It is too easy, and perhaps too common, to read something like I wrote yesterday and say, "Well, if he couldn't handle the conditions of prison, then he shouldn't have become a criminal!" But that would be the easy way out, and the shallow one. The truth is that most of our society is set up now by function, not form.
We are living at the cost of our own humanity.
Prison, yes, strips a man of his inherent dignity. So does healthcare. So does education. So does employment. Everywhere we go, we are stripped to our most basic function, forsaking our form, dismissing the dignity of the image of God that is woven into each one of us. And it is something that we do not know well how to get back.
The "old law" is often criticized for its harshness, an eye for an eye and all that. But anyone who takes an honest look at our current system sees that it is far more barbaric than anything decreed from Sinai. The punishments that God prescribed for breaches of conduct were centered in community - exclusion from the community for a time, retribution to be paid to a neighbor, execution by the community in cases of severe offense. But he always provided a way, too, to come back. At the end of the time, at the payment of retribution, even in the final glimpses of a man's eyes before execution, there was community at the heart of it. Welcome back, brother; you belong here.
And the community understood all of this. They understood that the man who had been cut off for awhile had come back, and they embraced him. They understood that the man who had been unclean had been cleared, and here he is again among them. There was no further exacting of punishment, no continued judgment on him. Maybe they tell the story - hey, you know Joe once did ______? or hey, do you remember that one time when Maggie had leprosy? - but it always concludes, "those three days without him were miserable!" or "Boy, did we miss her!"
Not so today. Today, we look at a man and say, "You're a criminal. Go back to prison where you belong." He's not Joe any more, and from the moment he became Inmate #478193, we immediately stopped missing him. He became less than human in our eyes, no longer a part of our community, and we're not about to give that back to him. And then we look stunned and ask him why he continues to commit crimes. We shake our heads and say, "See? We knew it. You. are. scum."
Not human. No dignity. No community. Done.
That's why our modern system is more barbaric than anything Leviticus offers. We do not offer legitimate ways for a man to come back to his community, let alone to himself, let alone to God. This is, I think, what broke my friend. At least if he's on the run, he can pretend for a little while to be human again. And I think his soul is craving that.
There are millions of other souls craving that.
It starts with us, with those of us still standing in the community, with those of us who have not, at least right now, been cast out. It's going to take us being willing not to exact a man's dignity from him as the price of his offense. It's going to take us being willing to stand up and say, "Brother, I miss you. I can't wait for you to come back" and then "Welcome back, brother! You. Belong. Here."