Revenge or Mercy?

My best, and worst, feeling is regret. I can slide over slippery rocks of "should-have-done." I can scream into echoing canyons of "if only." I can bury myself with heaps of regret at day's end with all that is undone on my to-do list: walk the dog, kiss the husband, visit the sick, release the prisoners, write the article, recycle the plastic, pray for peace. Shoulds can pile up like unpaid bills. But the deeper regrets, the ones that won't go away, are the choices missed and the relationships broken.

As a prison chaplain, I work behind razor wire fences and concrete walls. Prisons are designed to transform a regretted crime into contrite behavior through penalties and punishment. It rarely works. That kind of transformation requires more than sitting behind bars. Recently a long-time prisoner reminded me of the miracle that resides in a change of heart.

Jake is a 16-year veteran of prison life-and looks every bit the part of the angry, ex-wrestler that he was. He came to the chaplain's office wanting to see if arrangements could be made to see his dying mother. This isn't unheard of-according to state policy, an inmate can visit a dying family member in the hospital, or upon death. They can go to the funeral home to visit with the family. What was unusual was that Jake wanted to see his mother, a woman who had abused him and made his young life nothing but misery. He wanted to see her, and he was determined to see her before she died.

Jake's determination turned into frantic demands-the method of asking he had employed all his life. In the eye of this storm, a little truth slipped out: The last time Jake saw his mother, he had spit on her.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2001
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