I was sitting in room 485 of the Hamilton County Court House.
It was early when my aunt and I had shuffled in to meet my mother. Now, the time was ticking on as we waited for my father to appear before the court. He was on the docket for sentencing. As we waited the court room bustled with the activity of lawyers and court officials preparing for their few moments before the judge. I wondered if my father would appear before I needed to run down the street to work. I hoped so, as I had a few words to offer the court.
After waiting for some time, the first case was considered. The request for a man’s release from parole was rejected. I wondered if this was normal. I was not familiar with the daily workings of the court. My knowledge of our justice system was what I learned in social studies about the set up and balance of powers, a trip to the Justice Center when I was in middle school, and through programs like Law & Order and Judging Amy.
A good deal of time passed, as we waited for the second case to come forward. It involved the sentencing of a man who had robbed a bank. His criminal history was recounted for the court—he had been in and out of the Juvenile Court system and Ohio Correctional facilities (aka prison) 4 times. As I listened I wondered, what had happened to this man along the way?
Just as the judge was about to reveal the sentence for this man's crimes, she spoke a few cutting words before all who were gathered in her court room.
“There is no hope for this man’s rehabilitation.”
Then, just as a person might salt their food, she added a few years for this charge and a few years for that one, until she had covered all the points for which this man was being be convicted. I counted it all up at the end. He had been given 80 years. Just like that. Then, he was ushered out of the courtroom.
I was stunned by what I observed. I wished I could have told the judge she was wrong. I wished I could have told her that as long as Jesus changes lives there is always hope, however unlikely it may seem.
My father did not appear before I had to leave for work. The words I had to offer, words about what he had really felt the day of his crime, were left unspoken. They were words he had spoken to me in a phone call that he didn't even remember making. Instead, I left as a woman who was agreeing to plead guilty began to cry in front of the court.
I walked the four or five blocks to school as my wandering thoughts formed a question in my mind.
Was this normal?
I remember thinking if it was, my dad, who was trying to do the right thing didn’t stand a chance at a fair outcome by choosing to plea instead of going to trial. His case, which hinged on his mental health, was too complicated.
I also thought about the judge’s words. They had been seared into my mind. “There is no hope for this man.”
I wondered what makes a person speak like that? What makes a person think like that?
Had she been burned, by believing people could change only to be disappointed later?
Didn’t she know, what we speak people become?
My heart hurt for that man. It still does.
I am reminded of this experience as I sit reading a chapter in John Ortberg’s newest book, Who is This Man?
“Every human being has royal dignity. When Jesus looked at people, he saw the image of God. He saw this in everyone. It caused him to treat each person with dignity. This was the idea to which that little baby in a manger was heir, which had been given to Israel, which would be clarified and incarnated in his life in a way not seen before. […] Since [Jesus’] birth, babies and kings and everybody else look different to us now—as in the poignant list of David Bentley Hart: “the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child…the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates.” These were viewed by our ancient ancestors as burdens to be discarded. To see them instead as bearers of divine glory who can touch our conscience and still our selfishness—this is what Jesus saw that Herod could not see” (p.26,32 emphasis mine).
Perhaps, this is why I am still outraged at the memory of the judge’s words years later: I believe that each person is made in the image of God and has extreme worth, because God has given it to us.
As I come to believe this more fully, I realize the difference between the bank robber and me is God’s grace.
What might I have become had I not been born to my parents or raised with the support of mentors and people who believed in me? I could have been the bank robber.
I am aware of these things as I read and look toward the visit I have with my dad later this week.
I think of the many times I have looked around the visiting room to the different men in orange jumpsuits. They have sat in deep discussion. They have enjoyed vending machine food with gratitude. They have laughed with their family and friends. They are not very different from me.
They may be incarcerated, but we share in common being created in the image of a holy God. As such, they deserve to be treated with as much dignity as anyone else. It may be the key to turning around a life.
After all, aren’t we all broken and searching for the one who can put us back together again?
Grace and peace be ours in abundance as we treat others with the dignity that Christ extended to all those who were broken. May we find that caring for their troubles awakens something new inside of them and inside of us.