Everyday Reminder of the Corporal and Spiritual Acts of Mercy
I do not keep many personal items at my desk in my office. I prefer not to make it too cozy for a couple of reasons. The first is I move locations quite a bit and the second is I like the divide between my home and work. What I do have is a few handmade gifts from my children and a printout of the Corporal and Spiritual Acts of Mercy. The printout generally does not garner much attention except from me when I glance at it throughout the day. Also, occasionally other Christians see it and quietly, but joyfully, share their own daily reminders of their faith, like a tucked away medal under their shirt. I am often humbled that the acknowledgement of my faith elicits a gentle “pray for me” from co-workers I would normally not have a religious connection with.
Whenever my eyes do land on the corporal acts of mercy my thoughts tend to linger on the instruction to visit the sick and imprisoned. My understanding of justice is rooted in my faith and for most of my life I believed that the United States criminal justice system was also rooted in a level of personal atonement, rehabilitation, and punitive sentencing that respected the dignity of the imprisoned. I have come to learn the reality is far murkier.
The Incarcerated Have Dignity
Starting with the high percentage of incarcerated citizens in the US followed with the racial disparity of prison populations (lengthy but thorough working paper), it becomes easier to understand that no matter how much time has passed from the pronouncements of Christ, the call for Christians to be the hands and feet of Christ is not diminished. There are injustices rampant in our justice system. While we can work with our representatives to move the slower cogs of bureaucracy to address the systemic failures, let it not be forgotten that we are the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16) called to action.
Now is a dark time for those in our prison system. There are profit motives that hinder connectivity to family and friends which is crucial for prisoners to have the best chance at avoiding recidivism. These stumbling blocks also increase the difficulty for Christians called to console the imprisoned to personally visit and minister to those Christ has entrusted to our care and compassion.
Do Not Be Discouraged from Helping in Even Small Ways
This Lenten season, I hope to share with others the need for us all to keep busy with the acts of mercy, and especially the call to visit the imprisoned. Start by speaking to your loved ones and friends about the importance of knowing the policies of our elected officials. If you can attend criminal justice committee and subcommittee meetings in your state, then please do. There are many decisions that occur out of sight from direct public interaction, but our state and federal constitutions are written for public involvement. Also, research organizations that have the means to lobby our representatives for change and support them financially. Consider those that work for the mental stability of inmates such as stopping solitary confinement for children.
And, of course, pray. Many lives have been touched by imprisonment. Our laws are increasingly shifting in such a way to encourage citizens to preserve their personal freedoms by avoiding association with the criminality of our neighbor, even if we are innocent ourselves. It is understandable not all are called to reach out to the imprisoned. However, supporting loved ones of the incarcerated is a merciful act. Their worries are heavy and the societal stigmas great.
The Heartbreak of Incarcerated Parents
I encourage readers to take the time to read this piece by Kevin Ring about Father’s Day in prison. An excerpt:
It’s one thing to miss an important event in your child’s life because you’re sick or traveling for work. But in prison, you miss everything — your daughter’s first communion, piano recitals, soccer games, opening day at the community pool. One man I met here at Cumberland missed his daughter’s high school graduation. He just cried and cried. When you do hear about their lives, it’s through a prison payphone. Amidst the annihilating boredom of incarceration, it’s nearly impossible to prevent your mind from wandering to even your children’s smallest doings. Around the time they walk in the front door from school, you’re sitting in prison. When they need someone to quiz them on their spelling words, you’re not there.
As Long as We Have Breath We Have Hope
Do not take my calls to action to mean that I do not believe in just punishment, I absolutely do and I believe God gives us a living example in Jesus Christ on the interplay of justice and mercy. While I have hope in a day when our prisons are empty, I understand that we have a responsibility of public safety. I merely ask that we keep a vigilant eye and offer the light of Christ to those in most need. The offenses that lead to prison terms are varied. We should not assume every case is of an irredeemable, unrepentant monster. Do not forget the good thief at the Crucifixion that was to be with Christ in Heaven. Even at our last breath we can choose to renounce evil.