Friend of Sinners
Five years ago, I walked into my first prison in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Inside was a world very different from my own, yet inhabited with people strikingly similar to myself. I expected to feel hatred, fear, and disappointment towards those who had done such wrong to others, but, instead, found that I am also one of them.
Today I walk through the wings of the San Luis Obispo Juvenile Hall and find the same fascinating contradiction. Through intense rounds of Uno, basketball tournaments, and guitar lessons with the kids at the juvenile hall, I have gained an acute curiosity about my new friends who have been publically exiled, shamed, and disgraced from society, and I understand just a little bit more why Jesus was so intentional in his interactions with social outcasts.
The life and work of Jesus Christ exhibited love, compassion, and grace to those who were rejected and shamed by society. He was known to be a friend of sinners, and his life has encouraged me to do the same in my work within the criminal justice system–to befriend them, encourage them, and find them worthy of healing, rehabilitation, and forgiveness. However, I find myself working within a much different justice system. I have witnessed firsthand a deep contradiction of justice, grace, and forgiveness through the marginalization, incapacitation, and disenfranchisement of our nation’s criminals.
America boasts about being the land of the free, yet we imprison more people behind bars than any other country on Earth. Based on our current recidivism levels, which is the likelihood of a convicted criminal to reoffend, three out of our four prisoners are reincarcerated within five years of release (DuRose et al., 2014). The gospel message of Jesus Christ proclaims healing and redemption, yet our justice system fails to sufficiently invest in rehabilitative programs. It seems we have lost hope in rehabilitation, the power of grace, and the utility of forgiveness. The chains, locks, and barbed wires that decorate our correctional facilities are only a physical manifestation of mankind’s captivity to sin. Our human nature desires to be released from those chains, freed from sin and suffering—yet, our correctional system says otherwise. As an officer once said to me as we walked the halls of a solitary confinement wing, “There’s just nothing more we can do for these people here.” A fixation on guilt, punishment, and isolation fails to combat the root causes of criminal behavior.
Our current justice system operates under a theory of retributive justice, and the court asks the following three questions when a crime is committed:
- What law is broken?
- Who did it?
- What do they deserve?
Under these questions, the victim is not mentioned and their needs for healing and rehabilitation are not addressed. The state takes control over criminal proceedings and the community’s capacity to resolve crime and conflict on their own is weakened. Questions are fixated on the law, and not the person that was violated. These means of resolving crime, through incarceration and punishment, do not promote forgiveness or mediation between the parties.
By choosing routes of forgiveness and reconciliation, instead of guilt and punishment, the needs of both victims and offenders that are created by crime are addressed in a different manner. Recently, a restorative view of justice has gained increased publicity due to its effectiveness in reducing recidivism levels and promoting mediation and reconciliation between victim, offenders, and the broader community. Restorative Justice confronts crime by asking these three questions in order to achieve justice between the parties:
- Who has been hurt?
- What does he or she need?
- Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?
Immediately, these questions demand a more holistic analysis of the crime, recognizing all parties involved, and assigning duties of mediation and reconciliation. Under a restorative mindset, justice is no longer a decision left to the government, but is an intentional action of the community to work together to restore what was broken due to a crime. Restorative justice respects its victims and makes a rehabilitative investment in offenders, recognizing their need for forgiveness, release from shame, and access to services that aid in behavioral change.
Restorative justice, instead of retributive justice, empowers all of us to participate in reconciliation with each other. Many programs such as Victim-Offender Mediation, Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), and various in-custody vocational trainings strategically invest in restoring the lives of both victims and offenders. Prisoners are no longer viewed as social exiles, but are instead given second chances at obtaining a high school diploma, learning nonviolent communication skills, and are provided communication with their victims that promotes reconciliation and forgiveness. Many of these programs are demonstrating high levels of efficacy at reducing levels of recidivism. In one study, inmate participation in educational programs lowered their likelihood of recidivating by 43%, compared to the control group (Davis et al., 2013). The AVP workshops that are growing in popularity across our country’s correctional facilities have been found to help inmates effectively regulate emotions and conflict by promoting trust, empathy, and cooperation. A maximum security prison in Delaware found that their AVP participants had recidivism rates 39% lower than those who did not participate in the program (Miller & Shufford, 2005).3
Finally, the emphasis on forgiveness in a restorative justice system promotes the wellbeing of both parties. Victims who have forgiven their offenders have been found to show reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and rumination (Toussaint et al., 2015; Hourigan, 2016).[4, 5] Offenders who have been forgiven have also been found to integrate better into their community upon their release, and are less likely to recidivate (Hourigan, 2016; Hayes & Daley, 2003).5 6
While there is no way to replicate what is lost, killed, or destroyed by crime, forgiveness allows for a mutual agreement to be made between all stakeholders of the crime and paves the way for healing. By choosing personal forgiveness instead of mass incarceration, we demonstrate that the restoring of relationships, and not the punishment of offenders, is of greater value in the vicious cycle of crime. Through these efforts, we are able to rebuild the relationships and community that our hearts long for.
Interestingly, while restorative justice theories are relatively new to our criminal justice system, it is evident to me that the message weaved within is nothing new. When Christ died a criminal’s death on the cross, it marked the end of a reliance on a punitive and retributive justice system. No longer are we reliant on methods of punishment, life sentences, and capital punishment as attempts to restore justice, but rather the extension of forgiveness through Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Christ chose to use capital punishment as his means to reconcile humanity, he used the captivity and imprisonment of his apostles to further his gospel message across the nations, and even provided the foundation of true forgiveness and reconciliation for the restorative justice movements we see gaining popularity today. The life of Christ and the ways in which he interacted with the lowest of society—the woman at the well, the tax-collectors, and even those crucified beside him—provides a framework for how I, and others of the faith, are called to live today.
We gain a deep understanding of the restorative power of the gospel when we interact with those who are deemed by society as broken, unworthy, irredeemable, and unlovable. In chapter 25 of Matthew, Jesus said that the way in which we treat the least of these—the lame, the mentally ill, the incarcerated— is the way we treat him. My encouragement to readers is to consider the ways in which our justice system views our criminals and to believe that they are worthy of rehabilitative investment. Christians believe that nobody is beyond redemption, and Romans chapter 5 proclaims that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Thus, not even our country’s most despised criminals are outside the reach of Christ’s grace and forgiveness. Do we really believe that?
Though media and society tells us to be afraid, angry, or vindictive to those who have committed crimes, the gospel of Christ calls us to be their friends. We no longer need to feel anger or revenge toward an offender, for we can be assured that God is an upholder of true Justice. He was known to be a friend of sinners, and his life has encouraged me to do the same in my work within the criminal justice system–to befriend them, encourage them, and find them worthy of healing, rehabilitation, and forgiveness. Instead, our job is to forgive, to recognize that they are sinners just like us, and provide them the means and resources necessary to restore the brokenness and pain in their lives. The inmate longs for physical, emotional, and spiritual freedom from the chains of sin. All praise be to Christ, the true friend of sinners, who has granted that freedom to us all.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21, English Standard Version)
- DuRose, M., Cooper, A., & Snyder, H. (2014, April). Recidivism of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010. In U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved March 1, 2017.
- Davis, L . M ., B ozik, R ., S teele, J . L ., S aunders, J ., & M iles, J . N . (2013). E valuating t he e ffectiveness o f c orrectional e ducation. I n R AND Corporation. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
- Miller, M. L., & Shuford, J. A. (2005). The alternatives to violence project in D elaware: A three-year cumulative recidivism study. In Alternatives to Violence Project Antelope Valley. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
- Toussaint, L. L., Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Williams, D. (Eds.). (2015). Forgiveness a nd health:Scientific e vidence a nd t heories r elating f orgiveness to better health. New York, NY: Springer.
- Hourigan, K. L. (2016). Homicide survivors’ definitions of forgiveness: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal orientations. Violence and victims, 31(5), 869-887.
- Hayes, H., & Daly, K. (2003). Youth justice conferencing and reoffending. Justice quarterly, 20(4), 725-764.
- Toews, B. (2006). Restorative justice for people in prison (p. 17, 21). Intercourse, PA: Good Books.