A justice system that Mo'ne and Jesus would love

April 6th, 2015

When Mo’ne Davis starred last summer as a pitcher with an 80 mile-an-hour fastball in the Little League World series, I was, like everyone else, impressed. As impressive as her play on the field has been the grace and ease with which she has handled her fame off the field. She is poised in her interviews and genuinely low key. And now we can credit her with one more attribute: graciousness.

After it was announced that Disney was planning on making a film about her, a baseball player from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania sent out an offensive tweet that was followed by an apology and the deletion of his Twitter account. The university responded by immediately removing him from the team.

What Mo’ne did next should serve as an example to those of us in the church. She sent an email to the president of the university and asked that the player be reinstated on the team. When asked about it in an interview she said, “Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. I know he didn’t mean it in that type of way, and I know a lot of people get tired of like seeing me on TV but just think about what you’re doing before you actually do it. I know right now he’s really hurt and I know how hard he worked just to get where he is right now.”

She not only advocated for his reinstatement, she empathized with him and humanized him to the many people who were angered and offended by his tweet. Because of Mo’ne, the baseball player is no longer a sexist jerk who cruelly mocked a teenage girl. He is a young man who has worked hard to become one of the leading hitters on his college team. He is someone who made a mistake and has paid dearly for it for, as she claims, he is hurt even more than she is. And he is a young man who deserves a second chance because, as we all should be reminded, everyone makes mistakes.

When I read Mo’ne’s comments I am reminded of how I wish our approach to crime could reflect more of Mo’ne’s comments that our current insatiable thirst for retribution. Fortunately, more and more people are seeing the length of some of the sentences that are being handed down, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses, as unnecessary and unduly punitive. And it may even surprise a few folks who share this view: Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul and former Speaker Newt Gingrich to name a few.

But we still have the problem of demonizing certain people and claiming that they are beyond redemption or restoration. I see death row inmates in this class as well as people who have committed sexual crimes. We rightly find these crimes repugnant and devastating to the victims and their families. Approaching criminal justice from a restorative justice lens means first and foremost working for healing for the victims of crime.

At the same time, I think we have a tendency to define a person by the worst thing they have done. We see the detestable actions they have committed and they become those actions incarnate. Yet, Jesus, throughout the Gospels, repeatedly reaches out and makes an example of faith those deemed deviant by the rest of society, particularly those within the confines of his faith. Jesus humanizes them and makes it impossible for his followers to combine faith in him with demonization of those on the margins.

Our criminal justice system would be radically different – and far more effective, if we manifested this same kind of emphasis on restoration, even and perhaps especially on those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. All people are made in the image of God. All of us have sinned and fallen short. Those are truths whose ethical impact could very well transform our criminal justice system if we took them seriously.

The invitation is ours to extend to the most hardened of criminals, the most unreachable of people. Jesus is already there and bids us to join him to humanize those who would be demonized by the rest of society and locked away forever or even put to death. Whether it is a baseball player in Pennsylvania or someone who has committed an unspeakable crime, may we follow first the example of Jesus and even that of Mo’ne Davis and may we recognize the imago dei within them beyond the deed or deeds they have committed and then may we seek to restore them to a place of contribution once again.

Bill Mefford blogs at Jeremiah Weeping.

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