November 11, 2018
I have been reading reviews of a new documentary film, made here, in Vermont, about the challenges facing those who are released from prison after ‘paying their debt to society’. I don’t know if I will get to see it or not; but the story it tells is only too familiar to those in the helping professions – including Priesthood.
If you go to jail after committing a crime, you find yourself in a universe where all the laws that govern normal society are abrogated. Only the rules of the prison and only the unofficial ‘rules’ of the resident population obtain. And the fundamental rule in both of those sectors is ‘shut up and do what you’re told’. ‘Three hots and cot’, whatever health-care is contracted, whatever educational and counseling possibilities the state will pay for and a disciplinary system imposed with draconian severity: these are the daily life of the incarcerated. And then comes release.
There is very little ‘honor among thieves’. So, while you were in jail your former ‘friends’ moved on to new endeavors. Your former employer has hired a replacement, there are all kinds of continued limits on your activities and the requirements of parole may not allow for much regular work anyway. Worst of all, your family may have moved on to other loyalties, affections and places. You are largely alone; you are an identified felon.
In discussing forgiveness, it is possible (I knew this all along) to forget about ‘doing the time for the crime’. And if that were all the story to be told about a criminal, or just a garden variety mis-doer, I would not feel so compelled to natter on about forgiveness. But everyone has a different version of justice – about what a malefactor deserves as punishment – and deterrence – what one who is tempted must pay for giving in or being weak. And so, the prescriptions of the law may seem too easy to some and the likelihood of reform in a prison atmosphere too slim, and the malleability of human character utterly beyond imagining. So, the old Latin saw continues in force semel malus, semper malus – once a bad man, always a bad man.
So, here’s the thing: In a society that does not value forgiveness, there is no such thing as justice! There is no end to punishment! There is no hope for the wrongdoer! And every one is judge, jury and executioner! No one talks about the rights of parolees or the repentant! And this is true of legal infractions, and moral sins and merely cultural contraventions.
The Apostle James says very clearly the wrath of man worketh not the justice of God; and Jesus is very clear that the measure you use on others will be used on you. Even if we disbelieve the former, how many of us could endure the latter? And how, more tellingly, perhaps, would you like to see your own son or daughter treated.
The apologists for ‘justice’ and ‘punishment’ and ‘deterrence’ are all hypocrites unless they are equally vocal in their espousal of the cause of forgiveness.
Really and truly and unforgivably yours,