"Crime causes harm, and justice should repair the harm. That's true, but also crime breaks the peace; justice should help repair the peace."
-Dan Van Ness, The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation
"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice."
Isaiah chapter 42 verse 3
My housemate works at a Christian not-for-profit mission organisation.
When you work for a not-for-profit, it’s not always easy to raise funds. You need to work hard to communicate your mission and why people should give. But it’s particularly difficult for this not-for-profit organisation to gain support.
For one thing, this ministry isn’t always popular. People can be reluctant to get involved – often because of pervasive myths around the work. Other people are sceptical of any good this ministry could do. Yet the organisation seeks to reach some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Why does it get this reaction? It’s because this is a prison ministry.
Prison ministry is just as much a mission activity as any other, but it brings baggage. You can get an array of reactions to mentioning it, from ‘Ministry is interfering with justice. Aren’t they there to be punished?’ to ‘Those people have already rejected the gospel. What’s the point?’ to even simply, ‘Wow. Better you doing it than me.’
It can be confronting. (Is it dangerous? What if I witness something terrible? These are criminals and I won’t be able to relate to people like that.)
It can challenge our ability to show compassion. (Prisoners have led bad lives and made bad decisions. What kind of human being would commit that kind of crime? Isn’t ministering to them letting them off the hook?)
It can make us question if we can relate to the people we’d meet. (They came from a rough background. They’ve done bad things and seen things I’ve never even imagined. I have nothing in common with them.)
But does this mean we should look down on people who are in prison, as though they’re not worth the effort? I don’t think so.
We have all fallen short
It’s a consistent theme of the Bible that we have – every single one of us – not made the grade when compared to God’s perfection. Not even close.
We may think that our sins are not as bad as our neighbour’s, but this attitude is both dangerous and unhelpful. It’s dangerous because we run the risk of trusting that we’re righteous/good enough for God (see Luke chapter 18 verses 9-14). And it’s unhelpful because we are no better than any other human being – because we’re all imperfect and fall short.
Here’s one example of many from the Bible which illustrates why judging a book by its cover is destructive:
"My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?" James 2:1-5
‘Poor in the eyes of the world’ – not just people who are from a lower socio-economic background but people who are down-and-outs. People who are isolated. People who are suffering serious mental illnesses. People who are coping with addictions. People who have made bad decisions. People who aren’t easy to care for. And yes, people in prisons.
Only God sees into the hearts of people. We aren’t called to judge.
As I’ve talked to my housemate about her experiences, it’s made me consider how many other ministries face an uphill battle to get support.
We can’t forget that Jesus spent time with people who were regarded as the lowest rung of society. These included prostitutes, tax collectors, people who were ‘unclean’. These were people who were sometimes just referred to as ‘sinners’ in the text – and we’re not told if they were repentant either.
But Jesus was unapologetic about this. When those around Jesus protested, saying he shouldn’t reach out to these people, Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:13-17)
Do we think there are people who are ‘poor in the eyes of the world’ that can’t be reached?
Isn’t that putting God in a box and deciding he’s not strong enough to help them?
If God doesn’t look down on the ‘poor of the world’, neither should we.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional and has a background in editing. She lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html