Compassion for Criminals: A Christian Calling


We are starting a series every Thursday this month titled, "Friends of Redeemer."  These are individuals who do not attend Redeemer Church, but share in the same values that the church does.  Today, Rachel Harman delivers a fantastic guest post.  Rachel and her husband live in Gainesville where Rachel is attending the school of law at the University of Florida. 

When I decided to go to law school, I received many comments like “Are you going to be one of the ones who keeps the criminals off the street?” and “Nice. So you’re going to get the bad guys and make sure they pay.” At the time, I had no difficulty with these statements. Though I had no intention of pursuing a career in criminal law, I figured that if I did, it would certainly be to prosecute criminals. Obviously. Why would I want to deal with the moral quandaries involved in working to get a murderer acquitted? Or a child molester? Or a rapist? Sure, I would probably be fine with helping someone out of a trespassing charge, or maybe even a DUI. But actively attempting to ensure that a man or woman, guilty of some heinous crime, be set free? Or even receive a light sentence? Why? How could anyone live with themselves?

Oh, the moral dilemmas of the stubbornly self-righteous. It was all very black and white to me. And many of you may be reading this now and thinking, “Yes, what you are describing is black and white.” Here’s the problem. When we think of criminals, we think of the worst of them; the murderers, rapists and child molesters. We are disgusted by these people. And the things they’ve done are certainly outrageous. There is nothing wrong with hating sin. And though we have all heard the phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” very rarely do we apply this principle to the worst of sinners. The chief of sinners. Oh wait.

Who are we again?

This past summer I interned at the Office of the Federal Public Defender. I did it as a bit of an experiment. Unexpectedly, during my first year of law school, I developed a taste for criminal law. It was by far the most interesting and exciting topic I studied, and it certainly carries a glamorous allure. But I continued to struggle with the idea of practicing in this arena because I feared for the stability of my moral compass. So I decided to put it to the test. This was the worst case scenario for me. I would be helping to defend those charged with federal offenses. If I could do this and come out with a clean conscience, I could do anything. Little did I know.

A few weeks into the summer I was assigned to work on a sentencing memorandum in a possession of child pornography case. The defendant had pleaded guilty, and our job at that point was to make him seem sympathetic to the judge before sentencing. This involves writing a personal history of the defendant. I was not thrilled about this assignment. To me, “Make him appear sympathetic” equated to “lie.” This was exactly the type of scenario I had been dreading.

So I read the defendant’s life story. And I wept. He had the saddest life I had ever encountered. I am not at liberty to go into any details, but I can say that the fears that parents harbor for their children, every horrific scenario that a parent dreads and attempts to protect their children from; they were all realized in this man’s life. It was not a single traumatic event. It was a lifelong state of being at the hands of more treacherous people than I care to recall. I was utterly heartbroken. I was expecting to be disgusted and offended by the defendant. I prayed beforehand for the Lord to help me find some ounce of sympathy or understanding for this man. What I got was a convicting slap across the face. I had dehumanized him in my heart and mind before knowing anything about him. I had looked at his actions and judged him without any sympathy or compassion. I identified him by his sins. I was praying that God would help me see beyond his horrible sins and maybe help me feel sorry for him just a little. My intentions were all well and good, but my heart was hardened.

What God gave me was much more than pity. Rather, it was an overwhelming compassion informed by a deep understanding for why this man was the way he was. I could see how every event in his life, every physical and psychological injury, led him to where he was. His sinful tendencies and actions became frighteningly logical. With that understanding came the frightening realization that the only reason I could understand this man was because of the depths of sin that exist within my own heart. I was capable of reasoning the way he reasoned. I could find rationality behind his actions rooted in the specific sinful inclinations he developed. I could see how those inclinations originated in his experiences. There was no escaping the conclusion that if I had been through what he had been through, I may very well be in the same position he found himself in.  The experience was life-changing. Not just because I realized how sad this man’s life was, or that someone’s life could be so sad. Not even because I understood him. These things were certainly impacting, but what was life-changing was the realization that prior to his actions being explained, I had hated this man.

Let me make something clear. I am not writing about how we should have compassion for criminals because we don’t know their stories, or because if we had been through what they had been through then we might view them differently. It’s not as simple as, “If we only understood, then we would have sympathy.” I am also not suggesting that there are excuses for sin. Sin is never justifiable, and no amount of explanation will turn sin into innocence. In addition, no amount of explanation should free someone from the consequences of their actions under the law. Sin always has consequences, whether they are realized in this world or the next.

I am writing about having compassion for criminals because we are commanded to love. And though we are all sorely in need of understanding, as there are pieces of every story that we are missing and which can help us find compassion. Understanding is not the key. We are commanded to love irrespective of understanding.

Let me make something else clear. The irrelevant understanding I am referring to is the context-specific knowledge of an individual criminal’s unique story. The “extrospective understanding” if you will. There is another kind of understanding, however, that is crucial for Christians to grasp if we are to exercise the compassion and love for criminals which we are called to. This is the understanding of the human heart. Every human heart. Our own hearts. What I like to call “introspective understanding.”

Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” If we embrace the truth that the wickedness of the human heart knows no bounds, then we must embrace the introspective understanding that each and every one of us is just as capable of the worst atrocities that any criminal has committed. It is in light of this introspective understanding that we must love others, no matter what sins they have committed.

The distinction between compassion based on extrospective understanding and compassion based on introspective understanding is what separates us as Christians from the rest of the world. If you haven’t noticed, the Christian community is not unique in its hatred of criminal conduct. And just as non-Christians are as disgusted by most criminals as Christians so often are, they are also just as capable of sympathy and compassion in light of extrospective understanding. But absent introspective understanding, extrospective understanding leads to humanistic and worldly conclusions, such as, “Yes he’s done some bad things, but he’s not a bad person,” or, “It’s not his fault because he is only the product of his environment.” Extrospective understanding alone leads to the rationalization and justification of sin. It results in us looking into the heart of the individual to try and find some good there. That is not our calling. We know too much for that.

In addition, when it comes to criminals, it is rare for us to have the benefit of extrospective understanding. Most of the information we receive about any criminal comes in the form of truncated news stories (usually alarmist in nature), mugshots, and a criminal charge or two. Unless we are lucky enough to be working on the criminal case, or someone decides to write a book about the criminal’s life, we will likely never hear anything close to the full story. To further complicate matters, there are going to be criminal acts which defy all attempts at extrospective understanding. Things that cannot be explained by any amount of background information, rationality, or logic.

Though extrospective understanding can be enormously beneficial in our search for compassion, it is not necessary or reliable, and it can quickly become a crutch. Too often, we hate based on what we see, and we continue to hate until we have extrospective understanding. We hate until we find some way to relate to the sinner or can explain the sin in others. We hate until we are able to disassociate the sinner from the sin by way of context. But for Christians, this is an unacceptable standard. We are not called to excuse, justify, or disassociate sin with the sinner. We are called to seek introspective understanding. Our pursuit should be to look into the heart of an individual, realize and accept that it is lost and condemned, and choose to love that individual regardless. Why? Because God looked into our hearts, saw us as lost and condemned, and loved us enough to sacrifice his Son for us.

We are called to love in light of God’s love for us. We cannot afford the luxury of unforgiveness. We have no right not to love, no matter what we see or think we understand. How can Christians be horrified by a sinner because he has sinned? Because he has done something that we believe we could never do? Do you truly believe that there is something that your heart is incapable of doing? If anyone should understand sin, it is Christians. We should never be shocked to discover someone is a sinner. We should never be shocked by sin, no matter how horrific. What we should be shocked by is God’s love for us.

In the words of Paul:

“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly and in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.” 1 Timothy 1:12-16

On a daily basis, I see Christian friends posting news stories on Facebook. Stories about the atrocities of the human race. It is not the stories that concern me, but rather the hateful words that accompany them. Regularly I see calls for punishment, for justice, for death to those who have committed various crimes. This is an extremely disturbing trend. Our self-righteousness is running rampant, and our hatred is unabashed. It is not just hatred for the crimes, it is hatred for those who commit them. There is no mercy, no compassion, and no sympathy for the sinner. As Christians, we must recognize that this type of hatred and judgment is never acceptable. It not only contradicts everything that we believe, and everything that our salvation is based upon, but scripture tells us this attitude also carries serious consequences:

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.” - Luke 6: 37

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” - Matthew 5:21-22

These words should frighten us. Just as these words should give us hope:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” - Matthew 5:7

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.”
- Micah 7:18-19

If we look to those who commit crimes, even the most heinous of crimes, and condemn them, we are in need of a serious reality check. Any one of us is capable of the worst atrocities. Though I certainly was aware of this before my experiences over the summer, I don’t know that I ever truly believed it. At best, I accepted it with a grain of salt, telling myself, “Yes, I know I am capable of horrible things, but I haven’t done the horrible things I’m capable of.” I viewed myself, if nothing else, as stronger or more self-controlled than those who commit such crimes. How very foolish I can be.

We are the recipients of such unending love and mercy, that we often forget that they are a gift. We are not entitled to such grace. It is given to us freely out of love. And it is only that love that has kept many, if not most of us, from ending up in prison. God’s mercy comes in many forms. It is not just His perfect work on the cross. It is His protection of us throughout our lives, before we were even old enough to realize that our experiences would affect who we grew up to be. For many of us, myself included, His mercy came in the form of a loving family, of parents who successfully protected me from many of the horrors of the world. For those who did not grow up with these blessings, but rather suffered greatly throughout their lives, how much more should you understand what could have been? Who you could have become but for God’s grace in your life? We have all received mercy, and we can all receive forgiveness.

We do not have the luxury to judge and condemn others. We, of all people, should understand love and compassion, and should give it freely in light of what we have been given.

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