Too many Christians today think about criminal justice in ways that reinforce the human drive to degrade those we punish and to heighten our own sense of superiority. The belief that socially "polluted" people are to be routinely degraded, looked down on, and alienated from law-abiding humanity has deep roots in Western religion. In the Christian theological tradition that undergirds American thought about the penal system, we can see the powerful influence of theological orthodoxies that separate "us" from "them," "saint" from "sinner," "righteous" from "unrighteous," "damned" from "blessed," and "criminals" from "innocents."
For example, Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, describing the kingdom of heaven, cites Isaiah 66:24, in which "the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against" God are put on public display as "an abhorrence to all flesh." From Aquinas' point of view, for God’s people to abhor and contrast themselves with the damned is, in fact, part of their blessedness, something that "belongs to the perfection of [the blessed’s] beatitude." The reason? "Everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous." Theologians -- Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise -- too often praise, rather than lament, the idea of Christians getting pleasure by gazing upon the torments of the damned, “lording” it over others in the service of eternal bliss.
And, while they might not admit it, too many Christians in the U.S. today apply the same logic to those the state has marked criminal.
The problem with such bipolar divisions between us and them is that they fail to account for the radical interconnectedness of all creation, including the mutuality of human connectedness, even with those deemed the "criminals" among us. With the bloodstained cross of Jesus in view, Christians are morally bound, as difficult as it is, to lament sufferings -- first, of victims, but also of the condemned. Both groups' sufferings are dimensions of our common human frailty. Christians must strive to embody the uncomfortable theological truth that Eternal Love created even those who have committed the most damnable crimes.
Consider God's own self-unveiling, as the lowly born, tortured, spat-upon, beaten, and crucified Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The way of this humiliated Jesus has been continued in a gospel tradition that aims at the restoration of grace in human relationships. The grace modeled for Christians in the Jesus tradition is a profound love and concern for others. It tells us that we are all interrelated on a primal level. It says that we are liberated from the wages of what many Christians know as "sin."
In the Good Friday story, Jesus -- himself innocent -- provides Christians with one of history's most profoundly radical displays of where criminals stand in the divine politics of Jesus: "When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left" (Luke 23: 33). Theologian Karl Barth once remarked that Jesus on the cross, with the two who were condemned to death, made up the first indissoluble, indestructible, and certain Christian community. Barth tells us that, like Jesus, "these two criminals had been arrested somewhere, locked up, and sentenced by some judge in the course of the previous three days. And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him. They are linked in a common bondage never again to be broken."
Barth goes on to rightly suggest that "Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance."
What might Christians take from such a theology of suffering presence? How might people of faith, hope, and love deal with the "criminals" among us?
Living out a Christlike suffering presence with offenders, when they have committed violent crimes, is difficult. Cindi Lash helps us to understand why when she recounts the emotional struggles of crime victims in her Pittsburg Post-Gazette review of Ingrid DeSanctis' play "Body in Motion," which is based on real-life testimonies: "the mother who can't sleep, tormented by wondering if her slain daughter's last cry was 'Mama'"; "the jogger who can’t forget the crack of her nose breaking just before her rapist beat her into unconsciousness"; "the devoted Catholic who ... can't quite shed his rage at the man in cowboy boots who stomped his elderly mother to death nearly 30 years ago"; "the woman who goes away each Christmas because that’s the season when her ex-husband stabbed their son and daughter, then killed himself."
Any Christian contemplating the radical nature of Christian penance, forgiveness, and reconciliation must face dead on the memory of such acts. Christians, who are all too human, with trembling rage, fear, and anxiety, must stare into the pale dead face of our misery. And with the memory of the executed God to guide us, we must confront our understandable blood-thirst for revenge.
Indeed, Christians must embody the difference that Jesus' theology makes in the service of humanity’s most primordial, intimate social connectedness. Christians must deal seriously and transformatively with the grotesque divisions produced and maintained by a prison-industrial complex that routinely, as Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose puts it, "deals in the currency of lost human connections."
May such tragic alienation be, as Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder said all evil was meant to be, swallowed up and drowned "in the bottomless sea of [Jesus’] crucified love."
James Logan teaches religion and is the director of African and African American studies at Earlham College in Indiana.