I woke up upset this morning. Okay, admittedly there actually was a good reason for this. I was awakened at 5:30 this morning by a woman insisting that I needed to file a whole mess of papers so that I could continue to get the $1.33 per month in child support for my eldest daughter for the next 3 weeks (so really $1 total) since, although she has turned 18, she still has three weeks from her birthday yet to graduate from high school. When I told her it would cost me more to file the papers than the $1 I'd be receiving on Jasmyn's behalf, she laid this bizarre and weird guilt trip on me about how it wasn't the money that mattered, but the support they got from their father, and that I should care more about the kids than about money. Um...
I just published my Pentecost sermon which was about striving to understand those we really don't understand. I believe that my best sermons are the ones I write to myself as I struggle with the reality of deeply held beliefs that are difficult to live up to. This, while very short (since we had a play that filled most of the sermon time), was one of those sermons. I believe we are called to look deeper at each person we encounter, to get to see beyond what people say and do to the reasons why they say and do those things... I believe, in other words, that we are to strive to mirror the loving Divine who knows us more fully than we know ourselves and loves us not only into being but through all of our mistakes, our pains, our struggles because of that deep understanding of who we ultimately are, what we have experienced, and what we are striving to become.
So, as is often the case for me, when I am struggling with something, I am given quick and direct opportunities to practice what I preach. In this case, I've been given the opportunity to try to see beneath, beyond and through what this woman was saying and attempt to decipher why she was so quick to judge and so pushy about me filing these papers so Jasmyn could receive this extra $1 in child support. In reflecting on our conversation, I think she was simply trying to get the paper work her job requires her to obtain. She is probably used to working with people who don't pay their required support, who don't fulfill their obligations, and as a result, she has probably learned to use guilt as an affective weapon in order to be able to do the job she is paid to do. She doesn't know me, she doesn't know our situation, she doesn't know the big picture here. She undoubtedly was not paying attention to the fact that a phone call made from Ohio to California meant that when she went to call me at 8:30am her time, she was in fact calling me at 5:30am PDT time. She simply had a job to do and she was trying to do it to the best of her ability. That is probably why the guilt trip is working a bit on me as well. While I cannot justify all the time and effort it would take to file the papers she requires in order to receive that extra total $1 in child support, I know that it would be helpful to her in her job to have that neatly tied up by having the proper papers that track my daughter's graduation from high school. So I debate... do I do this for this woman? Or do I let it go knowing that I will in fact just be one of the many who don't do the final paper work for various reasons, including a lack of time or the resources necessary, or (as in my case) no real incentive to fax the appropriate papers.
More than this, then, I felt called to look more deeply at my own upset this morning because I felt it was an extreme reaction in response to a woman just doing her job. What about this really pushed my buttons? Why did this simple request set me so far off this morning? There are layers and layers here... frustration, anger and despair built up over the last few weeks that has a long list attached to it: divisions, hate and anger of others, the increasing violence, the fear for my children in just going to school now, the nastiness of comments on social media (not aimed at me, but affecting me none the less), the outrageous behavior of human beings who, I used to believe were moving towards more compassion, but who instead, with the anonymity of social media and the current political atmosphere seem actually much more attuned to judgment, hate, violence, an inability to empathize and a desire to harm those who are different from "us". All of that gets in, turns, twists, hurts and, in the face of a sense of helplessness to heal it or to bring insight and compassion to this broken world, expresses itself in extreme emotional reactions. But more than that, this specific situation raised in me all the upset, once again, at a justice system that has taken so much from my family and myself. The fact that I have collected $4 a month for my kids, while paying out about $150 a month for the last 6 years, and almost $100K in legal fees before that is overwhelmingly difficult for me to swallow right now as I look at the cost of education for my three kids over the next 9 years and the fear of the huge debts we will incur to get them through school. The reality of being a 50 year old adult who has had to, once again, rely on family for financial help, is shaming and humiliating. The struggle of being a single working mother in a career that was never meant to pay well but which requires more than full time attention is still overwhelming at times, even now when I have a very helpful fiancé. And the pain I deal with in my kids, still, that will never go away, that will be their defining story of humiliation, of isolation, and of loss still breaks my heart on a daily basis.
The point I am making with this? My own story is only one, a small one actually, a small example that is just a tiny part of why I do not believe in retributive justice. Retributive justice does not work, as we know by the huge recidivism rate in the United States. Retributive justice is an acting out of anger, a desire to hurt those who have hurt us. It does absolutely nothing to bring healing to the victims, but instead usually revictimizes them through the court systems. It also does nothing to change the perpetrators so they might choose something different in the future. The system creates more victims: families and communities of both the victims and the perpetrators are deeply harmed by the retributive system itself. Additionally, conservative estimates say that one out of every ten incarcerated persons are completely innocent, (which, since, as of the Dec 31, 2016 justice statistics said there were 6,613,500 people under the corrections institutions in the US means we are looking at over 600,000 innocent people unfairly incarcerated). But while they may have been innocent before going to prison, their chances of remaining so after being released are slim. What prison teaches is how to survive by crime, how to seek revenge through more outrageous behavior, how to respond to a violent world with more violence. And since it is extremely difficult for a person with a criminal record to be employed, options become limited for self-support after incarceration. Add to this that much of our "justice" is bought. The lawyers we interacted with were unanimously quick to tell us that justice was a theological concept, and that what we have in our country is simply, no more and no less, than a business. Therefore the poor and those with less resources cannot buy their way to "justice" (even those who are guilty are often guilty of a much lesser crime that what they receive punishment for, and mitigating circumstances are seldom considered) and those with resources can get away with anything if they pay the right people enough.
This does not mean that I believe there should be no consequences. Of course there should. But a restorative model works for consequences that genuinely bring healing to victims, understanding across the board, and "punishment" that heals and restores both individuals and communities. This is a quick summary of a very complex system, but I believe in it very strongly. Having lived through and experienced the retributive justice system up close and personally I feel this more strongly than ever. Our retributive justice system is a racist, classist, revenge-punishment business that harms more people, percentage wise, in the United States than in any other developed country. It is barbaric, and when I think about it the rage within me is strong. The phone call this morning was just the end of a long list of reminders of a broken and destructive system.
I will write more about restorative justice in the future. But for now, let me just say that as I navigate the emotional storm that I'm experiencing this morning, I know the only solution to these feelings is to fight for change. I hope to do more work towards restorative justice. If you are interested in joining me on this path, let me know.