A few weeks ago, I finished a book at the behest of a friend. He had been bothering me to read it for about a year, but non-fiction is hard for me, ya’ll. But I finally picked it up at the library.
I devoured it.
I think it took me three days. And that’s with a 9-year-old in the house who only gets 30 minutes of screen time a day on school days. Three days is how moms devour books.
It was eye-opening, heart crushing, well thought-out, and depressing.
Alexander uses lots of data and studies to show that there is racism at work at every point in the justice system. Surveillance. Stopping and Frisking. Arrests. Sentencing. Parole.
That is a very very short soundbyte of it, but I’ll just reassure you that she makes a convincing argument. The reason the book is titled after the old Jim Crow laws is that she asserts that the War on Drugs (and mandatory drug sentencing laws) have created a new class of citizen, overly-represented by people of color, who are invisible at best and poorly mistreated at worst. They cannot vote; they can be discriminated against in jobs and housing; they can not get government assistance (which is strange, since it’s very very very difficult for them to find jobs).
Criminals. Felons. Ex-cons.
When I read that criminals were some of the most vulnerable people in society because they have so many basic rights stripped away, that they deserve better, it shocked me. Alexander points out that, because they can’t vote and it’s political suicide to “care” about them, criminals really are voiceless in the US. If I was a SIMs character, there would have been an exclamation point over my head.
Is she really arguing that criminals need better care? Is she really demanding justice for ex-cons?
And then I sat with it for a few days. I let it roll around in my head while I considered and wondered and prayed.
Finally, God poked me in the eye and reminded me that these marginalized people are precisely who Jesus loved best.
Enveloped in a throng of people, Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus, a tax-collector and a swindler. “I choose you, Zacchaeus! Let me be with you.” In a crowd of righteous people, Jesus chose the one with the rap sheet, which was a wildly unpopular thing to do.
Some of his last words, his final offers of grace while in the flesh, were whispered to a criminal hanging beside Him on the cross, someone who deserved death for whatever crime they had committed. Jesus was there with him as he died. That criminal was important to Jesus.
Jesus would not have looked at a felon and seen his crime. Jesus would have looked at a felon and seen his heart.
Here is the truth- God doesn’t care whether you told a white lie to get out of trouble at work or you murdered someone. We all fall short. We are all broken. We all need grace, whether we need a little or a lot. It doesn’t always seem fair to our human eyes, just like the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) didn’t understand.
Lest you scoff at the idea that felons and ex-cons need people to walk along beside them, Alex and I are seeing it first hand. A new friend is on parole. He’s trying to get his parole transferred to a different state because he has a support system there and a job offer. However, before he can be transferred, he has to be paid up on all his parole fees. Before he can be paid up on all his parole fees, he has to find a job (with a record, which is crazy difficult). Before he can take just any job (because he would), he has to make sure that the job will let him off to go to the required classes and parole visits (that are accruing the above fees). Finding an entry level job that will also allow you a flexible schedule is also near impossible, even if you don’t have a record following you around.
And around and around he goes.
Jesus loved the criminals.
Recent racially charged events involving police officers have my facebook feed all riled up. I’ve seen alot of responses that, in so many words, are basically saying the victims deserved death.
They were criminals! He sold unlicensed cigarettes! He robbed a convenient store! He smoked marijuana!
When we look at people and we only see their rap sheet, we are not seeing them through the eyes of God. We are not remembering our own brokenness. We do not have compassion.
When we argue that someone’s death was justified because of their crimes, well, let’s just hope that God loosens up about that “forgive us as we forgive others” talk in the Lord’s prayer, because heaven knows that I don’t deserve forgiveness or a relationship with God based on my own merit.
Isn’t that kind of the point? Didn’t Jesus come precisely because we all deserve death and He said, “I’ll take care of it”? He didn’t look at our character and our scruples before determining whether we deserve grace or not. He offered it, freely, to anyone who would take it.
Shouldn’t we also?
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:34-36
I do not think it was coincidence that prison is included in the above list. There is a problem, ya’ll, with how the church in America “loves” criminals, whether in a physical prison or a legal one.
Jesus loved the criminal.
We should too.