The Letter Kills


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, 2 Corinthians 3:1-9, John 12:27-36a

Victor Hugo’s novel (and popular musical) Les Miserables opens as hero Jean Valjean completes a 19-year prison sentence that began with stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister. The yellow letter he must carry impairs his ability to rebuild his life, until a merciful encounter propels him into a new identity. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne has a child out of wedlock. She and her daughter are forever outcast because of the scarlet “A” (for adultery) she must wear as a constant declaration of her sin.

In both stories, the heroes committed the original crimes, yet we root for them. We feel the injustice of their disproportionate and lifelong punishments. Yet somehow as a society our fictional compassion is divorced from our compassion for real people. We recognize the unjust legalism of the yellow and scarlet, but don’t quite make the connection to modern equivalents.

In most states job applications include a question about felony convictions. Honesty dramatically reduces the chances a former felon will even get an interview. “But wait,” you may think, “don’t employers have a right to know?” Maybe that’s too small a question. Of course child molesters shouldn’t be hired by a daycare, but if the system is meant to rehabilitate, why does it heap obstacles in front of a forty year old person who was foolish at twenty, has done their penance, and now seeks gainful employment? What separates them from Jean and Hester? Motivation? A catchy tune?

Forgiveness and relentless punishment are incompatible. If we argue it’s a civil matter and outside religious purview, then we have no business introducing Christian values into other civil matters. If we argue it’s a matter of risk, we have lost sight that following Christ always invites risk. We are meant to be outsiders, challenging the status quo of the empire. As Paul told the Corinthians: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

In all matters, let us seek the life-giving Spirit. Justice seeks more than punishment – it seeks to heal the starving and the outcast before punishment appears on the page.

Comfort: No matter who seeks to punish you, Christ seeks to forgive you.

Challenge: Read this short article about removing the “felony checkbox” in Minnesota. If it raises questions, search for more to read.

Prayer: Spirit of God, I will seek life in you for myself and others. Amen.

Discussion: The “felony box” is just on example of how our penal system is at odds with mercy and rehabilitation. Can you think of others?

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