“You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you’” (Mt. 5:43-44).
And I talked about how Jesus was trying to address the assumption we often have that to love one thing means we must hate another thing. I talked about how Jesus was (and still is) trying to address our assumption that there are limits to our love and that the best way we can express our love for one thing is by expressing our hate for something else.
In this season of primaries madness, does this sound familiar?
So, to put Jesus’ words another way, we often think like this: “To love my neighbor, I must hate my enemy.”
To get at the flaw and serious danger of this thinking, I used an illustration that feels especially important during Juvenile Justice Month as well as our Christian journey of Lent.
For some time, there was a fairly popular education reform picture circulating around the internet. It reads:
And although its sentiment captures the inexcusable defunding of public education in our country, it also suggests that to love students you must hate prisoners.
It doesn’t take seriously that the budget deficits that many state and federal prisons are experiencing are not only not being addressed through box tops but neither through reforms: reforms that would re-emphasize rehabilitation, utilize suspended sentences, and systematically address the fact that no other country in the world imprisons a higher percentage of its population than the United States. It doesn’t take seriously that, instead, the way these state and federal prisons are balancing the budget is by expanding the private, for-profit prison industrial complex.
It doesn’t take seriously that if you Google “What if prisoners had to collect box tops?” one of the top five results of your search is an archive from “Prison Talk,” an online forum for incarcerated people and their families to communicate with others going through the same experiences. The Google result is an archived post written on behalf of a woman named Lacy, an incarcerated mother who is currently serving a prison sentence in Texas. The post begins, “Hello, Good Morning, and Happy Easter to everyone here at PTO, [Prison Talk Online]” and it goes on to say that Lacy’s daughters are trying to collect box tops so their school can buy new books and computers. Then it asks that if anyone who can send in a few box tops, to please do so. The post ends, “I know that the girls would be so delighted if they felt that they had a small army behind them helping to reach a goal.”
Must we love Lacy’s daughters and hate Lacy? Does this approach really take our lives together seriously? Does it take the promise of Easter that Lacy invokes seriously? In the commandment to love our neighbor and our enemy, Jesus radically challenges the idea that love is available in a limited quantity, the idea that our preferences and commitments can only operate in a zero-sum system.
Perhaps most upsetting is that in the compromise to love one and hate the other, we ignore that there are reports that prisons use the test scores and dropout rates of students to project future numbers of prisoners, knowing that those students with below proficient scores on standardized tests and without high school diplomas are more likely to be incarcerated between the ages of 18 and 23. It doesn’t take seriously that we live in a world where certain students are more likely to become prisoners.
A world where the one we are told to love is literally the same as the one we are told to hate.
During this month of raising awareness of Juvenile Justice and during this 40 day journey of Lent into Easter, my prayer is that we would take seriously Jesus’ lesson that there are no limits to who we can love and what our love can do to bring healing and change into our world. That we would take seriously the crisis of mass incarceration in our society, a crisis that impacts millions of children in our country, either as the children of incarcerated parents or as prisoners themselves. That we would take seriously the S/spirit of change taking place, including on a judicial and national level, around prison reform. Changes like The Supreme Court’s decision to ban automatic life sentences without parole for minors (including retroactively) and President Obama’s work to end solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners.
Perhaps most of all for the Church, as we move into Holy Week, I pray we can take seriously the radical ways that Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection invites us to see and follow God’s path of reconciliation. In Lent, we turn to Jesus and follow him as best we can to see who and how God might be calling us to live. God chose to enter our world of hurt and suffering not only to care for those we most marginalize but as one who was marginalized. Jesus the Christ was trialed, sentenced, and killed as a criminal of his state. When Christians tell this truth…when we live this truth, then we follow Jesus’ teaching: the one we call neighbor—the one who is like us, respected by society and “easy” to love—and the one we call enemy—the one whose differences are met with our judgment, despisement, and disregard—are reconciled, brought together, made one in a way that is rooted in love and drives out hate.
May it be so.
Some of my top resources for juvenile justice and mass incarceration:
- Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which includes extensive research and real-life stories about the epidemic of trialing, sentencing, and incarcerating children as adults in the United States
- Sentencingproject.org, which includes an entire section on juvenile justice: http://sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=184
- Sam Durant’s “Labyrinth”: A part of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Open Source series, Durant’s labyrinth was set-up beside City Hall in October 2015. The maze pulled viewers into the lives of those experiencing and speaking out against mass incarceration in the United States. You can read more and see pictures at the links below: