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What Happens When We Focus on Retribution Instead of Reconciliation

I met a friend for dinner recently who asked me about my work. We discussed the different programs HeartBound sponsors, why we do what we do, the usual stuff. Finally, she asked the million dollar question, “So what are your students in prison for?”


I was honest in my reply, “Not good things. There are men convicted of murder, others of armed robbery. They’ve done some horrible things, but I don’t think those things should define them.”


She flippantly replied, “Yeah, I don’t think you should be teaching those kind of people. Just lock them up or put them to death.”


I wish I could report that I was taken aback, but I wasn’t. I understood her sentiment; our society is hyper-focused on retribution, not reconciliation.


There really wasn’t any point in arguing. The only way you can see past the crimes that these men have committed is to know them and to see, “the commonality of our sinfulness”, as Cole Huffman says. “There’s a dominant impulse,” Huffman preached one recent Sunday, “to divide the world into the innocent, the victim, the guilty, and the victimizers… If we look at sinfulness as bad person-ism, we think people are bad. Sin doctrine is a leveler. It pulls all of the superiority out of you. We are not all guilty of the same thing, but we are all guilty of something.” Unless we can see the “commonality of our sinfulness”, it’s all too easy to define people by the worst decision they’ve ever made.


At Burruss, I spoke about the conversation I had with my friend. I explained my thoughts to the students.


Later in the class, I asked the students to write one page about someone who made a sacrifice for them and how that sacrifice made them feel. Nearly every paper was about how their mom made sacrifices for them and the family – giving up college, going hungry, leaving an abusive relationship. One letter was different though; it was about a lawyer. The student went on to describe how they were facing the death penalty and when no one else would, this lawyer took up his case and defended him, successfully demonstrating the defendant’s lack of culpability and assisting them in pleading to reduced charges.


I was shocked when I read his paper. This student is undoubtedly one of my top five students in a class of 50. He’s well-spoken, a leader of men, a thoughtful writer and a skilled debater. I knew nothing of his back story. My head was swimming – imagine if this man, one of my best students, had been deemed irredeemable and put to death? He’s now a mentor to young men in prison, and a living testament that with God, change is possible. He’s an invaluable asset inside and outside the classroom, but one that the state of Georgia once considered killing.


I reached out to the attorney mentioned in the paper and told her about what I did. I shared how one of my students wrote a paper expressing gratitude for how she had saved his life. I went on to explain how valuable this student was to the classroom, how he was thoughtful and kind and everything you could ask for in a student. I thanked her for what she did for him. I thanked her for giving him the opportunity to have an impact on my life and in our classroom.

I told her that if she’d ever like to shadow one of HeartBound’s classes, she’d be welcome. She expressed interest and returned the necessary paperwork. I told her I couldn’t tell her who had written the essay, but perhaps he would be in one of my classes.


She accompanied me to the prison classroom but to my dismay, the student I had hoped for her to see was gone! I was almost frantic! I asked another student to try and find him and a couple minutes later, they walked in together. Almost immediately, the student’s eyes met those of his former lawyer. They hadn’t seen each other in some time.


Tears filled his eyes as they smiled at one another from across the room. I called roll, then asked for our first book report of the day. Two requirements for my courses are: 1) bring a pen and paper and 2) read at least one book every week and be prepared to present in front of the class. I went through the roster and “randomly” landed on a name for this week’s presentation, the teary-eyed student sitting way in the back, the man who faced death but was now very much alive.


He had read a book of Robert Frost’s poetry. He carefully explained what motifs Frost used, how the poems made him feel, what he liked, and what he disliked. He spoke of Frost’s apparent depression, how it affected his writing, how it made him so sad while reading that he had to put down the book at times. I asked him where he thought that depression came from, how could a man with fortune and fame feel so sad and alone? His response was delicate and sympathetic. I could tell that he had carefully thought it through.


I have had one prayer on my heart this month, which I’ve borrowed from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.


Pray discuss it with me; pray enable me to see it a little more clearly, and teach me how to be a little more useful.


God is so good to help me see a little more clearly and to teach me how to be a little more useful. All we have to do is ask Him.


I hope you have a blessed day.



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