Forgiveness and Our Criminal Justice System
The Rev. Thomas R. English, Deacon
Joshua 5: 9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.
It was at the 2011 Interfaith Community Breakfast that it happened. The speaker was John Dominic Crossan, an Irish-American biblical scholar, often considered the foremost historical Jesus scholar today. As he approached the lectern he critically inspected the poster we had propped up against it: “Support the Charter for Compassion.” In his lilting Dublin brogue he began:
“Now I don’t want you to think I am against compassion. It’s truly a necessary and lovely thing. But it isn't enough! You must also do justice or you’ll be doing the same compassionate things until Jesus himself comes.”
That’s when I came to myself. Of course! Crossan had just articulated what my soul knew to be true. I have been working here at St. Mary’s taking Christ’s reconciling message to our jail and prisons for 13 years. But in spite of all my efforts at compassion, the justice system has become still more broken. It is not working for victims, it is not holding offenders accountable and it is making our communities less safe, and in a truly perverse way is starving the very things, like effective schools, women’s shelter services and community colleges, that prevent crime in the first place.
This morning’s rich and varied lessons challenge us to discern how the universal themes of freedom and responsibility, leaving and returning, exile and homecoming, offending and forgiving, estrangement and reconciliation, honor and shame, generosity and gracelessness, crime and justice, and jealousy and joy call us to repentance.
In Joshua, God “rolls away” the disgrace of Egypt---the shame of imprisonment, of slavery and the mocking of a people whose god had apparently abandoned them. In Psalm 32 we explore the psychology of forgiveness. And in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians we all called to be Ambassadors of Christ:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
We are now in mid-lent and it’s a relief to hear these messages of God’s radical forgiveness and reconciliation. But, because we are in Lent, I view them in the light of a repentance which requires more than just regret and contrition, but a thorough assessment of what God is calling me to do now. For some months, the alternate confession from Enriching our Worship used at our (this) 9:30 service has been weighing on my heart---especially in this phrase:
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
It’s from the perspective of “evil done on our behalf” that I want to explore our gospel parable of the Prodigal Son. The story, the longest of all parables in the gospels, is very film-like to me consisting of four scenes: (1) the negotiations of the younger son with his father and his subsequent departure to a foreign country where he squandered his property in dissolute living. In scene (2) he becomes impoverished… and in an epiphany, he comes to himself (15:11-19). Scene (3) is the homecoming and the joyous welcome by his father (15:20-24); and in the final scene (4) the interchange between the father and his older son raises the universal conflicts between estrangement and reconciliation and offending and forgiving. (15:25-32).
The parable is sparse and purposely so. In the negotiation what isn’t said is, perhaps, more important than what is said. Jesus invites us to speculate. Why on earth did the father agree to such a thing? The kid is telling him he’d prefer him dead. But maybe this father knows this son very well; maybe he knows he is so estranged by his self-centeredness that the son needs to get it out of his system…not exactly a gap year or a sabbatical, but more of a catharsis. And in his extravagance, the father grants the son’s wish. What did the community think?—his neighbors? It must have been the scandal and the gossip for months.
In the second scene the story becomes still more like a movie for me. Imagine the dissolute living scenes, the parties, the drinking, and the carousing.
And then crash! When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
Can’t you just see it? There he is, this Jewish kid, cold, hungry, dirty and smelling of pig dung, realizing what a colossal mistake he made.
But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' And he set out.
Again, we are invited to speculate. Did this son truly repent? Or did he just do the calculation? We aren’t told. Perhaps, on the long journey home he had time to realize that just being sorry would not be enough. Maybe he realized that to come home and live with Dad and brother, to look forward to a life of farming in a farming village, would take much more. It would take a complete 180 degree change. Maybe he had learned something. Maybe the time with the pigs and his introspection transformed him or started to---to bring him back to the place God called him to be.
In scene 3, we see the father on the front porch in the late afternoon, out of the heat of the day, watching the road. This had become his habit ever since his son left. He knew in his heart his son would return or at least he prayed he would. More than once he had seen the puff of dust in the distance turn into another farmer or an itinerant craftsman and disappointment. Today seemed no different, he was on the porch watching the road, it was getting late, probably no one would be traveling this late. Then he saw it—the puff of dust in the distance. He was afraid to hope. As the puff came closer he could see it wasn’t a cart, it was someone on foot. The dust cleared some and he could make out a figure, a man. He couldn’t see his features, but then he noticed his gait, the way he walked. He recognized that, it was him—his son! He was sure it was!
…(The father) ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
This loving father ran to greet the son. Running was not a usual practice for a dignified Palestinian father, the head of the household a prominent member of the community. Yet he ran and as the son was making his proposal, he cuts him off telling the servants to get the robe, the sandals and the ring—the symbols of being restored to the family.
In scene 4, the only dialogue in the parable rivets us.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Jesus leaves us there on the front step of the house, smoke coming out of the chimney and the fragrance of spit-roasted meat filling the air. It is in this final scene that God’s Justice and God Love come together to be God’s mercy. The father comes out and begs the elder son to come in. But he refuses and is indignant at the unfairness of the father’s justice:
“But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him
Then the father quietly turns it around:
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
It is in this exchange that I see the parable through the criminal justice lens. We have all the principal actors of every crime---the offender, the victim and wider law-abiding community.1 The father represents both the victim and someone who represents the demands of law and justice, the younger son is clearly the willful and harmful offender with the elder brother just as clearly depicting an industrious, law-abiding member of the household community who is outraged by the father’s leniency---read injustice.
We don’t know if the elder brother ever joins the party. Jesus doesn’t resolve it for us: he invites us to ask questions. Is the father’s radical joy at restoration of the younger son unjust? Is the elder brother’s outrage over the lack of punishment reasonable? Are love and justice, restoration and punishment mutually exclusive? If they are not, then what is the balance? Jesus doesn’t give answers, but does demand that we consider the questions.
I’m reminded again of what John Dominick Crossan said about the apparent conflict between love and justice in his book, The Greatest Prayer, “We speak of the human being,” Crossan said, “as composed of flesh and spirit or of body and soul. Combined they form the human person; separated, what’s left is a corpse. Think then of justice as the body of love, and love as the soul of justice. Think then of justice as the flesh of love, and love as the spirit of justice. Combined you have both, separated you have neither. Justice without love and love without justice is a moral corpse. That is why justice without love becomes brutal and why love without justice becomes banal.”2
As members of the Church and of a polity where citizens are sovereign, we are called not only to be compassionate to those who violate our laws but to seek a justice which truly protects our communities, restores victims and holds offenders accountable while not blunting their chance at reconciliation with brutality.
If you have been reading the papers or watching the news you know our (Lane) county, our state and our nation are in crisis of public policy about how to fix a criminal justice system that is broken, is not financially sustainable, and is woefully out of balance. Many Christian denominations, including ours, have passed resolutions giving voice to what some have called the scandal of mass incarceration, overrepresentation of minorities, the torture of solitary confinement and the death penalty, to name just a few.
It is tempting when faced with complex issues especially when they interlaced with strong emotions, to throw our hands up, and say, “That’s just the way it is; there’s nothing I can do” But if we do so we run the risk the sin of complicity in “the evil done on our behalf.”
I hope this Lent you will take the time to learn more. There is a resource guide for this Sunday—Criminal Justice Sunday--- available on the St. Mary’s and the Diocesan web-sites. And during the rest of March your are invited to participate in the city-wide collaboration on prisons, peace, and compassion linking art and public policy in creative ways that engage not only the head, but the heart also. There are over twenty events available most at no cost. You can consult the Dead Man Walking program on bulletin board outside the Guild Room for details.
1 See Chapter 7: “Offending, Restoration, and the Law-abiding Community” in Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime and Restorative Justice (2012). By Christophe: D. Marshall, Cascade Books: An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishes, Eugene, Oregon. Marshall provides a cogent argument from viewing the Parable of the Prodigal Son from the criminal justice perspective. Special thanks to Charlie Collier of Wipf and Stock publishers for making me aware of this resource.
2 THE GREATEST PRAYER: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer. By John Dominic Crossan. San Francisco: Harper One, 2010. 193 pages.