Faithlink Discussion: Imprisonment and Justice

by Jacob Juncker

There is quote that sticks out to me in this week’s Faithlink:

Our criminal justice system is rooted in the concept of retributive justice, which focuses on proportionate punishment for committing a crime.
 I often wonder, where is grace in our criminal justice system?  Why are we so willing to receive grace from God, but unwilling to show it to others: especially if they have wronged or harmed us.  I think Jesus had some rather radical ideas about “loving enemies” and “blessing those who curse you.”  But, we (and I include myself) would rather see people punished proportionally for their crime.  We would rather see “an eye for an eye,” rather than turning the other cheek.

I recently read a book entitled Reading the Bible with the Damned (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) by Bob Ekblad, a prison chaplain.  Ekblad reflects upon his experiences of reading Scripture with “outsiders.”

My hope [he writes] is that these reflections will help sensitize and form Christians for the specific task of communicating good news to people often submerged in the bad news of poverty, social marginalization, addictions to alcohol and drugs, criminal activites, oppression by the state, self-accusation, feelings of inadequacy, and other difficulties.  The “outsiders” I envision are first and foremost fellow human beings who perceive themselves as condemned to poverty or permanent exclusion, beyond repair, unable to change, in bondage–in short, “damned,” or as many I currently work with regularly say, “fucked up.”

One of the greatest barriers between mainstream Christians and people on the margins is that mainstream Christians often represent the dominant culture and do little to nothing to distinguish themselves from it…

Drawing closer to marginalized people requires, first, an attitude of humility… Descent into our suffering world may well involve the voluntary setting aside of privelege in the name of sensitve repect for the other.  Along the way, we must struggle with obstacles of social class, gender, and race, and of culture, such as domestication, isolationism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism…

For me, this descent into the suffering world has become my own life story…

As the years go by and I converse with hundreds of individuals convicted of every possible crime, I find my view of people becoming increasingly positive.  I am drawn to the anthropology…which views humans as made in God’s image and by nature very good.  While St. Symeon the New Theologian speaks of “the faithful” in the following quote, I believe this category can be broadened to include all the people with whom I minister:

We, the faithful, should look upon all the faithful as one single being, and should consider that Christ dwells in each of them.  We should have such love for each of them that we are willing to lay down our lives for [them].  Nor should we ever think or say that anyone is evil: we should look on everyone as good, as I have already said.  Even should you see someone overwhelmed by some passion, execrate, not him, but the passions that fight against him.  And if he is mastered by desires and prepossessions, have even greater compassion for him; for you too may be tempted, subject as you are to the same fluctuations of beguiling materiality.

 As I think about the incarcerated and the above excerpts from Ekblad’s book, I cannot help but think of a scene from the latest Batman movie (The Dark Knight).  Joker and the Batman are in the heat of a fight and Joker makes the remark, you know, Batman, there is no difference between you and me.  As I think about the incarcerated, I know deep down that there is no difference between “them” and me.

God help me, as I try to look past my privileged state to take the Gospel to those who need it most.  May they know, not my god, but the living God as found in Jesus Christ who was incarcerated himself, sentenced to capital punishment, died, and rose again that all (including those like me who might just be a little “F*@#ed up”) might have life abundant.