A famous sermon preached by Puritan Jonathan Edwards around 1740 entitled, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” paints the picture of what awaits those who choose to live a life of sin. “Justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins,“ he proclaimed in a calm and collective manner, as reported by those in the congregation. Many high school students have had to read this sermon from a critical perspective: how is this puritan mentality of “infinite punishment” toward sin and punishment reflected in America today? Pope Francis’ historical visit to the Philadelphia prison gives us an idea of how we should view those who are incarcerated, “Jesus invites us to share in his lot, his way of living and acting. He teaches us to see the world through his eyes. Eyes which are not scandalized by the dust picked up along the way, but want to cleanse, heal and restore.”
Those in Catholic schools may have to grapple with the question of how puritanism differs from Catholicism when it comes to sin and punishment. Are we to be identified by our worst action, or is there hope for even the most violent and ruthless of sinner? I confess that I had not given this question, which I certainly had to explore during my high school years, a second thought until I met someone who spent the past eighteen years behind bars. Jacob (name changed), now in his forties, is a well-spoken, well-dressed and articulate gentleman from Texas. Before his incarceration, he had behaved like any typical 23-year-old; He had a job as a DJ, had a presence in the bar scene, and dated. One woman he dated was, unbeknownst to him, eight years his junior, and was therefore a minor at the time. The girl’s father pressed charges against Jacob and, after a long and tedious trial period, Jacob ended up behind bars for the remainder of his young adult life, stamped with the label of “statutory rapist.” In our post-Christian society, why is it that this most puritanical mentality continues to thrive?
Stories like Jacob’s are not unusual, particularly in states with high incarceration rates like Texas. Since the early 1980s, the United States prison population has been on a steady uptick, spiking around 2004, with a prison population of around 1.6 million inmates nationwide, making the United States the highest prison rate in the world. While the U.S. makes up only 4.4% of the world’s population, the U.S. prison population makes up a staggering 22% of the world’s prison population. When someone is released from prison, he is entered in to the system as a felon, thus marking him with a virtual scarlet letter for the remainder of his life. No matter how reformed or changed a man may be, this sin, this crime will be a part of his identity, not unlike the Puritans before us.
Jacob recently visited the relics of St. Maria Goretti and pointed out that the story of her attempted rapist and murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, could have never happened in modern-day America. If a 20-year-old man were to attempt rape and murder a twelve-year-old child, he would almost definitely receive the death penalty, no matter the difficult circumstances of his childhood. Serenelli certainly had a rough childhood—growing up around alcoholism—and he served 27 years in the Italian prison system after his inarguably heinous crime. When Serenelli was released, he retired to an Order of Friars Minor Franciscan community, where he lived a life of prayer and solitude, presumably having undergone a radical conversion. Our modern-day American prison system leaves no room for this kind of reform.
Jacob says, “As society has become more secular, we don’t know what to do with suffering. We just want to get rid of the problem instead of really looking at the problem.” No human being can claim to be anywhere near perfect, but the public shaming of America labels people by their worst actions. Jacob met a man in prison who was serving time for the possession of marijuana. After his release, he got married, had three children, holds a job, and lives the stereotypical all-American life. When his father became terminally ill with cancer, he petitioned the governor to allow him to go hunting with his father one last time before he died, a hobby the two enjoyed prior to his incarceration (those with felonies are not allowed to operate a firearm). The governor denied his request, even though his crime had nothing to do with guns, nor was it in any way a violent crime. In the eyes of the American justice system, this man will forever be known not as a father, husband, son, or worker, but first and foremost as someone who had been in the possession of drugs.
Of course, we do certainly have a crime issue in this country, which should not be discounted. Jacob said, “We have moved away from any concept of mercy; change is possible. We do not believe that anymore. Let’s not think about the issue [that there is a larger amount of crime than before], let’s come up with a legislative remedy.” Why has there been an increase in crime in recent decades? Many have blamed the breakdown of the family to be a contributing factor. In fact, one study estimates that 75% of prisoners come from a fatherless home. But is the solution to lock people up when the punishment is often not proportionate to the severity of their crimes, when the problem with our society isn’t the crimes per se, but the root of where they are coming from? I know that many of us are very uncomfortable with the idea of doing anything besides throwing money at the problem of poverty. In our post-Christian society, what can be done about the continual breakdown of family life for those who are at risk for criminal behavior? Is simply locking away the problem the answer?
As we continue to navigate life in our post-Christian era in America, may we remember that human beings are, first and foremost, beloved children of God. Just as we do not label people as “gossiper,” “lazy,” or “fornicator,” nor should we label people by “murderer,” “rapist,” or “druggie.” While there are varying degrees of sin, may we never forget that we are not puritans, and Catholicism offers a much more vast view of the human person. Pope Francis said on his visit to the prison in Philadelphia, “Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God. He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion.”