As a Christian, I follow Jesus of Nazareth. This incredible man spoke a gospel of deep love, preached radical hope, and turned people’s preconceived conceptions inside out and upside down. Sometimes, in today’s church, I find Jesus’ followers have lost sight of his message when they align themselves with a political movement that seeks to punish people for crimes, incarcerate and then label them for the rest of their lives, making it very difficult for them to return to society and live productive lives.
In Jesus’ day, a woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death. When he came upon a group ready to begin this task, what did he do? First, he told the crowd, “Let the one of you without sin, cast the first stone.” Then he told the woman, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:1-11)
Here we see Jesus reminding the crowd, who wants to judge and put the sinner to death, that none of them are without sin. Oh, yes. Jesus cuts to the quick. We, who may be so quick to condemn others, are far from perfect ourselves.
What else do we hear from Jesus? “Why do you try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye, while ignoring the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-4) No, our Christian scripture tells us, “All have sinned and fallen short.” (Romans 3:23). In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told the people, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
In Romans 12:19-21, the Apostle Paul tells us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” If you are student of the Bible, you must know that the role of the Christian is to love and forgive, not to judge and condemn.
Remember the man who asked Jesus how often we are to forgive and Jesus’s response? “70 times 7.” (Matthew 18:21-22) How many of us are able to meet this commandment? How many people have you forgiven 490 times? How does this square with the “three strikes and you’re out” approach to drug overdoses, or zero tolerance for those convicted of other crimes?
To be human involves being imperfect. Certainly, Christians and followers of other great religious traditions, and those who just seek to lead moral lives can do great things, demonstrate great love, and sometimes perfection. But life is a messy business, and I think all of us can appreciate permission to make mistakes and be redeemed.
Last Sunday, my pastor preached about grace. He told a story familiar to Christians of the vineyard owner, who paid all the workers the same amount at the end of the day, whether they came at 8 a.m. or 2 p.m. or 4 p.m. They all received a day’s wages. And, of course, the early birds were upset. (Matthew 20:1-16)
This reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told as well. The younger son goes off and squanders his inheritance and then the father welcomes him back with a feast and open arms. “How dare he?” complains the older brother. “That’s not fair to me who stayed and worked and did the right things all these years!” (Luke 15:11-32)
And yet, in both of these stories, again, Jesus tells us that God’s unconditional love welcomes us back, whether at 8 a.m. in our lives or at 5 minutes to midnight. To me, it’s very clear that those of us who pride ourselves on always doing the right thing should welcome others back into our good graces as well.
So my new book, Revelation at the Labyrinth, is a story of redemption for the abused and the abuser, for the killer and the victim, for the drug addict and alcoholic, and their adult children, for those who pollute the earth and those who suffer from the pollution. This is a story of redemption and healing. This is a story about good Christians who create a space of recovery for women re-entering society and trying to overcome lives of abuse and the sins of their past. This is a story about people starting over and finding wholeness and a better way of caring for not only the Earth, but themselves.
So much is broken in our society. My heart breaks with our War on Drugs which never found victory. Instead, the United States of America now boasts a higher incarceration rate than any other developed country. And more black people are in our prisons than were slaves before the Civil War. I believe we, as a country, made some very bad choices when we handled addiction as a crime, rather than a disease. We are now paying the price of burgeoning prisons, and I see a lot of scrambling among politicians as the opioid crisis confronts us today. Now, I see more effort to confront the disease of addiction head on.
I applaud the work of those seeking to help people re-enter society from prison and the communities of support within the recovery movement. There are so many good people fighting to give people a second chance, to give them the support they need to turn their lives around. This, I believe, is where Jesus would be if he walked with us today.
Here in Springfield, as I wrote this book, I visited Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I learned what a wonderful supportive community they share to help them heal and maintain sobriety, one day at a time. I visited an Alanon group as well, learning the path that family and friends take, as they deal with a loved one who suffers from the disease of addiction.
I became involved with the Safe Harbor House, a re-entry, recovery treatment program for women. I mentored one woman and learned how challenging the lives of these women can be. Most seek healing from lives of abuse, along with healing from their addictions and overcoming barriers to re-entering society with criminal records. It’s a messy business and a lot of work, both for the women seeking redemption and the caregivers and community that seek to build a program that works.
In my job, I often work with our Re-Entry folks, and regularly attend “Second Chance Thursday,” where various social service workers offer advice and resources available to those re-entering society. My expertise is fair housing and landlord-tenant information and referral. Unfortunately, finding housing is still very difficult for those with criminal records.
We have a long way to go to build a society where redemption happens. But there are many Christians and others involved in programs and approaches that lead to recovery and re-entry, as God offers redemption, always.
My hope is that my book will challenge us to join those in this work. My hope is that my book will challenge those who would throw the first stone, to consider the words of Jesus. My hope is that as a society, we will transform the way we deal with addicts and criminals, providing the possibilities of healing, re-entry and productive living.
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