Recent news reports have highlighted the plight of prisoners held in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers of people held for extended time without human contact is so alarmingly hight that they can really only be understood in abstract terms. To say that 80,000 people are currently in lockdown for at least 22 hours a day is a number so high that we can’t possibly understand it in a humanized way. It’s just a statistic.
Politically Christians have often been law-and-order voters, seeing the strict legal expectations of the Old Testament as proof that God’s expectation is that society’s wrath descend mercilessly on people who harm others. There’s also a need to protect victims and potential victims of crimes. We can feel a righteous anger towards criminals and a satisfaction when their lives are intolerably bad in prison or after their release. After all, they got what they deserved.
But have they?
While it’s true that I’ve never killed, robbed or raped someone, my life has fallen short of where it should be. In James 2:10 we read “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (NIV). God, it seems, doesn’t make distinctions between worthy sinners who deserve his grace and unworthy sinners who don’t. If we’ve ever said and unkind word, or coveted something that wasn’t ours, if we’ve ever harboured a lustful thought, or allowed ourselves to hate someone, we stand condemned under God’s law. The good news of Jesus tells us that even though we are sinners, God’s grace still reaches out to us. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
So in a very real way, I stand in solidarity with the worst offender, not because my actions have the same consequences, but because each of us falls far short of God’s standard of holiness and each of us is saved not because acceptably sinful, but by God’s grace scandalously reaches out to the undeserving.
This isn’t to say that criminals should go unpunished, but it certainly should reshape our perspectives about being vindictive towards those who have run afoul of the law. According to scripture each of us deserve death for breaking God’s laws (Gen. 2:17), and we stand in relationship with God not because we’ve managed to clean ourselves up, but because God has had mercy on us. In that regard there is no difference between the 80,000 inmates in the U.S. prison system’s solitary confinement and me.