This month’s Front Porch Friday came out of an unexpected invitation and my response to a knocking on my heart’s front door. The title comes from Micah 8 – where God is responding to the disobedience of Israel. He calls them to a change of heart. Without their change of heart, conformity to the law (sacrificial offerings) was simply hypocritical. How do you respond to God changing your heart?
A few weeks ago, I posted a video for my Media Monday about a thief and how he was let off the hook OR you could say it was about a boy who made a poor choice for a good reason. The interpretation is what made the difference in the outcome. As a follower of Christ, how do we interpret justice and mercy? How do we determine the greater good when we have a conflict between two ethical values like justice and mercy? On one hand, we want to see justice provided so that we feel safe and protected from those who break the law. On the other hand, we are a communal people called to share in the suffering of others and to respond in action. Both sides can be argued; both sides can also be right. Therefore, our response is where change lies.
Justice is defined as “To be fair. Punishment to whom has allegedly done something wrong.”
Mercy refers to “our actions in response to another’s need: to offer help, cancel debt, or not hold accountable.”
God works through us as we respond to those needs. How are we living out the words in Matthew 25?
35: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” …40: And the king will say to them in reply “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
My prayer after Holy Communion include, “ Lord, let your body and blood join with mine as you transform me.” Transformation, the same words used throughout Lent. Words where my acts of penance, almsgiving, and prayer change the way my eyes see, my ears hear and my heart feels. But when He calls, do I respond “Here I am, Lord?”
The Pastor at our church has been involved in prison ministry for many years. I listen as he tells us stories with excitement and compassion. I cannot relate. I want to, but I can’t. It’s simply not something I generally think about. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. To be more accurate, my very casual response is, “If you commit the crime, you do the time”. Of course, I don’t say that out loud, but I guess that’s how you would describe my heart. I say casual because I’m not sure that I’ve given this a whole lot of thought. It’s not something that has touched my life personally, so it’s not something that I’ve had a whole lot of time to think about. So imagine my surprise when my Pastor turns to me one day and says, “You should really consider participating in prison ministry”. WHAT? I’m not feeling that “Here I am, Lord” response! Little did I know how that comment would follow me and wrestle with my heart.
Recently he wrote a story about an inmate he visits and shared it with our parish. I enjoy reading his homilies or letters as he skillfully crafts his words around scripture and keeps me amused with his kindred “dry humor”! This one was no different, that is, until the end. Allow me to share a little piece of it with you.
“While I was getting ready to leave, Christian asked me something: “Could you ask the people in your parish to please pray for me?” Christian has no family nearby. He has a child that he has no contact with. He gets no letters, no visits, no contact at all outside of the walls and fences of that facility that is now his home.”
Let me pause here (I know I just got started). At this point, perhaps your thoughts sound something like mine. “Now wait a minute, isn’t the point of punishment to pay the penalty for the crime you committed? Isn’t the point of incarceration to have plenty of time thinking about the wrong you’ve done and the suffering you inflicted? My response is not unlike others, I wasn’t wishing anyone harm here, but justice was served……………..wasn’t it?
I was really struggling to “feel” what came so naturally to our Pastor. Ok, now to continue with his story…
“And so I ask you to pray for Christian, and for all men and women who are incarcerated. It is very easy to forget about them or to just write them off because “they got what they deserve.” Can you imagine if we all got what we deserved all the time?”
BOOM! There it was. He got me. My prayers keep asking God to change my heart to see like Him, to hear like Him, and to love like Him – to transform me, but am I listening to His response to my prayers? God found an open place in my heart and used His servant to reach in and touch that hardened place. “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Sam 3:8) The lesson was about my responsibility to not forget them and write them off. Our Catholic social teaching tells us that human dignity is not something we earn by our good behavior, it is something we have as children of God.
“If mercy is dispensed to the merciful, then it’s not really mercy.”
My Media Monday video sends a powerful message about how our response can change the outcome of another’s life. It reminds me that to throw away the key and forget those who are incarcerated is to miss the opportunity to transform a life and be God’s hands and feet.
We read in the Old Testament, that throughout salvation history, God never abandoned his people despite their sins. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t punishment for turning away from God and His commands, but that God’s promise to never forsake them was conditional upon their obedience. Even in exile, where God’s people suffered from their disobedience, God told them He would always be there among them. Then, as today, there will be some who will turn away from God and those who will show contrition and acknowledge their sin, and God allows them to re-enter into His covenant.
I found this document by the Catholic Bishops – Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration – A Catholic Perspective on Criminal Justice to be very helpful in my understanding of what our approach towards mercy should look like.
“We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that threatens lives and violates the rights of others. We believe in responsibility, accountability, and legitimate punishment. Those who harm others or damage property must be held accountable for the hurt they have caused. The community has a right to establish and enforce laws to protect people and to advance the common good. At the same time, a Catholic approach does not give up on those who violate these laws. Both victims and offenders are children of God. We seek justice, not vengeance. We believe punishment must have clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law.”
From the same document, I found the following statistics and facts insightful:
- Research shows that 2.2 million people are incarcerated. 95% will eventually be released. Justice without compassion doesn’t rehabilitate. It doesn’t equip people with the tools and motivation to thrive after prison.
- Children with incarcerated parents are the invisible victims of crime. There is no solace for them when justice is served.
- Not all prisoners are murderers and rapists. The greatest percentage of crimes are by those who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol followed by mental illness, financial, or immigration.
When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?
How can our society have a return to morals and God’s teachings if we aren’t there to share the Good News and give people the opportunity to turn back towards God? The turning away from morals and God’s teachings has created a disintegration of the family and leaves a huge impact on our communities. So how can we protect and rebuild communities, confront crime without vengeance, and defend life without taking it? The Catholic Bishop document offers these suggestions:
- The Catholic approach begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender.
- We cannot simply give up on those who break the law.
- Healing happens sooner and with lasting results when spiritual ministry is introduced. This is significant in rebuilding lives and changing behavior.
The Catholic bishops believe that recognizing that the root causes and personal choices can both be factors in crime by understanding the need for responsibility on the part of the offender and an opportunity for their rehabilitation; restorative justice that seeks to address crime in terms of the harm done to victims and communities; not simply as a violation of law. Punishment must have a constructive and redemptive purpose.
“Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment, and of the ill-treated as of yourselves, for you also are in the body.” Hebrews 13:3
Back to my earlier question, wasn’t justice served? Well, yes because the offender is being held accountable for their crime, but their story isn’t over. If they are to re-enter the fold, God needs us to respond and support them. God needs us to Act Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly With Our God. And so I ask you to pray for Christian, and for all men and women who are incarcerated. It is very easy to forget about them or to just write them off because “they got what they deserve.” Can you imagine if we all got what we deserved all the time?
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-13
To conclude, during a recent retreat I was on, I was late to the end of day session where outreach projects are worked on. Upon my late arrival, all the tables were filled except one in the back of the room. I proceeded to the back where one or two women were writing letters……….for an upcoming prison retreat. My response? “Here I am Lord!” This month’s Front Porch Friday outreach are letters written to my incarcerated brothers and sisters. A changed heart, indeed.
Sowing Sunday living in a weekday world.
I hope you enjoyed your visit here today. If you did, please share your thoughts in the comments below or share on social media using the hashtag #gardenerstouch.