I am reading through Leviticus these days and though the book can get tedious to a modern Western mind (like mine) that can’t comprehend why all these regulations and stipulations for worship and sacrifices are necessary, if you remember that this is a holy God communicating a way of doing things in order that people can approach him and not die (for we humans seem to have a certain propensity towards death and sin instead of life and righteousness, and God has an unfaltering desire to bring humankind near to him)…well, it all makes a lot more sense.
One of the things that struck me about the difference between Levitical law then and our law now is how we have divorced the consequences from any sinful or illegal act. Any crime, no matter what it is, is punishable by jail time (or some restriction of freedom such as house arrest or parole) or a payment of money. The very heart of God screams, “Restore! Repair! Redeem!” in order that relationships and communities might become whole again, yet when our society seeks to make people “pay” for their transgressions, the main punishment we dole out is alienation. It is much easier to punish a person than to teach them how to make it right. Simple impersonal punishment will never change someone’s heart.
One weekend, many many years ago, a few drunken vandals smashed up the mailbox at the end of the laneway leading to our family farm. It didn’t take the police long to catch the young men (drunken criminals are not all that bright) and when they asked my father if he wanted to press charges, he said no, he wanted someone to come and fix his mailbox. The officer made arrangements for the perpetrators to come to my father’s workshop on a Saturday morning and I remember peering out the living room window, waiting for them to arrive, wondering what heinous criminals would look like and feeling a certain fear in my young heart that my father would invite such dangerous persons onto our farm. A young man finally showed up, over an hour late, obviously ill at ease and so nervous about what lay ahead that he had felt the need to down some liquid courage before he came. His friend had refused to come.
I have no idea what exactly transpired between my father and the young man that morning. An hour or two later they emerged from the workshop and much to my relief, my father was unharmed and in fact, seemed taller than he had been that morning when he left the breakfast table; the criminal seemed calm, rather small, and not as menacing as I had imagined. The scarred and dented mailbox went back up on the wooden post later that day and every time I fetched the mail in the next few weeks, I wondered about our vandal. I hoped that he had learned a lesson and didn’t do mean things anymore. I hoped he had stopped drinking too much. I hoped he had listened to whatever it was that my father had said to him. And most of all, I hoped that he had appreciated what a fine man my father was and learned something about compassion and justice and restoration.
What if every time we committed a crime or a sin against someone, we had to make it right? What if you had to come face to face with the person you offended and work together to find a solution? What if you could not simply hide behind prison bars but had to support the family you stole from or rebuild that house you burnt down? I understand that in the case of violent crimes, protecting the innocent is a primary concern, but there must be a better way to deal with violent people than to put them all together in isolation? How will they learn any other way of life? How can they become people of righteousness if they are never around it?
We have mistakenly assumed that withdrawal and isolation are the best way to deal with problems, be they personal or societal – it is easier, but hardly effective. God always says, “Come.” If you are a criminal or a wrongdoer, God says come. If you have been wronged, God says come. And when we as wrongdoers and those who have been wronged can say "Come" to each other, then we will begin to see restoration.