For one of my journalism classes in college, we had to visit to the county jail and courthouse. I can’t remember the reason behind it. We were learning how to write crime news stories and for some reason my teacher thought it would be educational to see the inside of a court room and jail cell. Honestly, it had nothing to do with writing (actually, nothing we did in that class had to do with writing, in my opinion), but it was kind of nice to get out from the classroom setting for once.
After listening to some drunk-driving court hearings, we were given a tour of the facility. We followed the officer down a long hallway toward the holding cells. As we did, a man in orange with shackles on his feet was being escorted through by another officer who was holding him by the upper arm.
Some of the other girls in my class had obvious faces of discomfort as he walked pass. They didn’t look him in the eye and took a step back. I could see the fear streaming through their bodies, even though they tried to act cool. It was palpable. And if it was obvious to me, I’m sure it was obvious to that man.
As he got close to me, I felt my heart to beat faster. I knew I shouldn’t be scared, but the situation was uncomfortable. I shot him a quick smile as he walked passed. I’m not sure if he saw it, but the last thing I wanted was for him to feel like some less-than-worthy person being paraded in front of strangers.
A little while later, we walked passed a holding cell. As I quickly peeked over, I saw a man laying next to the wall on a flat mat. He was curled up, knees to chest, lying lifeless on the ground. You wouldn’t know he was breathing unless you looked close enough to see his chest rise and fall every once in a while.
And what happened next will forever stick with me.
My teacher, with a big, overly exaggerated arm motion, called for all of us to join her next to the cell wall.
“Come take a look at this, you guys. Come look! There’s a guy here in this cell. Here’s a criminal. Come look.”
Here’s a criminal. Come look.
Every single time I think about this, it makes me absolutely sick.
I don’t know his story. I don’t know what he did to deserve being behind that wall. But I do know one thing: he is still a person. And what he did does not define him.
For her to label him as criminal totally desensitizes us to his humanity. He is a man with hopes, dreams, talents, family, life experiences; He is just as much loved by God as I am. He and I are on equal playing field.
If we’re being honest, I should be behind that jail cell, too. His crime, whatever he did, is no worse than who I am to the core. My lies, my lust, my greed, my bitterness, my lack of trust and belief, my apathy to the poor, my treatment of those whom I deem less superior than I.. all of this is just as bad in the eyes of God. I can’t stand over someone, pointing a judgmental finger at them, shouting “criminal!”
If he’s a criminal, I’m a criminal.
But praise God we don’t live tied to those labels. Praise God we are seen as righteous and worthy because of what Jesus did. Praise God that no crime is too extravagant that God can’t forgive it.
I am challenged daily not to look at people from a superficial stand point, labeling them according to stereotypes or previous experiences. When I truly look at them through God’s eyes, the way He sees them, I see a human in desperate need of Jesus, and truly loved by God.
If we’re being honest, we all deserve the jail cell. But thank God he paid the price so we don’t get what we deserve.