What actually brought me undone was the tattooed swastika on the forehead of the man sitting in the front row as I stood to lead worship in the prison chapel.
I swallowed, took a breath and launched into the liturgy. The Biblical story of Zacchaeus was the text for the day. I’d equated Zaccheus to the screws – prison guards – which the men thought was great, and then tangled the story into one of how being known and loved by God leads to transformation.
Not surprisingly, however, the conversation after reverted to sin.
“Which crimes does God think are unforgiveable?” they asked me, to which I replied:
“The offensiveness of the Christian gospel is that none are.”
“I won’t be Christian, if the kiddie touchers are forgiven,” interjected one of the men.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t change the gospel to fit what we want.”
In trying to explain to my friends and colleagues what the work of prison chaplaincy is like, I often have to debunk the myths. I’m perfectly safe in prison, thanks, with far less chance of being assaulted inside than out. I’m treated with great respect – and the level of appreciation for anything I offer is embarrassingly high.
I’ve met many people in prison who declare their innocence, and far more who acknowledge their guilt and are desperate to live differently.
I also hear heartbreaking stories of people who are stuck in a cycle and environment of crime that my middle-class privilege finds too hard to acknowledge. The greatest will and determination doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s possible to overcome complex issues like lack of literacy, lack of employment, homelessness, mental illness, abuse, drug addiction, alcohol dependence.
They are not excuses, but they are part of the big picture that needs to be understood; they are issues that need to be addressed before our society can become safer.
Every day, talk-back radio and the newspapers tell us the prison system is in crisis. That’s only a small part of the story though: what feeds into that is that our community and sense of common human-ness is also in crisis. We have forgotten how to care for the most rejected and therefore the most vulnerable – and not just the vulnerable who are innocent, but the guilty as well.
That’s almost an impossible vocation for the world to accept, but it’s one the gospel won’t let the Church relinquish.
No person is outside the realm of God’s love and forgiveness, and none of us can change that. We can ignore it, but only at the risk of our own soul.
There is no faithful choice that lets another person’s actions or sin define the possibility of their redemption in the eyes of God – and therefore we can’t make a faithful choice to live as a community in a way where that redemption can’t be possible.
The truth, though, that I’m reminded of every time I walk through the gates of a prison, is that the faithful choice is radically different to our reflexive, instinctive human response. I have to be called repeatedly back to the offensive, inescapable message of the Gospel.
It’s hard to imagine an environment where getting the Christian story right matters more. As the synod’s relentlessly faithful prison chaplains have told me for years, working in the prison turns what we understand of faith and humanity upside down.
Which is the only possible explanation for how, in spite of the nausea I felt when faced with hatred inked on a fellow worshipper’s forehead, I finished that worship knowing I had encountered unexpected liberation.
It’s the relief of finding the company of people who simply aren’t able to deny what all of us have in common: that we have badly hurt people around us.
And that none of us can escape the love of God.
Associate Executive Director
Commission For Mission