This week the wife and I traveled to Dallas, Georgia with a friend whose husband had to appear in court. I was asked to testify on his behalf. After I was sworn in I was asked to tell a little about myself. I explained to the judge that I was in the business of salvaging souls and lives. I did not approve of the past life, nor excused the actions that place the accused in the situation he found himself in. However, I felt that his life had changed and he could be a productive member of society. After each one presented their message and was asked questions of the prosecutor the judge then ask me if I thought the people of my community could accept a criminal after he had changed his life? My reply was it would be a fantasy world to expect every person in a community to believe a person had truly changed. I felt that those who had offered their support would allow him to prove the change in his life. The judge called for a recess to deliberate on the sentence. When he returned he spoke of the fact that society was more concerned about punishment than redemption. He said what amazed him was all the number of churches that spoke about forgiveness and redemption but that he saw very little of it exhibited from all the churches he had observed.
I’m not sure of the judge’s religious affiliation, although he was surprised to meet a Quaker. After the trial I spoke with the judge for several minutes about the process of redemption and the fact that most churches practiced a double-standard in relationship to individuals they deemed unacceptable. People who are struggling with spiritual issues in their lives are often shocked when the prayer, advice, and comfort are not part of the “total redemption package”. Instead of receiving the support and guidance needed they are shunned, disowned, or in some church excommunicated. The judge agreed and wondered why?
This trial got me to thinking about punishment and forgiveness. Based upon the scripture we have established our laws to extract the maximum in punishment. The principle of justice that requires punishment equal in kind to the offense is found in the Book of Exodus, “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” I am sure we have all used the phrase, “you do the crime, you do the time.” But Jesus advocated for a more merciful approach which would give peace to the victim and redemption for the criminal.
Not only does our society demand justice in this manner but we find the same attitude within our churches. The victims of crimes often seek the most severe punishment for their offenders. This brings justice. However, what happens is the victims feel empty and unsatisfied after getting what they thought was justice--punishment. Punishment does not address the spiritual needs of the victims. Justice is not designed to restore losses, answer the questions of why, or removed the fear that came from the crime. The tragedy is no one heals from the wound. That is why Jesus teaches turning the other cheek and forgiveness.
The place where this process should be taking place is within the Christian community. Most of us will agree that what we are doing about reforming the criminal is not working. We are fearful and we have good reason. We know our criminal justice system is broken and we don't know how to fix it. Jails and prisons are the higher learning of criminal behavior and not a place of reformation.
The scripture gives us the process that provides both justice and redemption. The problem is we cannot get beyond our own emotional baggage to allow the message of Jesus Christ to become a living message through our lives.
Many individuals have been left on the battlefield of life to die rather than be brought back to camp and nursed back to health. The Bible clearly teaches that the Spirit-filled Christian can fall short of the mark of righteousness and become one of the unacceptable. Paul in Colossians 3:12-13 “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, long suffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.” Paul also reminded the church at Galatia, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”
I might add any person within the Church that fails to forgive according to Scripture has a major problem in their doctrinal understanding of salvation. I have found within many churches that the admission of sin spells doom for the “sinner.” If we treat the membership in this manner what chance does an individual within our community who has no church connection have in finding redemption? Jesus strongly criticized the self-righteous hypocrite because they are just like the Pharisees. "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” Matthew 23:13 13 He goes on to say, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 "Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.” Matthew 23:35
The expression, "paid their debt to society" is not always marked "paid". Not only does society continue to make individuals pay after they paid their debt, the church is just as guilty in demanding more payment without giving forgiveness. At what point does the debt end and forgiveness take place?