i’ve written a faith column for the Age today. It’s about restoration. i don’t think it’s on line… so it goes like this:
A few months ago I spent some time visiting Port Phillip Prison, working with a chaplain to design worship for some of the men who are serving sentences there. Over the course of a few weeks we invited the men to write psalms of lament, anger and boredom, giving voice to their longing for redemption and forgiveness; the chance to start again, to prove they can be more than the headlines the world knows them by.
‘I need God to show me strength, to show me the way, so I can get out of here’, wrote Phil. ‘God hasn’t shown anything back yet. I pray a lot. I pray most days to get the strength to go on, but I’m still waiting to be shown the way to believe. My deepest desire is to start a new life.’
It seems to me that faith has its hardest task in prison. Shame collides with compassion. Promises of hope are mocked by a system that relentlessly grinds people down. Well crafted theologies of redemption are given lie when our community doesn’t believe people can change. While the Christian story tells us to have confidence that God has already answered Phil’s prayer, the truth is that makes very little difference if the world doesn’t answer it as well.
I’m predictably cynical about divine miracles, but sometimes as I read the newspaper and listen to talkback radio it seems much easier to believe that God would raise someone from the dead than to believe that we would want someone who has served their time for a crime to be given a place in our community again.
It’s easy to understand why. Those of us who have been victims of crime never want to be faced with that horror again. It’s a natural instinct to separate the parts of ourselves and our communities which bring shame. And, if we’re honest, most of us think that those who have inflicted damage and pain on others are dispensable to our society. But psychologists and theologians would tell us that all of us are diminished when we do that. A healthy community isn’t one that cuts off the parts that hurt it, it’s one that seeks restoration. Our natural instincts aren’t always right. If the hardest task for those in prison is to look for a new way of living, it also seems the hardest task of a community is to let them live it.
The Christian faith is pretty uncompromising about how its followers treat people. At the heart of the faith is a belief that everyone can start again, that we are all more than the story the world knows of us. Christians give up the right to judge, and take up the responsibility to liberate.
It takes us becoming more than who we are, in order to allow others to become more than who they are. It requires us to have unfaltering belief in people who will often let us down. It’s an impossible act of faith. Yet every time I think it’s too hard, I’m haunted by the words of Phil, ‘God hasn’t shown anything back yet’, and I pray forgiveness for the world and for me, for the times we have stood in God’s way.
First printed in the Sunday Age, August 10 2008