So we’ve been exploring the various facets of forgiveness this week as part of our forays into the subject of ‘identity in Christ’. It’s clear that wherever forgiveness is concerned, opinions on mercy, grace, weakness, power and love are bound to intersect:
Rev Martin Luther King: We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love”
Gandhi: The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Maya Angelou: You cant forgive without loving. And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say “I forgive. I’m finished with it”.
There are echoes of Jesus on the cross for me here:
‘Father forgive them … it is finished’.
After everything I’ve contemplated this week, one thing I cannot shake from my mind is the revolutionary grace in action at Norway’s Bastoy Island Prison, a prison where inmates are treated as human beings. The interesting thing about Bastoy is that the rate of its inmates reoffending upon release is just 16%. That’s strikingly low compared to the rest of Europe where the rates of recidivism are as high as 75%. Looking at Bostoy it would appear Abraham Lincoln was onto something when he said “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice”. Apparently Grace works.
This is Bastoy:
The prisoners on the Island live in village communities, have free time and are given responsibilities. Underpinning this approach to corrections is a desire to see inmates rehabilitated into functional members of society. In the Christian worldview we might say Bastoy sees them for what they are: sinners in need of forgiveness.
A favourite magazine of mine recently interviewed Arne Nilsen, a clinical psychologist by trade and a prison warden at Bastoy.
“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working…In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison, they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings …”
This is what Nilsen says about the less than conventional approach at Bastoy:
“You don’t change people by power. For the victim, the offender is in prison, that is justice. I’m not stupid, I’m a realist. Here, I give prisoners respect this way we teach them to respect others. But we are watching them all the time. It is important that when they are released they are less likely to commit more crimes. That is justice for society”.
Vidor, one of the prison’s oldest inmates, is a laundry worker on Bastoy and a house-father in his four man bungalow. I’m quoting here from an article on Bostoy published by The Guardian:
“[Vidor] tells me he is serving 15 years for double manslaughter. There is a deep sadness in his eyes, even when he smiles. ‘Killers like me have nowhere to hide’, he says. He tells me that in the aftermath of his crimes he was ‘on the floor’. He cried a lot at first. “If there was a death penalty I would have said yes, please take me.” He says he was helped in prison. “They helped me to understand why I did what I did and helped me to live again’.
When I think of Vidor’s story in the context of Nilsen’s words, ‘you don’t change people by power’, I can’t help but think of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.
I think of God writing on the temple courtyard, the sound of stone pavers fracturing into fissures under the touch of his finger. This is God in flesh; an echo of Sinai. Instead of commandments of law written on tablets of stone, a new law is being written here: mercy.
Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.
The freedom from condemnation comes first, before the instruction to sin no more. Accepting we are not being held to the penalty due to us, that we no longer need to be ashamed, is what empowers change.
In my mind, knowing how deeply forgiven we are is a critical first step to understanding our identity in Christ.
We are righteous in God’s eyes. That status never changes, even when the state of our lives don’t look so righteous. It’s not just about seeing that in ourselves, we also need to see it in others.
And what does God require of us but to do justly and to love mercy, to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)
As an imitator of Christ, I must love mercy as Christ does.