The world before you is pure potential.
I lead a weekly Celebrate Recovery class in the county jail, and so I get to see the girls go through their sentences, get to see them grow as Christians. The prayers they pray grow stronger as they learn what it means to lean on the Lord and to turn their problems over to Him. Often they give Him credit for shortening their sentences. So they go out full of potential. And they all promise to call me, but do they? Not very often. And when they do, I can hear from their voices they are struggling. Both men and women ex-offenders struggle. I ran a halfway house for a while, and I can testify to how hard these men tried to make it. Michigan has gotten serious about cutting recidivism, but on an individual level it is still up to the individual. Sometimes it takes a lot of falling down to get serious about getting up. Potential is, after all, Square 1.
Let’s look at what potential might mean for an ex-offender
When Eugene V. Debs got out of jail, he ran for President. Right here in America. FIVE TIMES. He didn’t win, obviously, which is why you never heard of him. A leader in the labor movement, he would run on the Socialist ticket. They locked him up more than once for protesting the unfairness of our social systems on the poor and then again for protesting our participation in World War I. He wrote:
- While there is a lower class I am in it;
- While there is a criminal class I am of it;
- While there is a soul in prison I am not free.
That should pretty much resonate. Debs is not well known today, but he was a hero.
When Nelson Mandela got out of jail, he ran for President, in South Africa, and he won.When he became President, the government of apartheid, that legally separated the races into whites, blacks and “others” was dismantled. This could have been the start of a war, a blood-bath, for apartheid was a cruel system, kept in place by violence and brutality. The escalating campaign against the system had brought suffering to both sides. However, Mandela’s government united the land in a campaign of forgiveness. He recognized that the wrongs done by the system of apartheid, to the people of all colors, inflicted a hatred so deep that if a war broke out, there would be no winners.
The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act created a Commission “to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.”
Chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu, a moving moral force in South, the Commission heard the grievances of the people who were the victims of apartheid, whose loved ones had been killed or tortured or had vanished. Tutu stated he was “appalled at the evil we have uncovered” during the investigation. ” The transcripts of the victim hearings are indeed appalling. The perpetrators also were expected to appear before the commission, confess their crimes, and apply for amnesty. The purpose was first, to determine the truth of the events and to enable those who had lost loved ones to find closure. Second, there was a hope that testimony from the perpetrators would bring reconciliation by allowing them to face their victims and their victims’ families and explain their actions.If you ever wanted to be thankful for living in the USA, the transcripts for both perpetrators and victims are available. Read a few. Those on the Commission were truly instruments of God. You could not hear these voices otherwise.
How did all this work out? Many leaders, both black and white, refused to testify. Some victims were less forgiving than others. Some perpetrators lied and equivocated. Many, however, expelling their stories, vomited them out, a huge, very toxic black mass, that had infected them for years, talking on as everyone present stood back and watched. And they too would stand back, gasping, breathless, as though they were looking at their words, their past worlds, to see them dissolving on the floor at their feet. “We thank you, Sir,” the man was told. “We have heard you, Mamma,'” the woman standing straight before them was assured. “Your pain is no longer all your own.” The room was suddenly lighter, as though a bright tomorrow was breaking though. All were a little stunned.
Justice or mercy?
The purpose of the commission was to bring reconciliation. Tutu said: “Some would say, what about justice? And we say retributive justice is not the only kind of justice. There is also restorative justice, because we believe in Ubuntu — the essence of being human, that idea that we are all caught up in a delicate network of interdependence. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ I need you in order to be me and you need me in order to be you.”
We can honor those thoughts, but we aren’t there yet. Around here we go for retributive justice–or what might be called retributive justice + one, or guilty as charged. It is not even vengeance.That is not the American way. It’s just the way things are. If anything it is improving–because people have begun to notice. Our system, of which our jury system is a part, hmm, is flawed, in favor of the powers that be.They win most of the time, almost as if they are supposed to.
As one prisoner in a long ago class told me: “It’s like it doesn’t matter if you are guilty of the charges they charge you with. They know you’re guilty of something, they just didn’t catch you with. And you are guilty of something, maybe something much worse. So it all works out in the end.”
But you have to admit a lot of times it doesn’t, especially if you are a woman. That is the plus one. Justice goes way overboard for the system and all you can do is scream and suffer and strike out and beat the walls of your confinement away from the world of living beings whom you would tear to shreds with your rage. BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T DESERVE WHAT YOU GOT.
Many of the citizens of South Africa felt that way also. In the years of darkness, all suffered loss, the guilty, the innocent. So many felt to fight back was the only solution, and their loved ones’ dismembered bodies were returned to them as the tires squealed away in the night. Vengeance plus one when daylight came.
We don’t know where the world is headed, but we pray we do not have to ever experience that. How, you might ask, as some of these people whose lives were so devastated asked, do we forgive?
What then for the justice?
God will take care of it. This is not facile cop-out. That is because God is God. It’s his job. If you try to do His job, He cannot do it. He is the God who says:
Behold, I have created the smith
who blows the fire of coals,
and produces a weapon for its purpose.
I have also created the ravager to destroy [Isaiah 54:15-16 RSV]
Man’s destruction of life is a part of life. God does not wish it. He does not want us to suffer. Yet evil grows in men’s hearts and suffering comes. We must look at what God says next. This is God’s promise to us:
No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper,
and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
and their vindication from me, says the Lord. [Isaiah 54:17 RSV]
God has us in His hands. If we release our pain to Him, we have vindication. Often the vindication can go beyond the scope of the crime as we see it. I know that is how I felt. Several years ago, I suffered a great injustice and betrayal, at the hands of those I loved and trusted. There was no excuse for it. They just had other plans for their life, and getting rid of me (and in the case of my church, a lot of others as well) had no human side to them. They did not see it as not inflicting pain but as gaining their desired ends, expediently.
During this period a prophetic friend called in extreme agitation. “You must pray for those who hurt you,” she insisted. She always spoke in Biblical terms. “God has shown me He is going to sift them.”
So I got off a few prayers, maybe. But I was very busy at the time, with a broken heart, trying to survive and all. It wasn’t long before these people started dropping like flies. Even the husband who had left me had a terrible accident. Coincidence, you say? This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, says the Lord [Isaiah 54:17 RSV]. There are no coincidences in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The thing is, if God had asked me, I would have told Him, you can bounce them around for a while, squeeze them maybe, but these are people I love. They should learn lessons, not lose everything or die of cancer. That is justice plus one. It is not mercy.
So what do we learn from the path President Mandela laid down for South Africa?
Forgive those who have wronged you
My dear brothers and sisters, I cannot tell you what to do when you get out of jail. But the most important thing you can do if you want to continue in your Christian walk and thereby assure that you will stay out of jail for the rest of your life is to forgive. You have these events defining your past. Most people in prisons and jails have them. In fact, most people have them. But your lives have so often been so horrible, so tragic. You were often mutilated and murdered inside so many times that it is a wonder you are still standing. Every time you commit a crime or strike out in anger, you are hitting that person from the past. Every time you get high, it is that pain from the past you are forgetting.
Let it go. Forgive. You won’t let them off the hook. What you will do is unhook the chain they have attached to you.
A person who forgives has peaceful features. I always know when someone comes to my class and has forgiven that ONE PERSON. Their face shines.Their shoulders are relaxed. The hair trigger is gone. A person who does not forgive is drive by vengeance, a vengeance like a howling wolf that can never be satisfied. Devour as it may, the demon within is never quenched.
I know you have done some horrible things. The world you are walking out into knows it too, and quite likely they are going to be there to remind you. Yes, there you are sober, often enforced into sobriety by probation restrictions, and the people you hurt let loose on you with all the wrongs you did them. They will mock you for becoming a “jail house Christian.” And you just have to take it.
I am telling you to not only take it but rejoice in it. We are worthy to suffer in Jesus’ Name. “If anyone is ill-treated and suffers as a Christian, which we are contemptuously called, let us not be ashamed, but give glory to God that we are deemed worthy to suffer in this name” [1 Peter 4:16 Amp]. “For you have been granted the privilege for Christ’s sake not only to believe in, adhere to, rely on, and trust in Him, but also to suffer in His behalf” [Phil. 1: 29 Amp.]. Once again you might say: “Give me a break.” But consider the alternative. Give in, use again, go back do jail. Do not pass Square #1. Maybe you have sung this song before.
Self-forgiveness begins with acknowledging the truth of what you did and taking responsibility for it. In some sense you need to grieve the loss of a part of yourself that you can never get back, the part before the act took place, before you made the wrong decision. Where possible, strive to make amends. The soul is cleansed by your efforts. God hears you, even if the other person never does and never will. This is reconciliation. God honors this.
Yes, you still hurt. A good friend of mine once said, “You cannot crucify yourself. For that, you need another person.” Try it. Who will drive in the last nail. Always someone else. When it’s just you and God, you are forgiven. When other people are involved, they will crucify you over and over again.
It is not God that tells you that you are not forgiven. That is the whisperer, the devil. Isn’t it time he stopped running your life?
We will talk more on these thing later.
Go to church
Oh yes. The first thing you should do when you get out of jail is look for a church. You want a Bible-believing church where the Anointing flows. What is the Anointing? It is God, speaking through your Pastor, touching earth and touching you, every Sunday. You can’t find it just everywhere. But that is what you need right now, so don’t be afraid to keep looking. You will know it when you are sitting in the midst of it.
It’s not the music or the children’s program or the visitation or the cookies after the service. It’s God, heaven touching earth, every Sunday, God, showing up because the people show up, to bless you, because the Pastor has prayed; Let heaven come down!
Remember, I am always here if you need me. Forgiveness is hard. Self forgiveness seems even harder. I am here for you.