As we begin a new year, many of us will dream of new beginnings and second chances. We may take another shot at last year’s failed resolution. We may commit to finally get some aspect of our life in order. We may even seek out someone we have hurt so that we can repent, seek forgiveness and try to begin writing a new chapter in the story of our relationship. These are all good impulses as themes of redemption, restoration, forgiveness and second chances are key to almost every faith tradition in the world.
With that in mind, I think it time that people of faith take a stand for criminal justice and sentencing reform. It’s time for us to proclaim again that we believe true repentance should lead to forgiveness of sins, that restoration is God’s will for all people, and that to act as though anyone is beyond the reach of redemption is to belittle the power of God. It is time for us to make our justice system reflect those core beliefs.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commanded a year of Jubilee – a time when all debts would be forgiven because no debt should hold people in chains forever. However, we send some people in our society to prison for what amounts to the crime of being poor. In Illinois we can charge them for being incarcerated and send them back for failing to pay. And some of our prisons, particularly for-profit institutions, are little better than slave-labor, with inmates “paying off their debt to society” by working for pennies on the dollar to enrich corporations. Poverty should be neither a cause nor a tool for keeping people imprisoned.
But the problems of our system run deeper than that. Issues of injustice are intertwined with racism, compounded by a delight in punishment rather than rehabilitation, and cemented with a lack of faith in the inherent value of every human being and God’s will to redeem each one.
In the Christian tradition, our stories of redemption all begin with the story of one who was falsely accused and harshly punished for something he did not do. When Christ died on the cross, God said a resounding “No” to that form of judgment masquerading as justice and punishment that did not fit the offense. God’s ‘no’ shook the earth, darkened the sun, and broke open the graves so all would know that such actions were not acceptable any longer, and yet our system still resemble that one in too many ways. Those who, like Christ, challenge the system, come from an oppressed people, or do not have the proper means to mount a defense still face long odds against accusations and stiff penalties for their offenses.
Broken criminal justice systems are nothing new in the world, but faith communities have pushed back against them for millennia. In our present day, we have not done enough to tell the story of salvation – literally meaning wholeness – to the broken systems of hopelessness and poverty and systemic racism that have led to our having more people incarcerated per capita than any country in the world. If we can set a resolution in this new year, may it be to believe again in redemption, to proclaim the power of restorative justice, and to work to heal lives broken by systems of oppression. If our faith can lead us in that direction, our criminal justice system can be reformed and our communities restored to health and wholeness. Such a resolution would be a measure of faithfulness worthy of our traditions.