Many of you who follow this blog may not be aware that I am a leader in the faith community. As a matter of fact, it would surprise you to know that I am a conservative, Messianic leader who came from the evangelistic community in which I was raised. The reason that I believe this would surprise most of you is because of the strong opposition for sentencing reform and prison reform from the conservative and religious community and the stand for tough on crime policies. I am happy to report that there is growing support among religious communities for prison reform issues and conditions of confinement as well as strong support for sentencing reform measures and restorative justice. Our society condemns offenders for their life, even after they have concluded their extremely punitive sentences and returned to our communities. Their mistakes are held over their heads for all time and with every step forward, someone is there to quickly remind them of the brutality of their offenses. This goes against every moral and spiritual teaching that we, as leaders, bring forth to our fellowships and we must stand for change.
Organizations like National Religious Campaign Against Torture , Justice Fellowship, T'Ruah (Rabbinic Call For Human Rights) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, are taking a moral stand for victims, offenders and the restoration of communities. Not because of political policies, advocacy organizations or economic pressure but because it is the right thing to do. Because they believe and follow their moral and spiritual obligations. Because they believe in repentance and restoration. Here is a good example from the USCCB:
"In some ways, an approach to criminal justice that is inspired by a Catholic vision is a paradox. 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. We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God. Despite their very different claims on society, their lives and dignity should be protected and respected. We seek justice, not vengeance. We believe punishment must have clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law." AND "Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or reintegration of all into the community."
Our current justice and prison practices do nothing to bring healing and restoration to personal lives, families or communities. We are eager to condemn and discard those who offend us, have opposing views, harm us or frighten us. We have also abandoned the most basic of instruction concerning everyone in our charge, respect and responsibility for human life.
The question I am asked most often is, "What about eye for an eye? You cannot call yourself a Christian if you do not believe they (the offender) has to pay for their crime." This bible quotation has been misused for a long time. In order to understand the concept and the interpretation you must first understand Hebraic law and customs. It is also important to understand Torah and the original intention of G-d. Throughout the history of the followers of G-d, His people have been rebellious, evil, immoral and deceitful. Many times G-d sent messengers to His people to warn them of their evil ways and the consequences of their rebellion. All that G-d sought was repentance and for His people to turn from their wickedness back to Him. Did G-d discipline? YES! Did He instruct? YES! Did He condemn? YES! However, G-d's condemnation came harshly to those who sought to destroy His people, for those who repented of their evil ways and returned....G-d restored them to His community. The scripture that is quoted (in part) above continues with "But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
We are called to bring restoration to a lost and dying world. We are called to care for the poor, the widow and the fatherless. We are called to bring light and hope to the sinner and restoration to those who have fallen. We are called to bind up broken hearts and set captives free but the second greatest commandment is the most important. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. That does not mean only the neighbors we like or the ones who are nice to us...it means all of them. Our current juvenile justice policies, criminal justice policies, restorative justice policies and incarceration policies do not reflect our moral or spiritual values. They are full of hatred, condemnation, brutality and a strong disregard for human life, a life created by G-d, in His image, for His purposes.
Our preoccupation should be with the restoration or our brother, the reparation of harm and the strength and health of communities. This cannot be done with the strong arm of justice, the condemnation and isolation of offenders in sub-cultures of decay or with windowless buildings surrounded by razor wire. We must find a better way for we will be called to account for the treatment of our brothers and the health of our communities one day and we will have no answer and no excuse.
“Sympathy for prisoners is not the most common sentiment amongst the American public. People do not want to be seen as weak or soft on crime,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “In the Torah however, it clearly says that if someone asks for forgiveness three times and you don’t forgive them, then the onus is on you. In Judaism we believe in repentance and that punishments don’t go on forever.” from Companionship or Death a Solitary Watch article.
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