather, the LORD recognizes the obstacles that obstruct the Israelites’ path and grants them the resources they need to overcome them. Punishment is envisioned as a radical break from the past, affected by the LORD through the gift of “one heart” and a “new spirit.”
To 21st-century America, Ezekiel issues a summons: transform the death-dealing circumstances that feed and facilitate the prison-industrial complex. The long shadow of racial discrimination—housing restrictions, bars to employment, inadequate medical care, under-funded schools, and so on—links incarceration disproportionately to individuals and communities of color. Once swept into the system, the exclusion of ex-offenders from housing, employment, and other basic benefits establishes significant obstacles to successful re-entry into mainstream society. These legal forms of discrimination add their compounding effect to the risk factors associated with initial incarceration—and so incarceration breeds more incarceration. Unless we address the circumstances at the root of mass incarceration, this cycle will continue.
The LORD’s promise to change the Israelites’ circumstances recognizes that the individual will to change is not, on its own, enough: the turn away from wickedness and toward righteousness is not a simple matter of resolve. Not only the resolve of the individual to pursue a life of righteousness and obedience to the divine law must change, the circumstances in which individuals find themselves must also be transformed. To this we are called to commit our collective efforts, in solidarity with those who suffer unjustly.
For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see C. L. Crouch, “Ezekiel and Criminal Justice Reform,” in Cambridge Companion to Hebrew Bible and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). Those without library access or of limited means are invited to contact the author directly.