Prior’s Reflection 2019
Retribution, Rehabilitation, Reconciliation
You will notice a recurring theme in the prayers at this year’s AGM, of justice and righteousness. This is my particular take on what our faith might mean for us personally, in our response to justices and injustices in our everyday lives.
Turn your minds to some of the images we see on the news every day; of terrorist attacks and mass shootings, particularly overseas but sometimes on our own shores. Headlines of criminals shot down by police in the middle of a violent act, when inevitably the public response is that “justice has been done”. Well, clearly the person had to be stopped; but did the police have to shoot to kill? Was any attempt made to take them alive? Is justice better served in a morgue or in a court room?
Think also of images from the United States, of relatives of murder victims witnessing their murderers’ executions on death row. Ask them why they watch and they tell you “to get closure and a sense of justice being done”. Is that really what the murderer deserves? What about rehabilitation, the chance to pay for their crime through service to the community? The chance of reconciliation with God? I wonder who is most truly at peace; a victim who takes revenge, or a victim who forgives? Is revenge ever really justice? An eye for an eye? Have we really, in all our centuries of faith and generations of evolution, come no further than that?
I have said many times before that I don’t believe in the death penalty for anything. Ever. Life is not ours to take, and it is not for us to say that a life is not worth living. There is no corner of the darkest place, and no corner of the coldest heart that God cannot reach in his infinite mercy. The dictionary definition of justice is “the quality of being fair and reasonable”. Is it fair to deny a sinner the chance of knowing that mercy upon which we ourselves so completely depend? Is it reasonable to kill a man when we can re-educate and rehabilitate instead? Of course, God will find him in the next life if we abandon him in this one – but aren’t we supposed to follow Christ’s example? As Christians, how do we justify such a lack of compassion that we see no possible potential in the soul of another of God’s children?
One of my favourite places to visit is Morton Church in Dorset where there is a famous stained glass window. Commissioned after the second world war, it depicts Judas hanging from the tree after betraying Jesus. As he dies, the thirty pieces of silver drop from his purse to the ground where, in a ray of crystal sunlight, they turn into flowers. Pure unadulterated forgiveness, a sinner redeemed. Personally I have always felt that Judas had a raw deal in the story of Jesus. He played a role as crucial to the life, death and resurrection of Christ as any of the other characters in the Gospels, and yet for his part instead of sainthood he was consigned to hell. Really?
How many of us read the Creed as part of our church services? Have you noticed the difference between the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed? The Nicene Creed tells us that Christ “suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven”. But the Apostles Creed tells us “he was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into Hell. On the third day he rose again and ascended into heaven”. Notice those extra few words, he descended into hell. I have also seen it written as “he descended to the dead”. I have always believed that on that day, before Jesus broke the bonds of death and returned to his Father, he went to find Judas, his former friend and the ultimate sinner, who took his own life when he finally understood the enormity of what he had done.
No sin beyond redemption. No soul left behind. If that was the Lord’s idea of justice, of fairness, of the right thing to do, then that’s good enough for me.
At this point I will probably outrage all those among you who have had proper theological training with my rather abstract ideas about hell and punishment, but hey, that’s the nature of the Priory, we all get to share our thoughts however untrained we might be, so bear with me!
I know we see all sorts of references to hell and eternal punishment in the Bible, even in the New Testament, but I have always worried about those passages. I wonder if it is simply a question of translation? Rather than punishment, I prefer the word “correction” - for example when prisons are referred to as “correctional institutions”. Take the consequences of your actions? Yes, absolutely, I have never sought to argue that to forgive someone means their crimes don’t matter, or that they can walk away from them scot free. But when you smack a child for running into the road, you are not punishing them but correcting them. You are not angry with them, just worried about them.
When we use the word eternal, in the English language it implies a time that is longer than normal; stretching into the future. But I have seen other translations that suggest eternity is a time that is simply “different” rather than “longer”. Imagine if it was wider, so as to accommodate more things at the same time because they can fit side by side. Separate dimensions if you like. It’s a hard concept to understand, but look again at the phrase eternal punishment in that context and suddenly we see someone not in the unending torment of hell, but simply being taken out of time, out of our earthly dimension, to be lovingly corrected by God in His way, and His time. That phrase again - No soul left behind. Every lost sheep eventually found and bought back to the fold by the Good Shepherd.
Let’s pick up that reference again, of prisons as correctional institutions. When people go to prison for their crimes we often speak of them being brought to justice. Let’s pick up that reference again, of prisons as correctional institutions. When people go to prison for their crimes we often speak of them being brought to justice. But what is it that we want that prison sentence to achieve? Punishment - or rehabilitation? Deprivation of freedom - or the protection of society?
I hope, I really do, that if someone committed a serious crime against me or my family, that I would be able to find it in myself to forgive them. I am quite sure that I would want to see them go to prison, if only to stop them doing it again. But for me it is less about punishment than the hope that it will make them reflect on their life and make a different choice. Or if they are ill, that they can be cured. If they are poorly-educated, that they can be taught. That God will reach them, and one day they can leave prison for a completely different life in the community.
I’m going to tell you about a chap I met at church several years ago. I’ll call him Paul, but that’s not his real name. I had volunteered to help with a church project but when I arrived I was told “I’m afraid the only other volunteer is Paul - do you mind?” as if there was a problem. I didn’t understand - I knew Paul, and you couldn’t hope to meet a nicer chap. Devoted to his faith and a regular volunteer in several ways. But I eventually found out his membership of the church had been hugely controversial. Shortly after joining it was discovered that he had just left prison for his involvement in an incident that cost the lives of several people. He had turned to that particular church because the minister there used to be a chaplain at the prison where he served his sentence.
The congregation was shocked. Several long-standing members left. Most just kept an uneasy silence, hence the question to me: “It’s Paul - do you mind?” But what kind of question is that? Do you mind if a sinner comes to church? If that was Jesus he’d have gathered up the gang and gone round to his place for dinner!
And I wonder, what would we do, if we were confronted with someone who had committed a serious crime? If they had been released on parole, say, after serving half their sentence? It has happened to me occasionally when volunteering; do we take them on or don’t we? How long does what they’ve done continue to matter?
What would our view be if they wanted to join our church, or even our Priory? If they said they had found God and been forgiven, would that be good enough for us, would we accept them with open arms? Or would we complain about how short the sentences are these days, and avoid them for fear of putting ourselves at risk? I would like us to think about this a bit more, particularly in relation to what we would do if someone applied to join the Priory. Do we protect our reputation from association with someone who is known to have been a criminal? Jesus didn’t! Or do we do as Jesus did and embrace people into our midst who want to be forgiven and who trust in Christ for their deliverance? Essentially, after all, isn’t that why we’re all here? Who are we to exclude someone if they are loved and forgiven by Christ?
Do we want to be the people condemning someone to life without forgiveness? Do we want to be the people in the viewing gallery at the execution chamber, exacting a revenge which takes away any hope of redemption in this world and relegates them to their chances in the next? Is there a more bitter revenge?
To take one life in return for another is not, cannot be, justice. Yes there will be times when it’s inevitable, when there is no other way to stop the actions of another person, and I do make room for the possibility that in some situations it is not the worst outcome that might prevail. In some situations of war, for example. But when I speak to people who have fought in a war I always find them full of regret. Proud, yes, of having stepped up to the plate and done their duty, and rightly so; but profoundly regretful about the things that duty called upon them to do.
In taking a person down we remove from them the chance to repent; we take from them the chance to accept Christ; we take from them the very thing we count on the most. And we rob them of the potential to ever be defined by anything except their worst deeds. We send them away and rely on God instead, to save them through that eternal correction. Time and time again we send the grieving Shepherd out into the wilderness to recover his lost sheep, because we have cast it away. That is simply not ours to do.
In Relevation chapter 5, when John beholds the conquering Christ, the Lion of Judah, the only one who can save the world, what he sees is a lamb. The point being made is that Christ conquered evil not by aggression or by asserting his own rights over others, but by submission to his Father’s will. And there is our example.
Justice. Peace. Reconciliation. Rehabilitation. These words should complement each other, not contradict each other. Only through the Christian Gospel do we see the concept of justice become a decent, aspirational quality, rather than a punishment.
Let us proclaim that hope and that opportunity, for everyone who needs it.