Labels, Prisoners, and the Worst in Us

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by Chad Pierce

Liar, addict, adulterer, doubter…
imagine if we were known, and labeled, by the worst five minutes of our lives.

I made the mistake this week of reading the online comments on a news story that had been posted to Facebook. The article was about the Calvin Prison Initiative. Calvin College and Calvin Seminary offer a liberal arts bachelors degree to inmates at the Handlon prison in Ionia, Michigan. Earlier this month, Jim Vanden Bosch shared his experience with the CPI in Handlon on The Twelve. Here are a few lines from the CPI website:

The Calvin Prison Initiative brings hope, dignity and the opportunity for real accomplishment.

The Calvin Prison Initiative provides education to adult learners in prison, equipping them with the knowledge and skills required to be community leaders. Our hope is that through this endeavor, not only will lives regain their hope, but prison culture will be transformed, and justice there will become not merely retributive, but restorative.

Sounds good to me! Actually, it sounds like gospel to me. I was particularly intrigued by the article and excited about the program since I will begin teaching Introduction to the New Testament to students there in a few weeks. Reading the comments, however, I soon realized that not everyone shared my enthusiasm.

The PG-13 version of these comments included variations on the theme of “My kids have to pay for college, why do they get to go for free?” Or, “Why would we waste an education on people like them?” After all, Calvin is offering classes to felons including those guilty of robbery, rape, and murder. And make no mistake, many of these students have committed horrible crimes. Those crimes often have victims who have suffered immensely. I do not mean to gloss over that. And yet many of these students are more than the poor decisions they made during the worst five minutes of their lives.

The disciple Thomas is often remembered for a moment he would like to forget. The risen Christ had already appeared to the other disciples. Without even asking, Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Thomas for some reason was not present. John 20:24-29 describes the moment when the risen Jesus and Thomas finally meet. Thomas wants certainty, and Jesus provides it. Really, Thomas doesn’t want anything the rest of the disciples hadn’t already experienced.

I can’t blame him. Who wouldn’t want a little proof of a resurrection claim? Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas responds with “My Lord and my God.” He does believe. And from that one interaction, one that does not appear to be hostile or even hurtful to Jesus, the church created the phrase, a doubting Thomas.

We love labels. We especially love labels that remind us of the worst in people. And yet when Thomas was at his “worst,” the resurrected Christ was with him and gave him just enough of himself as necessary.

Robber, arsonist, rapist, and even murderer are the labels I will no doubt encounter in the next few weeks. The labels are true but only in part. Others include father, husband, son, Christian. And regardless, the resurrected Christ is just as present in the locked rooms of Handlon prison as he was in one in Jerusalem. Jesus is ready to be with us even when we are at our worst to give us just enough of himself so that we might believe.

I too carry labels of shame. They are more socially acceptable or at least hidden. The risen Jesus meets me, meets us, even at our lowest point.

I am thankful for Thomas. The one who doubted, according to church tradition, followed the call of and spread the good news of the risen Christ all the way to India. He was not imprisoned by his label. I hope my inmate students are not either.

This Easter season may the risen Christ moves us in such a way that we rise above our labels, above our shame, so that we can go and proclaim the gospel whether it be to our cell mate, our community, or to the ends of the earth.

Chad Pierce is a minister in the Reformed Church in America who pastors Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

Comments 5

  1. Thanks. Note a petition of Karl Barth’s prayer in “Release to the Captives”before a sermon (“The Criminals with Him”) he preached in a Basel prison:…We are met today to commemorate the fact that thy masterful and fatherly plan with the world and with ourselves has been carried out when thou didst permit our Lord Jesus Christ to be imprisoned that we may be free, to be declared guilty that our guilt may be taken away, to suffer that we may have joy, to be put to death that we may have life eternal…

    In the sermon Barth comments in the sermon: ‘They crucified him with the criminals.’ Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?

  2. Chad, Thanks for your post. Your gospel-sense of grace and justice is evident. I would love to familiarize you with the good work that is being done in the county jails as well.

  3. Dear Pastor Pierce, God certainly knew what he was doing when he called you to be one of those instructors. May you be filled with his Spirit and blessed by the response from those you teach. I’m praying for hearts that are softened and miracles in each of their lives including yours! I for one would like to be in your congregation to hear the stories!! Bless you

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