Leadership Scholars

Why We Must Advocate for Those Wrongfully Imprisoned

By Joshua Stewart

During the Advent season, we await the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior. It is a season centered around hope, peace, joy, and love. For me, it is a joyful time to celebrate with friends and family. In this season, I find peace. I find peace in a Savior who gives me hope. As I love and care for those around me, I celebrate the precious moments I have with friends and family.

Meanwhile, there are countless families who are not able to celebrate the holidays with those they love. So many are yearning for hope, desperately waiting for the day when they can embrace their family members. Far too many families will not get to enjoy the holidays to the fullest because their loved ones are wrongfully imprisoned abroad.

When I originally wrote this blog post, one of those wrongfully imprisoned was Brittney Griner. And before this was to be published, we received the wonderful news that she would be returning home. I was hoping and praying that this would happen before this post was published, and I am thankful and praise God that this has become true.

As a student at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, I have heard many stories of fellow Baylor fans who have enjoyed watching Brittney do what she loves in playing basketball since her time at Baylor and now as she plays in the WNBA. My heart hurt for Brittney and her family ever since her detainment earlier this year, and even more when we received news of her imprisonment in a gulag in Mordovia.

What further saddened me about the situation was that there have been many in the United States who have justified or have brushed aside the imprisonment of a fellow American who was being used as political leverage by an evil despot as he continues his assault on the people of Ukraine. In no world should we have ever considered a nine-year sentence to a horrific penal colony over less than 1 gram of cannabis oil a just outcome.

Many excused it because they don’t like her use of free speech to raise awareness to systemic racism or because of her sexual orientation. Personally, I believe in welcoming and affirming members of the LGBTQ+ community for who they are. Most importantly, Brittney is a human being who bears God’s image. This is why we should continue to advocate for her and her wellbeing as we also care for other image-bearers who are still held hostage around the world. Thankfully, her ordeal in Russia is coming to an end.

We should celebrate this release as we pray that Brittney receives all the love and care she needs after what she experienced in Russia. But while we celebrate, more work needs to be done. When I first heard of Brittney’s detainment earlier this year, I was also introduced to the stories of others who have been wrongfully imprisoned abroad. As we speak countless families are still waiting for their loved ones to also return. One of those is Paul Whelan, an American businessman and former marine who has been imprisoned in Russia for the past four years now. My heart continues to break that he and so many others are still wrongfully imprisoned.

These families are suffering right now, and that should grieve us. As followers of Christ, we should be on the forefront in advocating for their safe return. When we read Scripture, we see a call for justice among countless biblical authors.

The prophet Micah famously calls out injustice, saying, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NRSV). The key word here is “do.” We must do justice. We should seek justice where any injustice exists. To quote another prophet, one who lambasted the Northern Kingdom for their mistreatment of other human beings, Amos spoke on behalf of God, saying, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

As Christians, we serve a God who created each of us to bear the image of God to the rest of creation. Genesis 1:27 teaches us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” All people bear the image of God, so if we want to respect God, we should respect other human beings God has deemed worthy of bearing God’s image, and we must advocate for our fellow image-bearers.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, a twentieth century martyr for the gospel, who was assassinated for speaking out against injustice in El Salvador, once stated, “The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God.” Those who are wrongfully imprisoned bear God’s image, and the injustice against them is also an injustice against God. Let us speak out against the desecration of God’s image found in those who are suffering.

As a body of believers who are preparing to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, let us be advocates for those who face injustice through wrongful imprisonment. Let us heed the words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We should imitate a Christ who came “to bring good news to the poor,” “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). We should imitate Christ in advocating for justice. We should imitate Christ by using our voices and platforms to plead with those in authority to do all they can to bring those imprisoned back into the loving arms of their families.

We all bear the image of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus. Who is a fellow image-bearer? Brittney Griner, who will fortunately return to her loved ones during this Advent season. Those still held captive are also image-bearers. They include Paul Whelan, Kai Li, Emad Shargi, Paul Rusesabagina, Morad Tahbaz, and so many others.

For more information on these families and so many others, and how you can support them, two good resources are the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and the Bring Our Families Home Campaign.

Let us as a church be their advocates. Let us celebrate and show all the love and support to Brittney and her family we possibly can. Let us also commit ourselves to seeing that others who are wrongfully imprisoned are also reunited with their loved ones. Let us live out the gospel by advocating for our fellow human beings who are hurting and are missing their loved ones this holiday season. And let this work continue so that “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Joshua Stewart is a CBF Leadership Scholar and is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary while working as a graduate assistant. He is also an active member at Seventh & James Baptist Church in Waco, TX

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