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Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!

February 11, 2017

Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!”

I wish I had money for every time I heard someone say that.

Earlier this week I led two high school assemblies on the theme, “Compassion for Prisoners.” I have visited prison so I described the high walls and locked doors. I got them to imagine the sense of the world closing in on you. I had an acute sense the claustrophobia, something I don’t normally suffer from. All this and I was only a visitor! So the thought of being in a small locked room all day, with others too, is truly terrifying.

Then I asked them to imagine being locked in one of those cells, with no one caring about you, and asked, “Would you like someone to have compassion on you?”

Then I hear in the back of my mind, “But they’re criminals. Many have done terrible things. So why not, they deserve it?” Then, I hear, “Yes, they do. But so do I!” I say that because I hear Jesus’ words from Matthew 5.21-22 (CEV)

You know that our ancestors were told, “Do not murder” and “A murderer must be brought to trial.” But I promise you that if you are angry with someone, you will have to stand trial. If you call someone a fool, you will be taken to court. And if you say that someone is worthless, you will be in danger of the fires of hell.”

I hear Jesus condemning ‘anger’ as much as ‘murder’, because it is the ‘anger’ that has corrupted the heart. It is the anger that is the sickness, the murder is just the symptom. Now, I’ve never committed murder, but I have been angry. I have heard of things done and I’ve wanted vengeance; I’ve wanted to make someone hurt for what they have done. So that makes me guilty too. I am just as sick as a murderer, I’m just better at hiding it! Indeed, when I think of a criminal in prison, all I can honestly say is, “There but for he grace of God go I”.

I am no better inside me than anyone inside prison, so I should have compassion for those people locked away. This is not soft, this is the heart of the Christian faith. This is certainly not playing down the crimes committed, or the need for society to take action. I know I need to have compassion because I know that I am no better. I also need to have compassion because I know that Jesus loves and died for those people in prison, just as much as he died for me. Paul makes this absolutely clear in Romans 5.8 (CEV), “But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful.” God loved me long before I became a Christian!

Not to have compassion is in effect to say that those people are worthless. Jesus, is just as clear about the huge crime that would be, And if you say that someone is worthless, you will be in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5.21 CEV)

So Jesus seems to come out as being weak on crime; a wish-washy liberal. But I don’t think so. He is basically saying that, ruled by our corrupted human passions, we are stupid: I’m stupid, you’re stupid, we’re all stupid. Jesus is saying that when we are ruled by hate, and malice and fear we make decisions that harm us and all around us. That makes us stupid. We’re so stupid that we hate, even though we know that hatred leads naturally to more hatred. We’re so stupid that we want vengeance from the courts, knowing without a doubt, that vengeance can only lead to hate, in us and in the person punished.

I am not saying that the police, courts, sentences, consequences and even prisons are not needed. Far from it. I do not believe that this would be Jesus’ view either. Jesus’ teaching is hard hitting about the devastating consequences of human evil. I do believe that the Spirit is leading me realise that any steps that are taken must be ruled by compassion. Compassion for the victims and the potential victims, so that they have the best protection possible from harm. Compassion also for the criminal, so that all possible is done to heal the harm done, and lead them away from future crime. For us poor fallen human beings crime seems inevitable but in our response I hear Jesus saying loud and clear, “Never give in to hate or vengeance”. It is so obvious that hate and vengeance just corrupt us even more. Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that tackling crime with hate and vengeance is as stupid as tackling a fire with petrol.

Jesus knows what I am like; what we are all like. He knows that love and compassion aren’t weak. Jesus knows that without his love, me, my society, and all society is doomed to a cycle of fear, crime, punishment, hate and more crime. We pay the huge cost too, on average over £33,000 per prisoner per year. Not to mention the police and court costs. 

Jesus knows how we human beings work. Jesus knows because he is one with the Creator; he has our instruction manual.

I come to Jesus and I find that I’m far from perfect, but that I am loved, loved, and loved some more by a God who really should have given me and my race up as a bad job long ago. If God can love me that much, then how can I aspire to anything less. If God can love all people that much, what right have I to condemn.

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