During this Lenten season we as Orthodox Christians can choose either to be like the Pharisees of old and be comfortable in our self-righteousness, or we can be like Saint Moses of Ethiopia or St Mary of Egypt and be humble and lowly even as Christ was humble and lowly. We cannot enter into the charitable work of raising others up until we first lower ourselves.
In the work of helping to restore dignity to those whom we and OCPM serve it is important to remember that prison is a harsh and degrading experience. There is the constant futility of not being heard either by the system or those who would serve people in prison. Therefore, a key element in restoring dignity is to listen closely and answer in a way that lets the person know they have been heard. People in prison normally have a lot of time to spend on studying the Bible and actually learn a lot that those of us out here never get around to seeing because we are too busy. While those in prison may not always be right in their understanding, they nevertheless deserve the respect of having their ideas heard and appreciated, or if need be, challenged and discussed. We strive to carry on a discussion and not merely a monologue. I, as a former prisoner, don’t know if there is anything more demeaning than to be ignored.
There is, however one thing which deserves to be ignored: the past. After each confession the priest admonishes the confessor, “And now, having no further care for the sins which you have declared, depart in peace.” Are we going to be like the world around us and continue to limit these people because of their past, or are we going to be like God Who “casts all [our] sins behind [His] back” (Isaiah 38:17)? Do we really believe in absolution or is that only for those who don’t go to prison for a crime? Only self-righteousness would continue to hold someone’s past against them after they have repented and come to Christ. Does forgetting the past carry a risk? Most certainly, but consider what God did in creating us: He gave us free will even though that meant He was risking our rejecting Him and all which that entails. But He loves us so much, He was willing to take that risk, including the risk of His own Son having to suffer death in order for us to be free again. What are we willing to risk in order for others to be free again? If we are to be God-like, we need to accept people as they are today and not continue to view them through the prism of their past mistakes.
To summarize, I have made the following key points regarding the restoration of dignity to those whom we serve:
- We need to be humble as our Lord was humble.
- We need to listen and respond accordingly to those whom we serve.
- We need to forget the past as God does and deal with these people as they are in Christ.
These three actions will go a long way in helping those in prison or helping those formerly in prison, and to be dignified again, to be restored to a state of being respected thereby learning self-respect and how to behave with proper decorum towards others.