“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”Romans 8:38-39
This is Part 2 of a 5-part series. Read Part 1 here.
This week as part of my class called “Jesus, Jails, and Justice” through Memphis Theological Seminary, we met an incarcerated woman who is a leader in one of the prison ministries at her facility.
We learned her name, and were able to sit down and talk with her about her role in the ministry and some of her experiences while in prison. Looking around the room at the faces of us seminary students, free-worlders, I could see, and feel, a pride toward this woman who was doing something extraordinary with her time in prison.
During our tour, we were given examples of women who were working to make their lives better and to be equipped for re-entry. It was easy to see in the lower-security unit that we toured that these women were preparing for another life behind these locked doors.
So when a peer asked the woman in ministry when she was to be released, I think we all were stunned at her reply.
“I’m here for life.”
The incarcerated woman who appears to be one of God’s chosen ministers and leaders was serving a life sentence and would be eligible for parole after 51 years served. She had been in prison already for 17 years.
Once amongst ourselves later, some of us supposed, based on our admittedly limited understanding of the justice system and sentences, that she had killed someone.
My mind went to some sort of more “acceptable” murder. Maybe she killed an abusive ex-boyfriend. Maybe she was driving drunk and crashed into another victim. Maybe she was an accomplice to someone else who actually committed the murder.
Regardless, this Woman of God was a shining example of God’s grace, and we all could see it and feel it. We heard from her pastor, and how much the pastor loved her and trusted her and valued her not as a sheep, but as a fellow shepherd. This woman was reformed and renewed.
As I was trying to fall asleep that night, and processing all I had seen and heard of the darkness of prison, my mind wandered back to the incarcerated woman. My human nature and curiosity overrode my compassion. I wanted to know what she did to deserve life in prison.
So I grabbed my phone and googled. Convictions are public record, and often you can find copies of appeals made in serious cases and find out details.
The woman was convicted of first-degree felony murder in the death of her 11-month old daughter, accompanied by two cases of abuse. The court files detailed how she shook her crying daughter and threw her on the bed and against the wall.
Murdering her child wasn’t on my list of “acceptable” offenses.
I had to ask myself, does this change how I view this inmate?
More importantly, does this change how God views this inmate?
For many of the people I’ve been around, crimes against children seem to be the most taboo. So I’ve been taught, or allowed to form the opinion, that a crime against a child — molestation, physical abuse, neglect, death —was the worst sin one could commit. Jesus talks about the consequences of harming a “little one.” There seems to be precedence here.
I’ve even heard, “Hurting a child is one sin I can’t forgive.”
Find a news report of a child molester’s arrest or conviction on Facebook, and read the comments. There is no public mercy for these offenders.
Could I, or others in the free world, do ministry alongside this individual, and trust her as a peer and love her as I claimed to love any other individual in the free world? Other women are incarcerated for similar offenses — one I found was convicted of torturing her child. Can I ever again see a school shooter, a youth-minister-turned-rapist, a child porn director, or a sex trafficker as a peer and recipient of grace?
My answer has to be a resounding yes, even if some part of me yearns to say otherwise. It has to be yes every time. God withholds grace from no one. If God has infinite amounts of grace and mercy, how could I even entertain the thought of withholding mercy myself if I am to believe the claim that I, and every other human, are made in the image of God?
Bryan Stevenson, a social justice advocate, says this:
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
I teach my youth, who often have transgressed against the moral codes of society or the church in some way, that there is nothing you can do too bad that God won’t forgive. It is tantamount that young people, still forming their identity and spiritual security, understand that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any less — or love us any more. We can’t work for it, and we can’t earn God’s love.
It’s hard to believe that God forgives us if no one else around us will.
Yet…there are people in our prison system who have committed ugly, heinous, disgusting crimes against others and themselves (and honestly, countless others who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes or were convicted despite their innocence, but that’s for another blog). Don’t they deserve punishment and retribution?
That’s not for me to decide.
God is the supreme judge. I’m not even a member of the jury. And God, by coming to earth as a human being and enduring the worst humanity has to offer, says that the female inmate we met, and the other 2 million people the United States has behind bars, is loved beyond measure.
That you are loved.
That I am loved.
No matter the sin. No matter the trespass. No matter the conviction.
She is loved.
Disclaimer: I have not been a victim of a violent crime, or an aggravated crime, and have only experienced victimhood on the peripheral and systemically. My lens for this course and these reflections are colored by this, much the same way yours might be if you have been a direct victim of a crime. Your voice matters to me as well, and my heart has no less compassion for a victim than for a perpetrator of violence. You are loved, and made whole by the One who created the world.