I met a man in Israel named Moshe. I traveled to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan for an inter-term class in college, and during the trip, I got to do amazing things, like wander through ancient ruins, explore a secret tunnel beneath Jerusalem, and swim in the Dead Sea. I also failed miserably at haggling, chipped a tooth, and was searched by Israeli police, but having hummus every day made up for that. We stayed in Jerusalem for most of the trip and did day trips from there to other parts of the country. On one of the days where we actually stayed in Jerusalem, we went into Moshe’s small shop in the Old City.
Moshe and his brother are Jewish, and together they moved from their home in Canada to start a new life in the Jewish homeland. Together they opened their shop, Shorashim, and when my fellow students and I walked in, Moshe subtly moved to the door and turned the lock. With us trapped inside, he ushered us to the center of the shop and asked us to listen to him about what it meant to be a Jew. Moshe’s openness and religious devotion created a wonderful space for dialogue in a place that really needs it.
When asked about the daunting task of following the 613 commandments in the Torah, Moshe told a story. His wife wanted him to get an orange from the market on his way home. Meandering through the crowds of people, he went to his favorite produce vendor, whose stall was stacked with dozens and dozens of oranges. After a few kind words to the vendor, Moshe bought a whole bag of oranges. He knew how much his wife loved oranges, and though she only asked for one, he knew a whole bag would be a small way of showing how much he loved her. Each commandment is like an orange, Moshe said. Following one, or ten, or all 613 commandments is not so much a task, but rather an opportunity to express love and gratitude. Love, he said, is at the heart of the Law.
Moshe’s story portrays us as being in relationship with God, and since Christians around the world celebrated Epiphany on Wednesday, we are reminded of the love revealed in God’s grace. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem is traditionally seen as the moment of this revelation, but the importance of this moment is not fully explored where the story appears in Matthew. The appearance of Christ in the world, however, has significant theological implications, as Paul argues in his letter the Ephesians. For Paul, Christ extends God’s grace to all peoples, even the Gentiles. Many of his contemporaries disputed this interpretation, but given the spread of Christianity throughout the world, it is pretty clear whose ideas won out.
Paul argues that God’s love is universal and is not restricted by the adherence to Jewish Law. Like Moshe, Paul shows that the Law is less about legalism and more about striving to love God and walking faithfully. Faith in Christ, fully expressed, transforms us into living instruments of love, which sits at the heart of the Law, but is not encased by it. On multiple occasions, Jesus performs miracles of healing on the Sabbath, despite the injunction that the Sabbath is a day of rest. This defies the Law, while simultaneously revealing the loving grace it seeks to embody. Much like a metaphor directs us to meaning beyond a set of words, grace cannot be contained by a set of concrete rules. Paul acknowledges these limits and, like Jesus, knows that neglecting to share God’s love for the sake of the Law is to get things backwards. Jesus, Paul, and Moshe recognize that the Law is not an end, but a means. To put it another way we share more oranges not because we have to, but because love of God and God’s people is overflowing.
With this reframing of the Law, through the manifestation of Christ, Paul is certain Jesus’ message is for both Jews and Gentiles. Both are more than capable of being true disciples.
At the risk of comparing apples to oranges, I think this discussion of Jewish Law can inform a conversation about criminal justice reform. Criminal justice in this country needs to be reframed because the mission of public safety has gotten lost in the pursuit of punishment. The US represents 5 percent of the world, yet we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. There are 2.2 million people behind bars in the US. That’s more than any other country in the world – 600,000 more than China and 1.3 million more than Russia. All of this costs about 50 billion dollars annually. As the supposed leader of the free world, we are unmatched in our ability to take freedom away, no matter the price tag.
While Jewish Law and modern secular laws are not the same, I think the disconnect between ends and means has crippled our criminal justice system, just as legalistic interpretations of Jewish Law degrade Paul’s view of grace. In criminal justice, the goal of public safety is central, but over the past forty years the overriding need to punish criminals has taken over, creating a performance-based system where more convictions erroneously equal justice. Since 1980, the US prison population has increased 800 percent, not because of an increase in crime, but largely because mandatory minimum sentences lock low level drug offenders for five, ten, or fifteen years. Now, drug offenders make up 50 percent of the federal and state prison population, and only seven percent of them are high level offenders. These are not dangerous individuals. On a moral and practical level, we have to wonder if such long mandatory sentences make sense.
However, even this line of thought can cause true justice to elude us. A discussion on Just punishment is important, but only with the broader mission of criminal justice in mind. Promoting public safety goes beyond punishment and concerns the health of a community more generally. Sensitivity to how individuals and communities are affected by mass incarceration is a crucial step that can redirect our system down the path of Christ-like compassion and redemption. Doing this is difficult, however, because the demonization of criminals over the past 30 years has socially, emotionally, and physically separated those who have spent time in prison from those who haven’t.
We need to question this us-versus-them mindset. Hebrews 13:3 says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” The danger of our prison system is that it purposely pushes people away to the fringes. Our prisons tend to be away from population centers, making is easy to forget about the people behind bars because we don’t see or hear about them.
The writer of Hebrews challenges us to extend grace with a call to radical empathy. We need to put ourselves in the place of those in prison, both to recognize our shared humanity and to hold ourselves accountable. Often the victims of drug addiction, broken homes, and poverty, these persons need opportunities to break the cycle of brokenness, not years in a cell. Reacknowledging that Epiphany was last week, the word epiphany in the secular sense means a sudden moment of understanding. As an English major in college, I frequently had classes with a professor who loved James Joyce, and on multiple occasions I sat through lectures and class discussions about a collection of Joyce’s short stories called Dubliners. Epiphanies are central to these stories, and because Joyce used the word epiphany in this literary way, many credit him with giving the word its modern secular usage. In Dubliners, epiphanies mark important turning points for the characters and reframe each story.
Similarly, recognizing the humanity of prisoners is the epiphanic moment that reframes criminal justice and allows us as individuals to infuse this system with much-needed grace and prudence. This compassionate response – the reorientation from simple punishment towards rehabilitation and job training, etc. – demands we look at the neglected families and the communities destabilized by long prison sentences. Many individuals are an honest threat to public safety, but the idea that incarceration is a cure-all for crime has proven short-sighted and costly, both monetarily and for the people losing years of their lives behind bars. Paul saw that God’s grace belonged to everyone, even the Gentiles. We have the challenge of extending grace to those on the fringes, especially persons demeaned and forgotten. I am not saying we should blindly open the doors to prisons, but rather accept the truth that even criminals are children of God. Through grace, true justice can reinvigorate a stagnant and unjust prison system.
Criminal justice reform has been a priority for many in Congress for several months. There is support from both parties to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, but the path to truly transform laws and attitudes about criminality is long and difficult. For this compassionate path to be successful we need to walk with humility. Though we can receive grace, Paul makes clear in several places that it cannot be earned. I don’t want to break into a theological discussion about this or debate about human nature and trace out whether humans are naturally good or naturally evil. Rather, I will just oversimplify and say that any perceived unworthiness illustrates the social and instinctual urges that can pervert our most good or righteous causes. Paul’s claim that we can never earn grace reminds us of our own limitations and our ability to be overcome by the passion that drives us. We see our limits when, in the fight to restore humanity to the forgotten, we forget the humanity of those that disagree with us. It also happens when the ends become justification for questionable means, as happened in the infamous War on Drugs that helped create this problem of mass incarceration.
Possibly most important, we need to be humble enough to realize our tendency to be complacent. Consider the Martin Luther King Memorial. Breaking away from the mountain of darkness, Dr. King’s statue seems to usher in a new age of justice and light. While Dr. King certainly deserves a monument and while his steps towards racial equality should not be understated, it terrifies me that such a triumphant monument could potentially have negative symbolism. Such a monument can become a naïve excuse for justified inaction when racial injustice – especially in our prison system – still exists. It is easy to say, “Look at this man. He changed our country. It was evil then, and now that evil is gone.” We need to be humbled by those great people who changed the world before us and celebrate their lives. We need to continue their work, but be humbled by the past that required those heroes. The onus is on us to take responsibility for the mistakes of the past or the same mistakes will continue to be made.
As we talk about Epiphany, we need to remember the wisdom that must accompany the pursuit of justice. The spark of inspiration that lights a new path must always be revisited and tended in order to stay lit. For Paul, the spark was the unfolding of God’s grace in Jesus that transformed his understanding of the Law. His commitment to ministering the Gentiles moved beyond the Law to restore its purpose. We are called to make the same movement: overturn convention so God’s grace can shine through us. May we go forth with bags of oranges.