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What I Learned in Prison: Resurrection

August 19, 2013

In my last two articles I discussed what I learned listening to prisoners in a Bible Study in South Africa’s Drakenstein Prison. One of the things that I think I have communicated clearly is that these men had a lot of good things to say. They may once have been dangerous men who you would want to keep your distance from but these days they are people I wish I could have spent more time with discussing the gospel. This fact is what I wish to discuss in this final article of the series.

When we think of prison ministry we think of a ministry to people who have nothing. Prisoners have no belongings and no control over their lives. If we were ministering to poor people or people who had survived a disaster but lost their material possessions we might say, “Yes, but they have good character/the right view on life/their family.” In the case of prisoners there seem to be no balancing virtues. Prisoners have no physical goods, their relationships tend to be broken or with awful people, we often expect them to be rather stupid (at least in the case of violent criminals), and their characters are, of course, atrocious. When we think about ministering to prisoners we think of a one-way transfer: we have, they do not. They will not teach us anything except perhaps to be grateful that we had better sense than to end up like them.

We (at least “we” in the sense of most evangelicals) have another category for certain people with criminal pasts – the preacher who used to run drugs for some seedy gang but turned to Jesus, the missionary who spent his youth stealing cars before he converted. The worse the crimes the better the story – one reason why the occasional con man makes up an unbelievably violent past to have turned from. We do not treat these reformed individuals the way we treat prisoners. Instead, we treat them like heroes. We may secretly wish we had some dark past to turn from so that we could love Jesus with such obvious effect on our lives.

Restorative justice, the sort of program that the prisoners I spoke with had just finished, is the bridge between these two sorts of people. A young man in South Africa turns to drink, then drugs, then stealing, and finally ends up killing someone. He’s an awful person who openly embraces the idol of his own unfettered power and who regards his imprisonment not as fitting punishment but as an insult to his god of self. Prison food is awful and he hears that there’s a crazy American running a group that gives out candy during its Bible Studies which it calls “Restorative Justice”. (I’m not making this up – I have a stack of letters from prisoners in front of me and the reasons they gave for joining my friend Andrew’s program rang from wanting candy to just being bored. Andrew says others come because they think it will make them better candidates for parole.) However, this Bible Study isn’t merely a passive reading of some texts and an admonition to love Jesus. Instead, prisoners are asked to confront themselves and the harm they have caused. One young man writes about being able to finally admit to his father that his father had been right all along about where this path would lead and how this began to restore their relationship. Another young man writes, “I have learnt that it’s not about how I feel about the whole thing but from now on start to have empathy for the ones I‘ve hurt by starting [to] deny myself and be patient to the victims as they pour out their heart and even with anger. So it’s not easy, like I’ve said but it takes a man and integrity to do this.” This particular prisoner notes that the victims he talked to (and listened to the anger of) were the family of his most direct victim – the man he killed. The goal of this process is to effect change. Andrew notes that the goal is not to help the victim (although it’s nice if that happens) but to change the prisoner. Given my own experiences I would say that it is quite successful. The awful people who come in are transformed into the sorts of converts every Bible study should be blessed to have.

However, I would like to go further. Restorative justice is an especially Christian form of justice. A prison sentence is merely punitive. Indeed, Andrew points out that many prisoners simply serve their time without ever doing anything close to admitting guilt or taking responsibility for their crimes. Punishment need not affect any change in the punished. Capital punishment, for instance, ends the capability for change and yet we still see it as punishment. Punishment is something we do for the victims. Restoration is something we do for the wicked.

This is the major reason people dislike restorative justice. These are bad people, why are we doing anything for them? Why not just throw them in a hole and lock away the key? Now, there are a number of good reasons why this isn’t very effective in the long run. (Indeed, South Africa’s crime problems are partly a result of an over-eagerness to imprison non-whites during apartheid and the problems this caused for the communities these people came from and returned to.) However, the central reason for a Christian to oppose this attitude is that it is simply the complete opposite of Christ’s own attitude. Christ did not see us as sinners who needed to be thrown into Hell and left there forever but as objects of mercy to be restored to our proper selves. If we refuse mercy on the grounds of justice we are denying Christ’s own actions towards us. We would literally be claiming that God was wrong.

This, of course, is part of the great offense of Christianity: we all like mercy when it comes to us but none of us really like mercy to be given to those we dislike. The idea of working hard to redeem someone who has threatened people with weapons, beaten people up, raped people, and perhaps capped it off with some murder is offensive. Can’t we just declare them sub-human, kill them, and be done with it? The reality is that we can’t. To do so is to claim righteousness for ourselves that would not come from God but from our own actions. To do so would be to deny the rot in our own hearts (or, conversely, accept that we deserve to be labeled as sub-human and destroyed).

To believe in Jesus is to believe in the Resurrection, not just of the dead body of Jesus but of Jesus’ people. We must believe that Jesus is about healing and restoring all those who are dead in their sins and not just those whose sins we find acceptable. Restorative justice is exactly what Jesus offers us.

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