Monday, November 29, 2010

Ye Visited Me Not

The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.
Søren Kierkegaard

This quote has been on my mind a lot lately as I've come to understand that being a follower of Christ requires a lot. He gave His all for us, and we must give our all for Him. Turning the other cheek is hard. Loving those who harm people is a huge challenge.

Lately, I've been trying to focus on the knowledge that everyone I meet is created in the image of God. One scripture that I keep in the forefront of my mind is in the book of Matthew, chapter 25. I normally focus on verses 31-40. Christ is prophesying His second coming, and He starts out by saying that when He returns, He will divide his followers from those who do not follow Him. His followers are welcomed into His presence because when they cared for the sick and the poor, they were caring for Him. However, I was stung by the rebuke contained in the verses that followed.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels . . . I was . . . in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee . . . in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
Matthew 25:41-45 (emphasis added)

I've never had a problem with feeding and clothing the poor or visiting the sick and lonely. But I have been negligent in the command to visit those in prison. I always considered those in prison to be somebody else's problem. Out of sight, out of mind, plus, they deserve to be there - they're criminals.

In June, I signed up to intern with the Northern California Innocence Project. NCIP works to secure the release of the wrongfully incarcerated. I have found the work to be extremely rewarding, and for a while, I felt like I was fulfilling the command to visit Christ in prison. It was easy for me to feel compassion for the innocent people who are stuck in prison, because they don't deserve to be there. The hard work came this semester when I took a seminar on the prison system. This is where I began to understand the need to feel compassion for the guilty who are in prison.

There are two competing purposes proposed for the criminal justice system: rehabilitation and retribution. [1] Those who subscribe to the rehabilitative model believe that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to reform criminals. Those who subscribe to the retributive model believe that the purpose is to punish criminals. The rehabilitative model lends itself to sentences such as "10 to 20 years", whereby if the criminal has made appropriate progress after 10 years, s/he may be released on parole, but if s/he hasn't made appropriate progress, s/he must remain in prison. The retributive model lends itself to sentences such as "15 years", whereby at the end of the 15 years, the criminal has paid his/her debt to society and is free to go.

Most of my classmates in the seminar seem to favor the rehabilitative model. I don't, for two main reasons. The first one is practical. The system is so horribly broken that rehabilitation is almost impossible in prison. The second reason is ideological. I don't like the idea of the government having the discretion to decide whether someone's attitude has sufficiently changed. I believe in a presumption of liberty, i.e. that a person gets to be free until s/he breaks the rules, but that thoughts are irrelevant to whether or not someone can be free.

One day in class, we were discussing indeterminate sentencing (e.g. "10 to 20 years"), and I mentioned that I didn't believe in indeterminate sentencing. The room got silent, and you could have heard a pin drop. The professor asked me why. I said that I think it's unfair. I approach criminal justice from a retributivist standpoint, and I like the idea of a convicted person having a set term, serving it, being freed, and getting on with life.

He said that I made a good point and that most people think of retributivism as being harsh and angry, but that redemption is a big part of it. He also said that redemption is the central metaphor of Christianity, which many people tend to ignore or forget about. (Discussions of religion in class are not out of place; it's a Jesuit university.)

That really stuck with me. Redemption is the central message that Jesus Christ preached, lived, died for, and was raised from the dead for. I have always valued God's justice, but I needed to be reminded of God's mercy, even for the vilest of sinners. That one brief comment in a law school seminar was worth ten sermons at church.

I'm not a social worker, a doctor, a chaplain, or a lawyer. I don't have those skills with which to benefit my brothers and sisters in prison. I am, however, a writer and budding scholar. I am a human resources professional, and I spend my days at work explaining to managers why it's good for everyone if they treat their employees well. I may not be able to personally minister to the incarcerated, but I can use those same HR skills to convince prison guards to be a little kinder.

In the seminar, I have to produce a piece of writing about the prison system that is of publishable quality. I have decided to write about religious exercise in prison, focusing on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It has been a really hard paper for me to write. Although you may not be able to tell from the length of my blog posts, I really struggle with writing long pieces. It often seems so pointless to blather on and on when everything can be said in fewer words.

However, I've come to realize that this seminar paper can be my contribution to visiting those in prison. While I won't physically be there, if my words convince even one prison official to be more accommodating of a prisoner's religious practices, I will have made a difference.

[1] I'm giving an extremely simplified explanation because it's all that's necessary for this post to make sense. I'm also ignoring the utilitarian/retributive debate because it's not relevant for these purposes.

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