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Friday, December 14, 2007

God's Kingdom, Reign & Justice: Prison & Sentencing: Victims and the Oppressed

On Sunday, 25 November 2007, the Feast of Christ the King and the last Sunday in the Year of the Church, Jonathan Chambers - who heads Anglican Criminal Justice Chaplaincy in Victoria - delivered the following sermon at the Church of St Thomas, Upper Ferntree Gully.

The Reign of God in Luke’s Gospel .
Feast of Christ the King 2007 UFTG
Nature of the Kingdom of God -What sort of Kingdom?

Jesus’ Final Words to another human being before he died were to the Criminal beside him “….Today you will be with me in paradise”

The Kingdom of God is not something in the future- It’s NOW
“Today you will be with me in paradise”
Why would Luke finish this way?
What clue does it give us to the Nature of the Kingdom of God?

To understand the nature of this Kingdom, it is necessary to go back to Nazareth and the Jesus Manifesto, his campaign speech:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
And he rolled up the scroll,
gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them,
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

……“Today you will be with me in Paradise”
The Reign of God which Jesus declared and commenced with his ministry was about:
God’s Justice
Relief from poverty
Release to Captives
Recovery of sight to the Blind
Freedom for the Oppressed

In Luke, we see Jesus living out His Manifesto about the Reign of God - and what it looks like - in his life, ministry and teaching

Good News To The Poor
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation
blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

And then there were:

The Rich Man and Lazarus
Zacchaeus – the rich man who shares his wealth. Salvation has come to your house Today

Jesus was concerned about the gap between Rich and Poor
Luke was concerned about the gap between rich and poor in the Christian Community for which he wrote his Gospel.

Look at:
Housing at Docklands and the High Rise Commission Flats of Fitzroy or Flemington
Median Household Income in Braybrook is $575 pw
Median Household Income in Kew is $1850
(Median Household Income in Upper Ferntree Gully [where St Thomas’s is] is $1277)
25% of Victoria's Prison intake comes from only 13/647 in Victoria

The Reign of God is about the rich like Zacchaeus sharing wealth with the poor; and including the socially disadvantaged through equal education, maternal health care, adequate housing, employment.

Hugh Mackay in yesterday's Age spoke of reclaiming egalitarianism- a fair go - which was part of our Australian culture only 15 years ago.

Release To The Captives
Jesus brought release and community inclusion from captivity of sin. He included the sinful woman who anointed his feet; release and inclusion to the Leper; release and inclusion to the sick woman bent over for eighteen years; release and inclusion of the hated Samaritan Leper who returned to thank him for healing.

In the Gospels, Jesus didn’t spring anybody from prison.
But in the Book of Acts, Luke records four occasions when early Christians were released from prison by Divine intervention. Demonstrating God did indeed come “to set the prisoners free”

“Holding people captive” is a foundation of our Criminal Justice system in Victoria in the hope that paying people back with deprivation of liberty will deter them and others from offending again.
But 62% of those who go to prison will return.
The payback system.
How does it sit with Jesus command to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you?
If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, contrast the response of the Loving Father and the Older Son to the Prodigal. We are challenged and overwhelmed by the generosity of the Father who doesn’t “give the prodigal what he deserves”

The wisdom of God’s Reign as shown in this story is demonstrated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following apartheid.
“Healing through truth telling”.

Jesus shows the futility of inflicting more harm in order to “pay the price for the harm done”
Walter Wink says:
“As a society we run the risk in endeavouring to fight evil with evil – of becoming the very evil that we hate”.

God’s Reign and Kingdom looks to the future and aims to restore and repair the harm done. It builds up. It doesn’t beat people into submission.

Recovery Of Sight To The Blind
I discovered that The Blind in Luke’s Gospel were not the physically blind - whom Jesus healed - nor the spiritually blind who regained sight like Zacchaeus.

The Blind were Scribes and Pharisees who always complained about anything Jesus did to help anybody. “Tut tutting”. They are like Older Brother who complains that the son isn’t getting what he deserves, or like the Pharisees who complained that Jesus was breaking the rules.

In Victoria, The Blind - as far as the criminal justice system is concerned - are the Community in general. Because what goes on in prisons is hidden, we don’t know – other than what the press tells us. Or what the Ombudsman reports, as we saw this week.

The Press, generally, only report newsworthy stories- ones that will reinforce peoples’ beliefs and, particularly, prejudices. They don’t portray people as someone’s son or daughter, but dehumanise them stereotyping them as “Monsters” and defining them by the crime.
Murderer, Rapist, Paedophile, Thief.
Truly dangerous serial offenders = 2%.
The rest are tarred with same brush.

So the public are blind to the true story - and so there are calls for tougher sentences and longer jail terms.
  • Academic studies by psychologists, criminologists and sociologists point to the futility of locking people up.
  • Anyone who works in the prison system agrees it is counter productive and makes people worse.
  • Politicians associated with the prison system know that it’s costly and ineffective, but not one is willing to risk the electoral backlash if they appear to be “soft on crime”

With no other voices, other than the media, the Community continues to be Blind.
We like to believe it’s a Just system,.
Collusion terms are there like “Collateral Damage” in War.
We talk about:
Humane containment. Duty of Care. Modern prisons.
We hide the damage done by kidding ourselves we are rehabilitating
And we euphemistically call the govt dept ‘Corrections Victoria’ – when 62% return !

You can’t bring about a change of heart when you’re holding someone under force, isolated from the community. We each need community to survive.

The Reign of God is demonstrated by the story of the Shepherd who would care for each lost one so much that he would do the irrational thing of leaving 99 to go after that one. And when he finds it, like the loving father who found his son, throw an extravagant party.

The kingdom of God is not about condemning the lost by exclusion,

but by seeking them out, costly caring and celebrating –

even when they don’t deserve it.

To Let The Oppressed Go Free
The oppressed in the Gospels are those who are captive. To Roman and Jewish Laws- which were oppressive. Served law makers – not the people.

In the Criminal Justice system “The Oppressed” are the Victims of Crime- who, because of our legal process, don’t get a fair hearing. Crimes aren’t against a victim; they are offences against the State.
Therefore the only reason for involving a Victim is to call them as a witness.

Howard Zehr:
We don’t listen to what they have suffered and need
We do not seek to give them back what they have lost
We do not help them recover
We may not even let them know what has transpired since the offence.

Consequently, Victims feel that no justice has been done which recognises their loss. There is no closure .Which leads to anger, fear, and demands for vengeance.

Consequently Victims of Crime Groups are angry –
because they are oppressed

A Restorative Justice system, focussed on healing the wounds, with compassion as seen in the tender treatment of the Good Samaritan to the victim of crime on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho would go a long way to letting these oppressed go free.

A compassionate system which gave a place for victims to be truly heard and which still held offenders accountable to restoration could result in more Victims of Crime becoming Survivors of Crime.

The Reign or Kingdom of God as shown by Jesus actions and teaching in Luke are clearly at odds with the values of the Kingdoms of this world.

The Day of the Lords Favour, which Jesus declared began with his ministry
“Today this scripture had been fulfilled”.

If God’s Reign, which commenced in Nazareth is to continue, then WE are called too - as Christ’s Body to-day -to practice what we preach.

We are to do what we can to:

  • Restore the poor.
  • “Make poverty history” not just overseas but for the households of Braybrook who receive $570 per week
  • Set the captives free.
  • Work to find better ways of making offenders accountable rather than locking them up. Impossible? We did away with the death penalty. They said you couldn’t abolish slavery yet Wilberforce knew about the Kingdom of God. As did Mandela.
  • Open the Eyes of The Blind.
  • We need to let the Community know the truth about what harm prison does. We need to inform politicians that they will lose their seats if they let this injustice continue. Because God’s justice isn’t about payback. It’s about restoring right relationships.
  • Let the Oppressed go free.
  • We need to change the legal system – so that it is not combative with winners and losers. To change it to a place where victims are truly heard and offenders are truly held accountable. A place where people don’t just look at an offence and say : “this is what you will have to pay for breaking the law”, but instead we ask the Victim “what can we do to heal the damage, what can the offender do to bring restoration, what reparation should be made to the community, and what can we do to help prevent this offender from needing to offend again.”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ final words to another human were addressed not to his disciples but to a criminal. Most of his followers had abandoned him. They were words of inclusion to the outcast who on his own admission was guilty - but who sought Jesus’ acceptance.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled
“….Today you will be with me in paradise”

Can we be as inclusive –
so that the Kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.
I believe yes, we can –
as people who want to live in the Reign of God and God’s Justice.

Jonathan also handed out a document with the title Victoria's Prison Population: 2001 to 2006. It, along with its statistical documentation, can be found here. It is a publication of the Sentencing Advisory Council.
For more about Howard Zehr and his work with Restorative Justice, see here.

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