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Can people really change?

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When I was a children’s ministry intern in Fresno, Cal., a young man offered to serve as a volunteer in our Sunday school program. We were excited about the possibility of having another male volunteer to serve as a role model for our boys.

But when I read the man’s application form, I noticed he had been convicted of a sexual crime. Our Safe Place guidelines were clear: anyone with this type of criminal record could not serve with children. Since statistics indicated that past offenders were likely to reoffend, I suggested he look for a different ministry within the church.

My decision was met with disappointment by some church members who had worked with the young man through a local Christian rehabilitation program. “What about second chances? The Bible says that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Don’t we believe that God’s word is true? Plus, if we turn this guy away from children’s ministry, we may turn him away from the church altogether!”

It was a real dilemma. We had to figure out how to balance forgiveness and grace with our call to protect “the least of these.” We began to examine the way we treated ex-offenders, and we took a fresh look at our attitudes toward the penal justice system.

As Christians, we regularly use words like change, transformation, and renewal. But when push comes to shove, do we really believe that God can change people? Do we believe that criminals can be rehabilitated? Do we practice forgiveness, or are we so driven by fear and revenge that we only use criminal punishment to hurt offenders? Most importantly, what do our actions indicate about our underlying beliefs?
During last fall’s election campaign, Stephen Harper vowed to reduce protections under the Youth Criminal Justice Act for young people convicted of serious crimes. He said harsher sentences would deter other youth from committing similar offences. He also said it would be a way to keep society safer.

If October election results were any indication, many voters – including many of Canada’s 2.5 million evangelicals – were pleased by this tougher approach to crime proposed by the Conservatives.
Our actions at the polls suggest we have little faith in the possibility that criminals can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. It seems that many Christians simply believe “if they’re dangerous, lock them up.” We see our penal justice system as little more than a deterrent for other criminals, and a way to exact vengeance on lawbreakers.

But does this attitude about the purpose of punishment line up with the teachings of Jesus? What about restoration and rehabilitation?
In Luke 7, we read the story of a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume (Luke 7). It’s a tale of hope and transformation – a “woman who had lived a sinful life in that town” had been forgiven much and learned to love much. She became a different person and acted accordingly. Who knows what would have happened if Jesus hadn’t given her a second chance?

Jesus treated Zacchaeus – a criminal and a cheat – in a similar manner. After an encounter with the Saviour, the tax collector exclaimed, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He is duly punished, dipping into his own finances in order to pay back his victims. Yet, he re-engages with society as a changed man.

Jesus forgave sinners and sent them back into the community, expecting them to turn from their old ways and start afresh. Ultimately, Jesus’ purpose was to restore relationships and transform individuals. Redemption – quite a departure from the purpose of our current Canadian criminal justice system!

This month, we want to inspire readers to think outside the box regarding the justice system in Canada. Is there a different way to approach crime and punishment in this country? Are there alternatives to simply locking people away for decades in unhealthy prison environments?

For many Christians, the answer is restorative justice, a way to repair the harm that’s been done by inviting all parties to take part in the healing process. Restorative justice may include face-to-face meetings between criminals and their victims, and finding creative solutions for restitution and/or compensation. Other Christians believe that part of the solution is prison visitation ministry, which involves getting to know criminals on an individual basis. Both approaches require faith in the power of change and transformation.

The Bible teaches that real life change can happen through the power of the Holy Spirit, coupled with community accountability and support. Now, the challenge is to act like we really believe it’s true.

Laura Kalmar

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