I was flipping channels a couple of hours ago, looking for something to watch to help me pass time since I couldn't seem to be able to fall asleep. I stumbled upon a documentary titled "Serving Life" on OWN. Narrated by Forrest Whitaker, this two hour program featured inmates serving life sentences at the Louisiana State Penitentiary who were part of a hospice volunteer program, caring for inmates who are facing the end of their lives and dealing with terminal illnesses. This program was started in the mid 1990's by warden Burl Cain and gives selected inmates the opportunity to do something for another and to reach outside of themselves in the spirit of compassion. Most of the inmates are serving sentences for violent offenses - murder, rape, drug related crimes, armed robbery...I was deeply moved by their stories of how these experiences in the hospice care program have changed their lives and their hearts.
People who know me best know that I have had very rigid, strong opinions about the criminal justice system, what the "appropriate" sentences should be for particular crimes, and about the death penalty. Suffice it to say that I have had very little compassion for those who commit such crimes. I have tried to keep my ideas in my "head", and look at things "logically" and according to what I believed would be the most "cost effective" ways of dealing with "hardened criminals". I have refused to look within my heart and see these individuals as human beings. After all, how could anyone, any human being, do to another human being the things that many of these individuals have done? I believe that some of my rage, and if I am going to be honest, hatred, for perpetrators of violent crimes comes from my own personal experience of being raped at the age of 18. My heart most definitely became "hardened" in the days, weeks, months, and years following that experience.
Most of the TV shows that I have seen over the years, such as "Lockup" on MS NBC, focus on the violence of the crimes committed by the inmates and their continued violent behavior within the prison system. This documentary was the first that I have seen that focused on those prisoners who were trying to make a change in their lives for the good, even though they will never be released from behind prison walls. I watched in a state of disbelief at how those inmates who were a part of this rather innovative program treated fellow inmates with such love and compassion. It opened my eyes to the realization that no matter what a person has done, no one wants to be forgotten and no one wants to feel that they are not cared for. No one wants to die alone. I found myself thinking that even the worst of the worst of us has a tiny mustard seed of good inside of them. I have come to believe that no one is purely evil, lacking any capacity whatsoever to love another. This by no means finds me in a position of saying that what some of these men and women have done should be excused or dismissed. I do not believe that anyone has a "right" to act in terrible ways because that was how they have been treated. I still firmly believe that we should be held accountable for our actions and should have to face the consequences for what we have done. However, I am reaching a place in my heart where I realize that in the end, God will judge our actions and that God's forgiveness is available to everyone, whether I like it or not. It has taken me about 20 years to reach the place where I no longer harbor deep resentment and anger toward the individual who assaulted me back in September of 1988.
I still waver back and forth over what I believe our justice system should do with violent offenders. I see stories on the evening news which horrify me and I'm outraged. I struggle with my faith, wondering how a loving, caring God could allow these things to happen. But even though I may still be tempted to believe that in some circumstances, an individual should pay the ultimate price for their crimes and be sentenced and put to death, I keep coming back to the idea that "two wrongs don't make a right". I struggle with believing that God has a reason for everything that happens and that murders, rapes, etc. are a part of God's plan. I do not believe that God plans for any of us to do such things. I do believe however, that God has the power to change people for the good and although none of us can "undo" our past actions, we can choose to learn from them. We can choose to not repeat those behaviors. We can choose to reach out to others in need. We can choose to feel compassion. I try to make sense of it all and I can't. What I can do is hold on to the hope that within every human being is a tiny mustard seed of love and that in the end, love will prevail. Hatred has never given me a sense of peace and serenity. Love does each and every time.