Imagine you are prevented from working at a job you are qualified for because of your past. You meet all the qualifications and show yourself to be in the top 1% of applicants who has the skills to take the company to the next level.
Imagine you are told that in order to succeed you must finish school. So you complete an application for funding and an application to attend your city’s university only to be denied in both cases because your application reveals that you would not be a quality student.
Imagine you and your spouse, who has waited to marry you for seven years wants to move into the new subdivision on the Westside of town. Like a happy couple you visit a real estate agent and bank. You complete all the necessary paperwork, only to discover the subdivision does not welcome people like you.
Finally, I would have you imagine that you finally get the opportunity to shape the direction and future of where you grow up. You have great ideas and your hope rest in a man or woman who has the potential to benefit your hometown. So you stand in line to register to vote only to be told you will not be able to enjoy and exercise a constitutionally protected right.
Now imagine you are a felon.
You are a man or woman who has committed a crime against the state. Now you are on the outside. You have been released back into society and you are required to reintegrate yourself into that society and be a functioning and contributing individual. The laws and requirements though for felons create an environment in which reintegration can be extremely difficult. In areas of employment, education, educational funding, housing, and voting, restrictions are in place that hinders successful reintegration. These laws and requirements crafted in a nation with a “Christian” heritage reveal we are more retributive than restorative.
In the most recent data I could find by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 116,444 felons were under supervision between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009. What do the words of Jesus, “forgive our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” have to say to these men and women?
What we cannot do is overlook the sin of these men and women who have disrupted the peace of an individual, family or society. This has been done as some resist holding persons personally accountable for their actions. At the same time we cannot be a society that does not create space and opportunity for individuals to start over. We must examine our policies, legal systems and support systems to determine if we are only continuing the incarceration life on the outside of a prison wall.
If felons who have been released are expected to be contributors to their society what does that look like? Surely it involves finding employment thus creating a mechanism in which a residence can be purchased, any fines paid and the ability to live a life. Yet if there are systems in place by which the goal of becoming a healthy contributor to society is severely impeded, then what? Yes there are success stories. There are men and women who have been blessed by the goodwill of some organization or ministry. There are men and women who have had their case heard by governors and Presidents. But for the large number of men and women who may not have such an opportunity what about them?
What would our society look like if we became more about restoration than ongoing retribution? How can we be in a place where sin is punished, the victim is restored and the felon is transformed, no longer defined by his or her crime?
Sin is to be punished
An objective standard exist in our cities, states and nation that governs our lives. This standard or law is what keeps our societies from descending into chaos where the weak are trampled by the strong. When the law is broken, the peace of the society is broken and must be brought back into right standing. When men or women murder, commit burglary or commit some other type of crime that disturbs the peace of an individual, family or society, the law is meant to reestablish that peace. The law reminds us that we are to use what power we have in a manner that does not harm the peaceful environment of an individual or larger society. Therefore, the sin must be punished.
This is one hand on the body called justice. Justice comes in without prejudice and bribe. He takes the wrongdoer, placing him or her on one side of a scale and the law on the other side of the scale. In the end, justice reveals that the wrongdoer is not greater than the law and he or she is punished in a manner that is equitable to the sin committed. Yet there is another hand on the body of justice.
The Victim Restored
When peace is shattered, the pieces of a person or societies life have to be put together again. Think of Newton and the families who lost their precious children recently. Consider the young woman raped and left in her embarrassment and shame. Or consider the nation who suffers the loss of a leader through assassination. The victim-an individual, family, and society- has just experienced a very traumatizing event. Their life has been forever altered on multiple levels and the process of healing will be a slow and arduous journey. The process of healing will require an overpowering presence of grace in the lives people that will radically and incrementally restore them in a new reality. Therefore, the hope-and this is not always the case-is that the victim is no longer defined by the shattering event but is a picture grace in the presence of friends, family and the world.
The felon transformed
In my opinion, forgiveness is one of the most disturbing aspects of the Christian faith. It is disturbing because if we would be honest, we all belong in my first point as those who have sinned yet God forgives. Forgiveness is disturbing because it is a confession that what I have done will not be held against me nor impede my relationship with God. Forgiveness is a means to an end. He forgives with the intention to transform.
What do Jesus words of “forgive us our sins as we also have forgiven those who have sinned against us,” mean for felons as well as us? For the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are felons it means that we no longer regard them by the crime that they were tried, convicted and served time for. We are carrying out the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. We are demonstrating that we are a forgiven people who walk in forgiveness.
Some maybe saying, “What about the child molester? What about the violent rapist? Aren't some people beyond this?” As a husband, father and an organizational leader I have a responsibility to protect them. There are protections in place at various levels of our government that I believe we should take full advantage, demonstrating we are loving and protective stewards of people that God has placed in our hands. What I am wrestling with and what I hope that you will wrestle with as well is the reality that no human, regardless of crime, is outside of the transformative grace of God. So this does cost us.
It will cost us by giving up our bitterness to acknowledge that all men and women are made in the image of God. It will cost us by letting go of our hate, prejudice and stereotypes of such men and women, holding them accountable with the second chance they have been given in life. It will cost us by giving up power over such people as if we have the power to make their lives a living hell now.
Such forgiveness that is driven by the resurrection of Jesus Christ has the power to transform “felons” and “non felons” into a society where people will embrace each other. This is not just a physical embrace. It will be the embrace that removes employment and housing restrictions. It will be the embrace of educational institutions that desire to be diverse. It will be the embrace of a nation that will give back a person’s constitutional right to vote.
What does the kingdom of God look like? It resembles a rich man who came to a town and stole from men, women and children for seven years. At the end of those seven years, a judge heard of the problems, came to town, captured the rich man and ordered him thrown in the jail. At the end of seven more years, the man was released and upon his release, he was welcomed by those same men, women and children with clothing, shelter and a great meal. At the meal, the man in tears asked a young boy, “Why did you do this?” The young boy answered, “Because the judge forgave our families many years ago and so that is how we live to honor the judge.”
Federal Justice Statistics, 2009 - Statistical Tables http://bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2374 p. 31, 2011.