I am a healthy, middle class, white, Christian, married, American, woman. My position in life is stable and secure. Perhaps.
My friend Meg can say all of the same things. She is a beautiful, classy, intelligent, and confident woman. She dresses in an elegant style all her own. Her family lives in a gorgeous house on a quaint street that is the envy of many. She has it all. Had.
Until one day when her husband was taken away from the family for a hidden criminal offense. He had sexually abused their one son. She never saw it. She never suspected it. She was completely blindsided. Her family was shaken to the core. Rumors swirled. Her kids lost friends. Meg lost friends. She found herself paranoid of every glance. Watching every interaction of her kids with everyone. How could this happen? How could her husband be two different people under one roof? How could she not see?
These are not easily answered questions. These are not easily mended wounds. It’s ugly finding your footing with such messy circumstances. But I’d like to point out some uglier facts. She lost longtime friends from her longtime church. She was judged by the very people she should have been able to lean on in her time of desperate pain. Now, granted, some probably stopped calling because they didn’t know what to say. But how could she know that? Was she just left to assume that she had been abandoned?
Let’s focus on a few things that happen when a loved one is incarcerated. Meg’s husband was the breadwinner for their family. She found herself in “the system”. She found herself looking for training and work (she had been a stay at home mom since the birth of their kids). Her kids had to learn to accept free school lunches and food stamps. She endured the looks of receptionists when processing public medical benefits (suddenly a necessity when all income evaporated). All of this was done under the watchful eye of Christians going “tsk tsk tsk. What a shame. We must pray for them.”
But how many did? How many brought meals to help stretch her now minuscule budget? How many sat by her in her now empty pew? How many supported her decision to stand by her husband through all the mess that HE created? Yeah. I know. That part is hard. I can honestly say that I don’t know if I could do it. And I believe there would be biblical support for her walking away. But (and this is ALL that matters), she chose to continue to honor her marriage vows. I’m fairly certain that this situation counts as “or worse” in those vows. She chose the insanely difficult task of reconciliation. Will her church friends stand with her when her husband is released from prison and her family adjusts yet again to another new normal? Or will they smile at them before gossiping in the parking lot?
What did Jesus teach about helping others in difficult circumstances? Lots. one example is the very famous passage in Matthew 25:35-36 where He said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” That passage is followed by Him explaining to the confused ‘righteous’ people how they could’ve done such a horrible thing. Ignore Jesus when He needed them?!?! Jesus was never in prison?! We would NEVER treat the Son of God so poorly! “I tell you the truth, whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” And the entire teaching ends in verse 45 with “I tell you the truth, whatsoever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” But wait, I spoke too soon. He actually ended with “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Punishment for those who did not help when help was needed. Reward for those who saw the needs and acted. That seems fairly simple. (Yes, I do realize that we are not saved by our works. But Jesus was pointing out that our salvation should lead to good works.) Do we Christians really, I mean REALLY, care for the least of these? It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture like giving up your comfortable life to serve the poor in Calcutta. Jesus mentioned simple acts–giving a drink, giving clothes, feeding, welcoming, visiting. We are to do these things simply because we belong to God. He gives us our breath, our heartbeat, our minds, our path to Him. Is reaching out to the least really that much to ask in return?
I tend to think that those mentioned in this passage in Matthew 25 may not have been the most desirable crowd. Why did they need food, clothes, water? Why did they need to be invited in? Did they have nothing? Did they have nowhere to go? Were they dirty and smelly? And the prisoner is pretty obviously not the most highly revered in society. But we are clearly called to expose ourselves to the messy anyway. Jump in, roll up our sleeves, and get dirty with those hurting around us.
So what about Meg and those like her? There are more people touched by family in prison than we recognize. They hide in plain sight. They need our love and attention just like the prisoners Jesus told us to visit. They are often involuntary single moms. They get tired. They get discouraged. They need to just have some fun like “normal’ people do. The kids are silent scarred victims of the attached stigma. Why? Is it their fault? Do they have control over their parents? Or what about the reverse? What if a child is in jail due to drugs or other bad life choices? Is it the parents’ fault? Can YOU control your loved ones completely to behave as you want them to? We have each been given free will and no one, not one person, can control another’s actions. Goodness, even God throws up His hands sometimes and allows us to mess up royally. In Psalm 81:12 it says, “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.”
One other thing for those who still insist on judging “she HAD to have some idea”. Why? Would you know? Would you assume that your life partner was capable of something so dark? Would you see the signs that you were never looking for? Have you never wondered momentarily about a loved one and then pushed it out of your mind because “they just couldn’t”? We humans are quite proficient at blinding ourselves to things we don’t wish to see. And, we humans are also very savvy at hiding things from others that we wish to keep in the dark. Let us not assume how we would behave in such a situation. We have no way of knowing without ever being through it ourselves.
Meg also endured being told by a boss that she didn’t understand what kids from broken homes dealt with. She couldn’t know what living in the system felt like. She was far removed from them in her nice house and expensive clothes (all purchased second hand, by the way). Meg knew more than any training manual could teach. Her heart broke when the difficult student shared that she desperately wanted to visit her dad in jail but couldn’t because she didn’t have a birth certificate. And her mom didn’t have the money to get a new one. Meg knew how difficult it was to visit family in prison. She knew the strict rules. She knew that pain and dread. She knew. But she didn’t look like the stereotype of the person in “the system”. She didn’t look like a prisoner’s wife. But, you know what she told me once? She was surprised to see just how nice many of the visitors looked in the jail. Many looked like your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends. Just average people. Not the dregs of society we always assume.
So what are we to do? How are we to avoid hurting someone like Meg without even knowing it? How can we handle difficult and painful situations regardless of our own personal life experiences? What should we do when in doubt? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That pretty much sums it up. No second guessing of people and situations we don’t understand. No wondering “how could that be?” If it is how we would like to be treated if we were handed a pretty rotten situation, then it’s probably a good place to start. It isn’t called the Greatest Commandment for nothing.