There is no point of personal depravity or severity of woundedness that is beyond the grace of God’s healing touch. That is a profound statement of fact, not an utterance of hope for the future. Considering the subject matter of this article we can either choose to abandon ourselves to the relentlessness of man’s inhumanity to man, or we can surrender to the grace of God and watch the process of healing flow from our own broken lives. It is in the later context that this article takes shape in a brief history of human bondage masked as laws, policies, and institutionalized practices. Just because bondage has been promulgated in the form of a law, rule, regulation or legal opinion does not guarantee that it is a moral, sound or honorable maxim, which respects individual human dignity and worth. Since these concepts flow from God’s scale of valuation, our best efforts to administer justice and equality among all men is given to flaws, prejudices and resentments. Somehow, in the rush to embrace the principle of “the rule of law” we are often led to value other lives as unworthy and dishonorable. In our arrogance, we shed the awareness of spirituality as a unique factor in shaping and reshaping our lives. We lose the eternal perspective which God attaches to ALL life and choose the expedient course to deal with those troubling matters of conscience and morality. As a result, we live our lives in the fantasy that ‘we” are good people and the “others” are beyond the grace of God.
In this context, it becomes easy to devalue the lives of others and dismiss the significance of lives that challenge our concepts of dignity and individual worth. We process their apparent and imagined transgressions with an air of finality and certainty. As a people, we seem to lack the ability to revisit prior personal determinations in the light of new evidence of transformation. These events are possible in “our” lives, but not in the lives of the “others” whom we have already written off. How easy it is to ignore the scriptural saying “…God is no respecter of persons…” and to move on in a life dominated by elements of personal and societal denial. Either it is all true or it is all a lie. That is the way that God’s word works in our lives. The Holy Bible is not a spiritual buffet line where we choose what we wish to observe and dismiss the rest as unimportant. Therefore, it may be helpful to recall our own history as a country and look at the graduations and approximations of “law” which has contributed to the complex issues of life, demanding our present attention as a “people.” We can choose to hide in a smugness that states we have done pretty well as a nation, or we can reexamine our long established opinions regarding the meaning of life and establish a point of contrast from which we can establish a new conception of deference and respect for all life. Perhaps, it is time to take a new compass reading and check our position as we navigate into the future. That is the purpose of this article.
Slavery was a common practice, even as the early American citizens forged themselves into an economic and political response to the perceived issues of tyranny. To consider the issue more fully, think of our forefathers desire to be free of burden, while they were yet engaged in burdening other lives in a woeful and sorrowful exaggeration of their own complaints. They could quickly understand their own needs for freedom, but because the lives of slaves were only valuable in economic terms, our forefathers were unable to apply these concepts to the lives of their “chattel.” Therefore, for many years, well beyond the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, others were regarded as having little individual worth and no claim to personal dignity. Thus, the legacy of suffering was embraced and institutionalized as a viable part of the American dream.
Today, we understand that these practices had a scarring effect upon the psyche of those denied equality. The suffering was protracted and extensive and has surely created a genetic moral equivalent to a DNA marker which distinguishes those who lived through the long national nightmare. Many of today’s Americans are surprised that the inheritors of proclaimed freedom still bear noticeable traces of the wounds inflicted on their ancestors. These are the open wounds which continue to influence how we perceive our own worth and dignity. In this framework, those who inflicted the wounds also bear scars upon their own historical psyche in that they are the recipients of a legacy of cruelty, suffering and shame which seeks freedom from personal conviction in the form of disavowal and denial. Both groups suffer as a result of the dubious freedoms which we have inherited as a nation. Silence and societal indifference have no ability to heal these wounds, and in fact only serve to trigger a continuance of these practices in other venues of national life. My purpose is not to sear the conscience of the nation, but to reveal the consistent pattern of human devaluation which intrinsically seeks to put social distance between ourselves and those we view through the lens of law and order.
If I lose several years of my life to the justice experience and subsequent incarceration, I still retain my life upon release from the judgments of society. That is the myopic view of the average member of society: Uninformed, indignant and intolerant. The justice math says that if I lose a finger or arm to satisfy the demands of the law, do not complain you are getting off with your life. What is almost universally unseen is the loss of heart and individuality which is an unstated mandate of modern criminal justice practices. I can live without an arm, but I cannot live without a heart. If I lose my personhood and am then dismissed to a world of indifference and contradictory societal priorities, I have no ability to recapture my losses and can only accept the image imposed by the judgment of a court. In essence, I have no substance and I am relegated to a lifetime of form. My purpose in life becomes distorted by society’s need to label my actions as everlasting and therefore I am assigned to an unending role as worthless and beyond the hope of personal transformation. Somehow, my life has just assumed unwanted color and the only choice which is mine is to seek the refuge which shadow living can afford me. Thus, I live on the fringes of society as a refugee and felon. The felon state has no expiration date. It is just a point of living beyond the immediate attention of others.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States outlaws the practice of involuntary servitude, other than in the context of lawful punishment for crimes committed. There is a legal fantasy which has made its way into the common thought of the citizenry. It holds that when you have paid “your debt to society” then you are released from further burden. It is remarkable what people do not know about the rule of law. Only when someone in their close environment is threatened by legal variables and excessive life costs, that they become indignant about the contradictory nature of law and order as a way of life. Post conviction life assumes the burdens of indentured servitude as I am denied occupational licenses, residence of choice, meaningful work opportunity and equity in various forms of legal expression and their applications. Suddenly an unpaid debt is charged to my account and life is constrained and severely limited in terms of my future personal choices. No one explains this reality during court proceedings, since most lawyers have little insight into the excesses of punishment and servitude. If I am denied equal opportunity to participate in life, then in fact, I have been silently sentenced to a life of practical servitude. My choices have been curtailed and limited by the unseen hand of governmental obstructionism and a revised social order predicated upon privilege.
As a felon, I am required to live by the laws of the land. But in many jurisdictions, I am denied the basic right to vote. Somehow, the drafters of this legislation sought to teach lawbreakers of the value of government participation by denying them voting rights. We are also required to pay taxes, though our ancestors fought the English king over the practice of taxation without representation. That was a founding principle of this country, but its importance as a guiding light has been lost in the growing influence of political, economic and social sanctions which have accumulated as the magnitude of burden has increased exponentially over the last 75 years. The net effect is the institutionalized, yet unwritten practices of servitude which impacts the lives of millions of American citizens. Their cries and whimpers are drowned in the roar of the crowd maddened by other policies of indifference and coldness. Each member of the crowd demanding attention to their own particular needs and wants. Is it any wonder that as a nation we have retreated from the world’s stage as a leader in championing the rights of others? We can scarcely claim a moral mandate to speak of the failures of others, when we are burdened with a breach of concern and accountability for those living within our own borders. I cannot impress others to make choices that I am not willing to bear in my own life.
So the legacy of slavery has intertwined with the vine of servitude and has produce as new variety of malignant growth that has been spreading under our collective feet. This new growth of societal indifference has appeared on the scene with the speed of a social kudzu expansion. It has been subtly nurtured in the incubator of grand government policies and quietly dispersed to communities, cities, urban, suburban and rural locations across our country. We are in the midst of the harvest as we start to account for the lives of others. We look about and see how many are missing in the long war of justice encounters. How many causalities are there in this long siege of relentless attrition? To properly access these consequences, it is necessary to revise our ability to properly indentify those lost in battle. As with modern warfare, we know that today the greater populace of a warring nation are fair targets on which weapons of war are unleashed. The justice wars are no different. The offender assumes the role of belligerent and rightfully receives the retribution of society. Unlike wartime practices, offenders are never accommodated with prisoners of war status. Thus they are cast into a practical form of oblivion which we can call severcide. We all know the meaning of homicide and suicide, an intentional loss of life either by the hand of another or by self. Severcide is the equivalent activity with which society intentionally casts the offender and their family members into the role of social invisibility and insignificance. They lose even the most tenuous foothold in life and retreat under fire into shadow lands of existence. You may argue that it is an appropriate and just punishment for those who have violated the laws of the land. What about those who have done nothing to violate the laws; the spouses, children, family members and friends of offenders?
Once relegated by membership in this group, there is no practical appeal or pardon from the needless infliction of shame and pain which accompanies such an assignment. In fact, it forms the basis of a lifelong identification process which offers only one avenue of escape for the affected family members. That course of action requires the renouncing of family ties and subsequent personal identification with the “justice” warriors. Sadly, it is the same dilemma which confronts the offender upon return to society. If I cut myself off from my historical and family roots, then who am I? This is a more subtle variant of the justice virus being spread in our midst. Personhood is not based upon identification with a cause or political posture it results from and embraces our histories as people and citizens. If I renounce my genetic bond to family to seek the safety of anonymity, I choose to cast myself adrift on an ocean of societal divergence, which may yet manifest itself in hostile choices against me because of the accident of parentage or birth. Given the historical and political influences which slavery and servitude have produced as powerful co-factors shaping life choices, it should not be surprising that I am tempted to yield to the engulfing severcidal tsunami which dictates individual worth as a function of utility, approval and privilege. The reality is that we are ALL worth more than the sum total of our behaviors. The unexpressed future behavior’s is a coefficient which can only be determined at the conclusion of our journey of life.
So at this point in my life, I can accept the confluence of ideas that offers to determine individual worth and dignity on the scale of success or I can live out my life in numerous personal encounters with others who share in my social invisibility. In that way, I can determine the nature of my life journey, rather than await some malevolent verdict and judgment at the hands of those who share my vulnerabilities and personal weaknesses. In reaching out to those in need of compassion and empathy, I add worth to my own personal life story and engage in a process which reaffirms the dignity of all. Social invisibility has its advantages. In the context of living an undetected life I am gifted by the awareness of the distinctions between substance and form. Many of those who claim the mantle of certainty will never enjoy a brief moment of contact with those who routinely transient the same pathways. Their exaggerated claims to righteousness and virtue inhibit their God given ability to truly perceive worth and dignity in the lives of others. In resisting the conscious influences of a slavery mentality, the clear call to a life of servitude and adherence to the mandates of severcide, I am able to forge a new life journey of personal engagement in the lives of others. This process is fueled by my belief in the Holy Scriptures which tells me that I am the precious child of God. His words talk to me about His love for me, not about my individual worthlessness. In those quiet moments of personal revelation, I am impressed by a sense of urgency to spread that message by my thoughts, words and actions. My spirit is called to live out the message of love which has sustained me through all of my falls and failures. In gratitude and worship, I offer sincere thanks to my Savior, Jesus Christ. He is truly the Author and Finisher of my faith. He has turned my trash to treasure.