Saul was the prison officer, we heard about last week; a man who was acquainted with tough situations and tough people. He had been inclined to be very judgemental and dismissive of those in his charge. When a crisis came, he expected them to fall down. Now he faced his own crisis.
He had been in the same job for almost thirty years and suddenly he was faced with immediate redundancy. Due to restructuring his job was going. No question. However, there was a new role available. The new management was more in favour of rehabilitation, with schemes for ‘restorative justice’, with efforts to talk more to prisoners and let them talk and so to get them to begin again. What did he think? Experience had taught him that he could have done much better on rehabilitation; the rate of recidivism was huge because promises were made and broken and the cycle of crime and criminality was not affected positively at all. Worst of all nobody gets rewarded for doing right. Then it occurred to him that he himself had not given much hope to those in his charge even though it was rumoured some of them had been framed.
As a Christian should he not believe in the possibility of beginning again? When people mentioned the prodigal son story, he would reply that there was no guarantee the son would stay at home, or be reformed in the long term. Indeed, some authors like Marilynne Robinson wrote about the sad second falling away of the Prodigal. So that story was too idealistic. His experience taught him not to be naive. How could faith bring new hope?
He had always thought some criminals had gone astray so badly that they were incapable of changing. Past bad experiences, bad company, personal weaknesses, lack of support, low expectations, greed for quick success, tendency to excuse and blame others, self-justification, all pointed to repeated failure. It would make anyone cynical.
So, what about mercy and forgiveness and redemption? What about those religious ideas? Where do they fit in? In his experience modern society encourages those who do wrong to excuse themselves because of how they were once treated. Wrongdoers minimise what happened. They justify themselves by saying everyone has weaknesses. They tell lies almost without thinking of the consequences. They leave very few openings for a religious adviser to make a difference. You have to be ready to fail far more often than you make any difference. This is true of wider society, not just of those in jail. During the pandemic the rich get richer and the powerful take advantage of every opportunity to exploit. That’s just life. I’m realistic.
So, what would he say to the offer of the new post? What did he think of rehabilitation? They told him, you clearly know the facts, you are realistic, you are bluntly honest, you have no illusions. You’re the person we want. He thought of that piece of scripture from Matthew 25 on the Feast of Christ the King. Jesus says ‘I was in prison and you came to see me. What you did to the least of my brothers you did to me.’ He smiled and replied: I’ll take the job and I will try again to see Jesus in those I meet. But don’t expect immediate results. The first thing I will do is investigate the case of the man they said was innocent and helped his fellow prisoner. He was being like Christ, wasn’t he? Maybe I can learn from him?