Criminals

Tomorrow, I will be attending a conference on Criminal Reentry in San Francisco. The conference is designed to bring together advocates, organizers, and community members to share ideas and stories about helping people who are leaving the criminal justice system get a second chance at life.
 
As I prepare for the conference, I think about how I hear people with criminal records described in our society. I particularly pay attention to how my fellow Christians describe such individuals. If there is a story about a person shot and killed, I sometimes hear people say, “Well, so-and-so was a murderer and a bad person, and deserved what was coming.”
 
Maybe that’s true. But do you know who else was a murderer? Moses. In the book of Exodus, Moses kills another human being, and then flees his home instead of facing the consequences of his actions.
 
Some may say that what Moses did was justified, because he was confronting the oppression of his people. Maybe that’s true. But does that mean that the ends justify the means? That because his intentions were good, what he did wasn’t murder? That doesn’t seem right.
 
Some may say that Moses was able to find redemption in his life and atone for his crime. But the person who was shot and killed never had that chance. Some may say that he was unfit to live the moment he committed the wrongful act, and his killing was justified. What if that had happened to Moses?
 
But it’s not just Moses. King David was described as a “man after God’s own heart.” He wrote beautiful songs of worship. He also had sex with another man’s wife, then had the man killed to cover up his adultery. In fact, I wonder if David’s act could be considered rape by our modern laws, or at least sexual assault. I don’t know if Bathsheba was in a position to freely consent, given that he was the king.
 
My point isn’t to malign Moses or David. They were great yet flawed people who did wonderful and terrible things. But their lives were not defined by one act. Moses was not just a murderer and David was not just an adulterer. So saying that someone is “just a criminal” really doesn’t capture the fullness of who they are. If we held onto the view that people who commit crimes are not defined by their actions, if we held fast to their humanity, how would it change the way that we create laws and draft policies and train police and design our criminal justice system?
 
How would it change our churches to know that we share spiritual lineage with Moses and David and other such flawed people? I have heard people with criminal records say that they feel unwelcome and judged when they walk into a church. Would Moses and David feel unwelcome? Yes, we need to talk about discipleship and transformation and righteousness. But how can we have those conversations with people who don’t even want to talk to us for fear that we will judge them?
 
I also don’t want to sideline concerns about safety. If someone was convicted of molesting children, there’s ample reason to not let that person be in charge of the nursery. But there’s a lot of space between unwise openness and completely shutting people out.
 
Just some reflections. There’s no way that I can fix the criminal justice system and how we view criminals with a Facebook post. I can let you all know how the conference goes.

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