A lesson I have been learning over the past few years has to do with crime, sin and the connection of these with the emotion of fear.
Even in the Bible, and certainly among the public, even churchgoers, there seem to be two very different views about sin and what has to be done about it.
One is the predominantly Old Testament idea of a world divided between the Just and the Unjust, with ‘bad guys’ who are and always will be, sinners (often because of their ethnic background), and ‘good guys’, a chosen people whose conduct, if not perfect, is good enough to keep them out of jail and wean them into God’s good graces. Like the Pharisee who said “Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men are …”
The other view is the double barreled message that Jesus brings us in the Gospel. First, that the bar of being without sin and so fit for the Kingdom of Heaven is so high that no human other than himself can attain it—not just no murder, but no anger; not just no adultery, but no lust; not just no theft, but no covetousness; not just no false witness, but “swear not at all.” Pluck out your eye, cut off your hand, if these make you stumble. Secondly, though, that those—even Gentiles—who admit and repent of their sins, can enter the Kingdom through trust in the free and unmerited forgiveness of God.
To me this Gospel message has the greatest significance when dealing with crime and criminals. It is fear that leads to our crimes and our sins—fears often experienced from traumas received when we were too young to even put them into words, and which subconsciously stay with us for the rest of our lives. Fear of being abused, leading to anger, violence and murder. Fear of poverty, leading to gluttony, materialism and theft. Fear of being unloved, leading to lust and sexual crimes.
The difficulty is that the ‘moral majority’, priding itself in staying away from these crimes, still succumbs to other sins in facing these fears. From fear of abuse, we become prideful perfectionists, or slothful non-performers. From fear of poverty, we give ourselves to avarice, or succumb to cowardice, sacrificing our talents and initiative in submitting to the demands of the daily ‘rat race’. From fear of being unloved, we break out in envy, or pretend phoney friendship with hypocrisy.
If only we could be freed from fear, we would be a long way towards being freed from crime and sin—and much ill health as well. One cannot go far into the Bible without seeing how much people’s conduct has been affected by fear. Adam and Eve hide from God in Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. The shepherds at Jesus’s birth are “sore afraid”, but the angel says “Fear not”. Jesus talks about a man who confesses “I was afraid, and hid thy talent”. He talks about the end times, when “men’s hearts” are “fainting with fear”. Faced with Jairus’s plea for his deceased daughter, he says “Fear not: only believe”. Over and over again he says to those whom he has healed: “Your faith has saved you”, sometimes also adding the assurance that “your sins are forgiven”.
One of the joys I have had working in the jails with the Alternatives to Violence Project is to see people becoming transformed into open, caring men and women, as a setting is established where all are free from any fear of being ‘put down’, and they learn how a community will come into being around them that is supportive rather than hostile, when they use the tools of hope, faith and charity, care for others and respect for themselves, to harness the innate energy within them constructively, that once was wrongly used in violence towards the world outside.
In his time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus gives us the answer to our fears. We are to be willing to embrace poverty, to be willing to work without recognition, and to renounce earthly power and be “obedient unto death”. In that way we, with Jesus, will be able to say that the “Prince of this world has come, and he has no part in me.”
The picture the Gospel gives us is not of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people being sorted out by Saint Peter at the pearly gates. It is of the tragedy of a whole world in the grip of lack of faith, and so plunged into crime and sin. It is of faithless humankind in all its different ways, trying to create an earthly Paradise for itself without God’s help.
But the Gospel also gives us the hope of a world that will be redeemed by those who confess their sins, place their trust in God’s mercy, and dedicate their lives to following as best they can in the footsteps of Jesus.
Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” That’s true for “the vilest offender who truly believes.” It’s true also for us.