by Nick Andrea
How we treat our prisoners is an indicator of where we are as a society and there is a better way. I recently read an article about how inmates are treated in Norway. Some features and quotes really stood out to me:
- “‘Here, they give us trust and responsibility,” he says. “They treat us like grownups.'”
- “Despite the seriousness of their crimes, however, I found that the loss of liberty was all the punishment they suffered.”
- “… but as the majority served their time – anything up to the 21-year maximum sentence (Norway has no death penalty or life sentence) – they were offered education, training and skill-building programmes.”
- “The reoffending rate…At just 16%, it is the lowest in Europe.”
Meanwhile here in the United States, botched executions like these remind us of the savage thirst for blood we still maintain. We want people to be judged as subhuman and punished to the full extent for their crimes. Why?
In ancient Jerusalem a crowd gathered to stone an adulterous woman. Jesus showed up and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, NIV). The implication is obvious – “don’t judge others, when you, yourself are not perfect.”
But, what is the deeper meaning? What was Jesus really seeing that allowed him a more compassionate approach to change? What did he see that we don’t, by and large, in the United States, today?
What Jesus saw was no separation between self and other, between accuser and accused. This non-dual consciousness, or identification with “other,” is the only way to create true justice and help those who perpetuate crimes in our society. In the non-dual consciousness, we are the violent rapist. We are the serial killer. We are the crooked banker whose actions led to the financial meltdown of 2008 and the loss of millions of jobs, for people with hungry children to feed. Jesus knew he was these people.
And yet, that didn’t prevent him from taking swift corrective action when someone was doing something wrong. For example, he threw the money changers and their tables out of the temple without hesitation. And, my sense was that it wasn’t gentle. But even there, the undercurrent was compassion. He did not offend the person, but the action.
How, then, do we deal with the crime in the same way? Here’s an alternative model: restitution consonant with the crime while maintaining the rights, dignity, and provision of basic needs for the human being. For example, even though a corrupt banker’s wrong actions caused thousands to lose their savings, and that he should be responsible for paying these debts, he should not have to live in abject poverty with his own basic physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual needs not being met. More than likely, one or more of these was not met from a young age which is what led to his taking wrong action. His basic needs for healthy food, sanitation, mental and vocational stimulation, relationships with those he loves, access to nature, the time and environment to grow spiritually if that is what he/she wants should be provided for AS he pays restitution. And, he cannot be allowed to rise to a position of economic power, again, until he does, even though it may take longer than his lifespan. His victims should also have the option of early forgiveness, releasing him from this burden.
In the case of violent criminals, it is a little more complex. How can they give back the life they took? Or, the unwanted pregnancy and trauma they caused? We would have to think more about how restitution would work in this case. However, killing them will not bring the dead back (but it may turn out as repulsive as Clayton Lockett’s death did, and traumatize some more people, including the “doctor” administering the lethal injection). Nor will like stripping them of their basic needs required to thrive as a human being is not the answer. Maybe they won’t get anywhere, spiritually, in this lifetime. Maybe their view of the world will remain as divided and sick as those about to stone the adulterous woman in ancient Jerusalem. However, they’re more likely to reform when their person is not being offended, as they offended another. I think a system closer to the Norwegians is a appropriate, one more designed to be a sanctuary of healing. We have a better shot of helping the accused (and maybe even the accuser) with that approach, than the current draconian, criminals-are-subhuman system we have in place, currently.
Just to put a point on it, many of the whores and sinners that Jesus encountered ended up following him. Why? Because, they felt seen as human beings, perhaps for the first time in their lives like, I suspect, many of our criminals. Amen.