I had the honor of visiting a prison here in Atlanta, in order to give an informal talk. Marco, both a friend and a mentor was the go between. It was through him that I had the pleasure of meeting the Rev. John Smith, who was the one who extended the invitation. I met Marco off Old Peachtree Road, parked at the Publix parking lot, and drove with him the rest of the way.
Marco is a very intelligent, thoughtful and insightful man, whom I am grateful to have the honor of knowing. He is a true seeker and I have learned a great deal from the times that I have been able to talk with him, which unfortunately have been few and far between. He is also a mentor, for he is very encouraging and supportive in my fledgling attempts at writing. He has been to the facility we were visiting a number of times, this was my first. In the past he was also one of the speakers. Over the years I have visited others prisons a number of times. Most of them were to visit an in-law who was incarcerated for transporting drugs across states lines. He was moved a couple of times, both within traveling distance, so I have had some limited exposure to that kind of environment He, his name was Ron, was in for three years, and believe me, three years in any kind of prison is a long time. He however deserved his punishment and served his time, and when he was released was never arrested again. So I had a little experience, though giving a talk was a first.
As we drove up the first thing I saw was the barbed wire that surrounded the facility. On top of the barbed wire was another kind of wire that was thicker and razor sharp, not sure what it is called, but no one was going to climb over that. The buildings reminded me of school, the lawns well manicured, the place had a feel of being very organized, clean, and yes somewhat new. We had to be searched before we went in, and the bars that opened up for us gave me the shivers.
When we finally got inside I could see that there were more prisoners than I thought would be present, but that was okay, the group was relaxed and it helped me to get over my speaking jitters, something I always have before I get in front of a group. They were all ages, the youngest, I found out later was 20 and was getting out soon, the oldest was probably in his sixties, though I am not sure.
As I looked out over the group I thought of the last judgment scene, were Jesus said: “I was in prison and you visited me”. As I was thinking about that, the verse became alive, and I realized that the verse was not about me visiting, but about the prisoners themselves. The intimacy that God has with us is something that I have yet to comprehend, but the reality of Jesus the Christ being not merely present “within’ those men, but actually was those men, went beyond any kind of mere intellectual formulation piously stated at times. Jesus did say that he was found in the least, no he was the least, and I would imagine that at one time or another most of us would fall into the category for some. God became flesh, there are no boundaries with God, no one is outside that embrace; there is no outside. They, like me, are part of the body of Christ, for “whatever you do to the least, you do to me”. It is often forgotten the revelation that Jesus brought, that intimacy that God has with us. On the cross he forgave those who tortured and killed him, so who is outside that forgiveness? Well we all have our list, but then those on the list, are in reality, the least, so Jesus indentifies with them. There is no escape from this lesson, a hard one indeed.
As I got up to speak, as they looked at me, they were just men, just like me. I was no different, for I know what is in my heart, and I also know what I am capable of, if pushed to an extreme. I am not saying that they do not deserve being there, it is just I am just like them. The saying often quoted “there but for the grace of God go I”, is very true. Human dignity cannot be taken away, though we all are responsible for our actions, none are outside love’s embrace or pursuit.
I could feel God’s presence there in a powerful manner, it was a holy place, and the men there were seeking God, also they were leading lives of responsibility, seeking a better path. Christ is with them, one with them, walking with them, going before them, meeting them in their successes and failures, for God is all in all, and in Him we live and move and have our being.
There are levels of judgment, some are necessary, true, and at times we all benefit from the judgment of others. There are however other kinds of judgment that are destructive, to both the one receiving and also from the one bestowing. For we can close a person off, unable to see beyond whatever it is they have done, we brand them. This kind of judgment makes the other beyond redemption, marked, humanity taken away. Sort of what was done to Jesus; the ultimate scrape goat; it is this level of judgment that we are told not to do. Why? Well because I think we are lousy at it; at least I am, get it wrong, and in the end, a form of self judgment as well. So it is destructive all the way around.
It is possible to have no illusions about what we as a species are capable of and at the same time believe in the love God has for each of us. Especially the least, which at times we all are in someone’s eyes, perhaps mostly in our own, for I think we are our own worst judge. Yet never in God’s eyes, for the further away we feel, the closer Christ draws near. Just words, spatial images I know, which cannot even begin to express the mystery of God’s love and presence within all that is; I find it frustrating. I just get glimpses and then it goes, so I struggle with this great mystery of “God with us”, perhaps until the day I die. “I was in prison and you visited me.” Who is in prison; who is being visited, who are you and what am I?