The Revd Alison Tyler
Proverbs 2. 1–11; 1 John 2. 1–17
This evening’s passage from Proverbs has a very restful feel to it, the writer values wisdom and understanding very highly, indeed wisdom is often portrayed as holy wisdom illuminating our path towards the knowledge of God.
God gives the seeker wisdom so that they can understand the fear of God on the one hand and find the knowledge of God on the other. The intention is that we might understand righteousness, justice and equity, and be protected by living wisely.
There are a few caveats, we do actively have to seek understanding, to cry out for insight and to value the things of God in order to receive them and their benefits. The values we are urged to seek seem very orderly ones, understanding, knowledge, righteousness, justice and equity, it sounds like a call to a persistent but tranquil search which will bring rewards for the persevering. Professor Alison Liebling of the Cambridge Institute for Criminology, speaking recently of conditions in prisons observes that where there are values in place then there can be virtues in practice. If the values underpinning the search for wisdom were universally applied then prisons might become as it was hoped they would be, places for growth, for change and renewal, rather than the places of violence and despair that they are increasingly becoming. If we properly value our prisons and our prisoners then there would perhaps be the opportunity for virtue to take root and flourish peacefully and the genuine possibility of repentance and new life.
Today is the beginning of a week of prayer for all those caught up in the Criminal justice system – when we are asked to pray especially for prisoners, their victims for all their families, the staff in prisons and the people who run the courts and the police, and all the communities that they will return to, either as ex- prisoners on release, or when their victims have to start learning to become survivors of crime, rather than continue to be victims. We are all parts those communities to which they will return, we are with them, members of the community of sinners potentially journeying towards the kingdom of God. They all need us to offer to them the same things, love, acceptance, support, affection, opportunity, basically compassion and companionship on their different journeys.
When we look at the Criminal Justice system it’s hard to see further than the horrifying statistics. About 86,000+ people in prison at any one time, 98,000 children who have a parent in prison – 76% of young offenders grew up without a father and 65% of those who have a father in prison will offend themselves, 70%+ of prisoners have mental health problems, suffer from family breakdown, have spent time in care, have learning difficulties and unfinished education as a result. Prison suicides reached 120 in 2016, and self-harm incidents 40,000, and both they and attacks on staff and one another are increasing in 2017.
In the face of such deep sadness I often ask what kind of world we have made, that relationships and communities break down so easily and that so many people, especially young people cannot live in it without getting into trouble, with a 10% rise in crime generally and an 18% rise in murder rates, as well as a 20% rise in gun and knife crime. More alarmingly, the statisticians say the overall rise in crime is accelerating, from a 3% increase recorded in the year to March 2015, to an 8% rise in 2016, and now the 10% increase by March 2017.
Given the message of Proverbs it cannot be wise not to spend our time and energy and effort to looking for the things that work in helping people to desist, to cease from offending earlier than they do. Because against the backdrop of dreadful statistics it is an under reported truth that most people do stop committing crimes having ‘peaked’ so to speak in their mid-20s. The issues for modern criminologists are how to bring forward the date at which they will stop – the means are relatively straightforward if people have homes, jobs/income, stable and loving relationships, a place and a role that is affirmed and valued, an investment in and hope for the future - then most, but not all obviously, will stop offending. Better still would be the systematic building of communities in which children grew loved valued and affirmed and never started offending in the first place.
The writer of the first letter of John is quite clear about what our commitment as Christians involves, obeying the commandments and walking as He, Jesus, walked. He writes:
‘Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever ………….obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.’
If we are to obey his commandments they are best summarised in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus said to the lawyer who asked which is the greatest commandment? ‘The first commandment is this you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The commandments are to love as God loves. If we are to walk as Jesus walked we need to remember that Jesus lived a life of material simplicity and of passionate prayer, a life of love and service to others, he acted out of love and deep compassion, when he healed the sick, and fed the hungry and when he raised the widow’s son from the dead. In the parable of the sheep and the goats he tells us himself that those who are loved by God are those who fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, took in the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and came to those in prison. As they had done these things for any one it is counted as if they had done it for Jesus himself.
Archbishop Rowan said recently prisons are passionate places, places of passionate denial, or equally passionate truth telling, but also of rage and despair, love and hate. Prisoners, as we all do, need passionate people like us, people who will stand alongside them until they believe for themselves what we believe about them – that they are God’s children made in his image and God loves them – they are redeemable and forgivable -after all Christ has died for their sins! In fact for the sins of the whole world.
Children, all our children, are God’s gifts to our communities they belong to us, even if they are not blood relatives, so you and I are a part of their growing and flourishing, the soil, if you like, in which they are planted. We need, therefore, to be building communities in which they can flourish, they are loved and valued as brothers and sisters in God’s family – and if they should fail or fall through the gaps? Then our communities need to be strong enough and compassionate enough to support them through it, to repair and restore them, to embody forgiveness and the opportunity for new life.
Living the compassionate life is very costly, do not ever think that this is an easy calling, we know that it is not, Jesus died living the compassionate life, and very damaged people are hard to mend and may need much specialist help in order to survive and not offend again. Very abused and exploited victims may need the same – but they are God’s children our brothers and sisters and so we need to press on ourselves and make and support all efforts to show God’s love for them in any possible way that we can.
PRISONS WEEK PRAYER
Lord, you offer freedom to all people.
We pray for those in prison.
Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist
Support with your love prisoners and their families and friends,
prison staff and all who care.
Heal those who have been wounded by the activities of others,
especially the victims of crime.
Help us to forgive one another.
To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly together with Christ
in His strength and in His Spirit, now and every day. Amen.
For all the different prayers for every day this week visit www.prisonsweek.org and download a copy of the leaflet.