As we approach the end of another year of thought, prayer and work, we think about all of the people whose contributions to the cause of justice and restoration who have played such an important part in our lives.
There never seems to be a shortage of stories about “historic” measures and great accomplishments by important people. But let’s reflect for a moment on the sanctity of ordinary things and the labors of compromised people.
Every society and culture has its pariahs and outcasts and we Americans have especially managed to glorify the powerful and attractive and marginalize people who fall from grace. And every year there is a new super class and an even more isolated sub class.
In the sixties we used the term “establishment” to describe the people who had the favor and the power. “Power, grace and style”, were the attributes songwriter Paul Simon used to describe one of them.
Today some refer to “the one percent”. Others describe people of consequence as “mainstream” and those in authority as the “system”. Then there are the sophisticates; the artists, academics and writers and media and business people, professionals and advocates, some of whom may be considered countercultural but most of whom usually make it a point to keep up the economic and social standing they need to stay relevant. And then we have the middle class; the working poor and under and unemployed, all trying their best to maintain. From each of these groups, we see people routinely falling away from the circle of acceptance and becoming more a part of an almost reality, once or twice removed from the good society.
And it can happen fast. A health crisis, a lost job or profession, an encounter with the law, prison, bankruptcy, a financial or sex scandal. It happens. And when it does, it changes everything and that fine upstanding, educated, productive person you worked with or lived next door to becomes viewed as a cripple, with seemingly little or nothing to contribute to society.
There is a case to be made that broken people can help rebuild a broken system and a broken world and that in fact it takes a broken spirit to fix a dispirited nation. We need to start salvaging damaged human resources and putting them to use for the good.
Look at history.
Those who place value in the Scriptures and religious history will recall that God chose Jacob, with all his early character flaws to lead Israel; that Jesus chose a band of socially marginal fisherman to spread the Gospel and build his Church and rescued people like Mary Magdalene from the authorities and invited himself to the home of the financially disreputable Zacchaeus to discuss restorative justice. And in the Thirteenth Century, it took a 25 year old Catherine of Siena to challenge a Pope in exile to tear down the existing Church and rebuild it, brick by brick. Francis of Assisi, an affluent playboy of his time confronted his own emptiness by running away from his mercurial father to embrace poverty and rebuild a broken church.
For those who prefer political analogy, Franklin Roosevelt was a spoiled, ambitious self-indulgent aristocrat when he was stricken with polio and began to seek wellness by bathing in the springs of Georgia with the poor and decrepit of his time. So compelling was this transformation for him that he dedicated what was left of his life to restoring a nation and it’s poor to economic wellness and mobilizing America to equip herself and her allies in the fight against tyranny and darkness in World War Two. And there are many other such stories, some not so heralded, like New York’s former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, whose fall from brilliant jurist to federal inmate was heartbreaking. Today Judge Wachtler is quietly teaching us again about justice and law and restoration, this time with a far more complete point of view. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, having also served time in prison, has urged us to educate ourselves about the evils and waste that characterize our criminal justice and prison systems and dedicated himself to the cause of criminal justice and penal reform.
Since the economic meltdown of 2008 hundreds of bankers and financiers have faced public wrath over their improper and reckless financial practices which have caused millions to lose their homes and destabilized home values and credit markets for years to come. Many such individuals and institutions have tried to make amends by paying fines to avoid criminal prosecution. Others, like Goldman Sachs have been more proactive and have instituted new financial instruments called Social Justice Bonds to finance prisoner re-entry programs at New York City’s Rikers Island.
Recognizing the need to include these people and institutions in the business of criminal Justice reform, the New York State Defenders Association, a 46 year old, not for profit public defense resource organization, is creating the Zaccheaus Justice Fund, to invite members of the financial and business industry to participate in financing badly needed criminal justice and community education initiatives which they will be undertaking in the coming years.
Our communities have many such people and resources to call upon in the fight to improve the quality of justice and life in America. Convicted felons, misdemeanants, defrocked professionals, drug and alcohol abusers, people who have resorted to violence in the past and since renounced it and many others can have something very valuable to offer to fix our broken world.
And we might just be surprised to find out that when we give this a try, the benefits will be exponential. When we accept people back and recognize their worth, we drive them to want to be even better and do more. Once we reinvest our trust in the fallen, in most cases, they will work and strive mightily to retain it.
Back in the mid-nineties former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli was driven from office over what was a minor scandal involving his taking some expensive suits as gratuities from a foreign lobbyist. This young articulate, bright Harvard educated public servant, left the political scene with this question:
“When did we become such an unforgiving people?”
We can’t exactly remember when, but we have surely become an unforgiving, judgmental, fearful people.
The time has come for us to resume the story of human history and salvation by accepting back those among us who have for some reason, fallen out of favor with society, and fallen from grace and putting them back to work for us.
We have serious problems confronting us in the areas of economic and social justice, bias, joblessness, homelessness, education, juvenile and criminal justice, prison reform, deficit reduction, taxation, poverty, hunger, peace and achieving stability for small businesses and homeowners.
So let’s get to work! We are running out of resources and time.
We at In Our Name extend to all of you our very best wishes for a very Merry Christmas, and a peaceful and purposeful New Year.