In October 2006, 32-year-old Charlie Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten young girls, killing five of them. What makes this horrific incident stand out among all the ones that have taken place since – the Virginia Tech massacre, the Newtown shooting, and the Boston Marathon bombing, just to name a few – is the remarkable outpouring of forgiveness and kindness from the Amish community in response. Not only did several of the victims’ families attend Roberts’ funeral, but the first to greet Terri Roberts, Charlie’s mother, at the ceremony were the mother and father of two little girls who had died in the shooting.
For many of us, this reaction to personal tragedy seems utterly incomprehensible. No one in their right mind could possibly attend the funeral of their children’s murderer. Our society justifies anger and vengeance in the face of tragedy. We even glorify it. The Amish schoolhouse shooting captivated the media for months after the incident not because it followed the typical script of anger and despair but because it proclaimed a rarely told story of forgiveness and love.
If the Amish were so quick to forgive, why is the same idea so incomprehensible and foreign to us? We – the mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends of victims – demand just punishment for convicted felons, payment for crimes. We demand retribution. We demand severe punishment to prevent criminals from committing the same crime in the future, seeking justice not only for the victims we know but also for all of the potential victims to come. These demands lay the foundation for the American criminal justice system. As the country with the highest rate of incarceration by far and with nearly two out of every three convicts returning to prison within three years, however, it seems that there may be some flaws in our system.
While the American criminal justice system claims to balance rehabilitation and punishment for inmates, the evidence points instead to a system that rests more heavily on the punitive model. You commit a crime, you go to prison, you serve your time, and you get out. If you’re lucky, you might receive some education or technical skill training in prison, but with budget cuts, more likely than not you’ll just sit around in your cell day in and day out. When you’re released, you’ll have a criminal conviction stuck to your record that will make it difficult to find jobs, apply for loans, or do anything to help you climb out of the hole you dug yourself into when you got arrested. There is no forgiveness in a system that labels you a convict for the rest of your life. There is no forgiveness in a system that does not give you an opportunity to turn your life around. There is no forgiveness in a system where generation after generation of the same family joins the same gang in the same bad neighborhood and goes through prison like a rite of passage. The criminal justice system does not believe that people change. That’s why your criminal record follows you once you’re released from prison. They want your potential employers to know in big letters: “THIS APPLICANT WAS ONCE CONVICTED. IT COULD HAPPEN AGAIN.” “HE MESSED UP A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO. HE MIGHT DO IT AGAIN.” “SHE WAS IN PRISON LAST YEAR. SHE COULD GO BACK IN AGAIN.” The system doesn’t forgive and forget. Your past determines your future. Once a convict, always a convict.
Given what the criminal justice system tells us about crime and punishment, then, Christianity teaches incredible, unbelievable lessons. The Christian God doesn’t ask for penance for past deeds. When you declare your faith in Jesus Christ, you thank him for taking all of your sins on his shoulders when he died on the cross. He suffered so you don’t have to. When you declare your faith in Jesus Christ, he forgives you and wipes all of your history away. I guess, in legal terms, you could say that God expunges everything that shows up on a background check.
How then can a Christian advocate punishment that never ends and a criminal background that never fades? Matthew 18:21-34 tells the story of a servant (to avoid pronoun confusion, let’s just call him Steve) who begged his master to forgive him of a huge debt. When his master took pity on him and cancelled the debt, he rejoiced. As Steve walked into the street, however, he caught sight of another servant (let’s call him Jim) who owed him some money – a mere hundredth of what Steve had owed his master – and demanded that he pay up. While Steve refused to forgive Jim and berated and cursed him, one of the master’s men saw the situation and reported it back to him. In anger, the master summoned Steve and reinstated his debt, demanding that he be tortured until he is able to pay everything back.
This parable has often been used in Christian contexts to justify forgiving people who have personally done you a wrong. I, however, believe that the implications go much further than personal forgiveness and dictate the role Christians should play in the justice system. God offers second chances to those who desire them. Who are we to play God and deny that same redo button that we so freely received? When people honestly want to change and make something better of their lives, it doesn’t make sense to continue to hold them responsible for a mistake they made decades ago. Our honest intentions to protect society by incarcerating criminals become harmful when we prevent the reformed from returning to school or getting a job. Perhaps by refusing them a second chance, we force them into worse crimes that are even more detrimental to the community.
I’m not saying that we should do away with the prison system completely. There certainly are psychopathic murderers and sociopathic rapists who should be locked up and prevented from harming society. I just think that we should be less focused on making sure convicts pay for every bit of suffering they caused, and instead work to reform the current system that punishes you for the rest of your life for a stupid decision that you made years ago. In New York, with the lack of expungements and the adult criminal age set at sixteen, you can get in with the wrong crowd and screw up in high school and never be allowed to forget that mistake. That’s definitely not grace and definitely not forgiveness. But tell me this: is that even justice?
When the Pharisees dragged the adulterous woman before Jesus and demanded that he stone her to death, he said, “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Slowly, one by one, the entire crowd le. until only Jesus and the woman remained. When all were gone, he simply told her to go and sin no more. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher of the law, but he also believed that sometimes love and forgiveness were more important than strict legalism. He saw people as people, not as composites of their crimes. He saw her as a disgraced and ashamed woman, not as a filthy adulterer. He saw how fallen she was and how she yearned for something more and gave her a second chance. If Christians are called to be like Jesus, shouldn’t we do the same?
Tenth Avenue North, one of my favorite bands, sings:
You are more than the choices that you’ve made.
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes.
You are more than the problems you create.
You’ve been remade.
The Christian role in the criminal justice system should not be to advocate stricter drug possession laws or condemn those with past records. Those laws address the symptoms of excessive crime but not the root. Instead, Christians should facilitate rehabilitation programs, educational and vocational classes, mental health services in prison, and re-entry programs and career preparation after prison to address poverty and lack of education. Christians (or all people, really) should be showing people how to be remade instead of refusing to acknowledge that they will ever be different from what they are. Christians should live offering hope and second chances. Christians should stand at the foot of a murderer’s grave and sincerely say, “Rest in peace.”
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