April 1, 2018
Easter’s Judgment-Free Zone
Second Chances for Easter
Easter’s themes of second chances, judgment, and mercy are powerful ideals on which the entirety of the Christian faith is based upon. Each Sunday in the liturgical year is a min-Easter celebration, as the faithful participate in Mass, remembering the sacrifice of Christ, and His ultimate forgiveness. Symbols of resurrection and new life are abundant in religious and secular environments in our culture at this time of year: quickly-multiplying rabbits, eggs with the promise of new life, chicks and ducklings demonstrating the miracle of birth, Easter lilies fragrantly proving spring’s triumph over winter, jeweled butterflies hovering among tombstones, and plastic Easter grass standing in for the blades trying to turn green in the cold transition between seasons. Pastel schemes ease the colour-starved eye from the blandness of bare winter, readying snow-bound homes for the refreshing air of spring. The faithful and unfaithful alike are given and partake in the opportunity to look forward to a future of springtime with sunnier days ahead. Images of blue skies and plans of gardens are a spiritual awakening, for a multitude of faiths.
The idea that humanity could deserve second chances, and should not only reserve judgment on others, and instead show mercy, is powerful in Easter sermons. For one day, even the churchgoers with the heaviest “Catholic guilt” can allow themselves to feel free from sin. Like the butterfly from the chrysalis, the chick from the egg, and the flower from the bulb; hearts and spirits, even souls, are encouraged to grow and evolve into new beings. Better versions of what they were before. Less sinful. More forgiving. Merciful.
When Easter is over and the food dye has finally washed off of chubby fingers, plastic grass is ditched in recycling bins, and all the eggs have been found, life goes on. For some people, life has been recharged; a fresh start. For others, nothing has changed. The stone did not roll away for them. Their garden didn’t bloom, and there was no chocolate bunny. The dominant colour was not royal purple or soft shades of blossoms. It was orange. Everywhere. All around them. The blasting warning colour of danger. The neon of yield signs and dangerous demolition sites. The colour of prison uniforms. Every day unchanging. There is no Easter in the hole.
Women in American prisons experience Easter in a uniquely Biblical way, which society misses out on. Second chances? Judgment? Mercy? Those are top prayer requests of women behind bars. Who else but the prisoner understands so deeply the chains of sin, and the joy of freedom? Who else is more expert on mercy than the ones who need it most?
My newest book, “To Die a Bachelor,” explores the lives of a small group of female prisoners. When I wrote the first draft, it was a work of non-fiction. I wanted to give these imprisoned women a voice. Through several more drafts and edits, I chose to redirect the book to a work of fiction, in order to tell more women’s stories in a more concise, fluid way. In this way, I was able to speak up for these women while protecting their identities. Writing as fiction allowed me to reach a wider audience, and was able to combine some women’s stories to include a wider variety of real-life experiences. It is with these women in mind, and in my heart, and in the forefront of my mission as a writer to encourage a sense of community, which I have reflected on what Easter for the prisoner is like. Using the three traditional values of second-chances, judgment, and mercy, I have correlated Bible passages, excerpts from my true-to-life characters, and observations of our current culture. Addressing these standpoints from both religious and secular vantage points will be helpful to readers, as a stepping off point for personal introspection, to become an improved version in the future.
Second chances. Three strikes and you’re out. It is foolhardy to give endless chances, yet that is what the Bible instructs. “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18-21-22 ESV). The key word here is “forgive.” This is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It is, however, an eternal redemption ticket. A forgiveness forever deal. It is difficult for even the most fair-minded and empathetic people to find the ability to forgive serial offenders. Women in prison who have no visitors on Easter, no Hallmark card balanced on their sinks, no new sandals for spring-ready steps, know the heart’s dungeon of unforgiveness. They feel the brunt of the shame not only from the absence of loved ones, but also from their self-revilement. If their friends or family cannot find a thin sunbeam of forgiveness to shine upon them, how can they dare to feel worthy of seeking light for themselves? Easter does not come for them.
This leads me to reflect on a passage including two of my characters in “To Die a Bachelor,” Grannie and Aggie.
“Grannie was praying again. Of course Aggie and Bunkie didn’t call her that to her face. They always forgot her name. But they knew her to be “Grannie.” They knew what she had done.
It’s never a good idea to talk about it. Even though that’s the first thing people ask. “What did you do?” Like it matters. Like any one crime could be better or worse than another. The way Aggie saw it, they were all in it together. It didn’t matter what got them there.” (Excerpt from “To Die a Bachelor,” by Jessica Lucci).
In this short introduction to a scene, Aggie’s empathy allows her to accept Grannie. She knew the crime committed, but accepted Grannie for who she was. Giving Grannie the chance to be who she was eventually allowed Aggie to experience a blessing she would not otherwise have been available for. By accepting each other, in spite of our sins and failings, we allow ourselves to form relationships without the gauging strife of judgment.
Judgment is something every women in prison is dealt. Legal judgment is necessary and does not preclude forgiveness or empathy. Legal judgment in response to a crime is different from judging someone socially, spiritually, physically, or emotionally. The repeated message in the Bible is that even sinners have a right to be loved. This means to love without judgment.
“Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” (Luke 6:35,36 NIV). My characters discussed the boundaries of judgement over breakfast one morning:
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord,” Grannie sang from her cell.
“My God, can somebody please shut her the hell up?” complained Aggie. “I am not in the mood for that today.”
“That stuff makes me feel guilty as hell,” Mari glanced up from her oatmeal. “I already feel guilty as hell, obviously, look where I am.” She added a packet of sugar and stirred the warm mush around with her spork.
Bunkie held her black coffee between two hands. “Just think: yeah I did time. So did the Apostles.”
“What the hell kind of crap are you saying?” asked Aggie.
“But they were unjustly imprisoned,” said Mari, before Bunkie could answer.
“According to whom?” said Bunkie. “Jesus was arrested. Tried. Convicted. Sentenced. His sentence was carried out. JUSTLY. According to the laws. LEGALLY. RIGHTLY.”
Some women at the table next to her shot menacing looks. She didn’t falter. “I’m not saying it was RIGHT. But under the rules at the time, it was JUST.”
“Jesus and Bunkie. Who knew you two were so close,” mumbled Aggie.
“That’s right!” said Mari. “She doesn’t even believe in Jesus!”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” said Bunkie. “As long as I believe that you believe.” (Excerpt from “To Die a Bachelor,” by Jessica Lucci).
Prisoners are not without a sense of justice, and are not devoid of mercy. When people are not shown mercy, however, the ability to mirror that mercy or activate it in other situations can become impossible. Easter’s theme of mercy is repeated throughout the Bible as a definitive aspect of a healthy and faithful way of life. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:21-23). Mercy shown in the simplest forms can relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and boost the ability to promote mercy in the future.
This scene of my newest book conveys the jolt of happiness and acceptance brought about by a corrections officer, in an unconventionally Biblical way:
“Quinn walked over. “What is this, break time?” She turned around to see Elena right behind her with a 6 pack of Diet Sunkist, and grinned. “I guess it is! Okay everyone, let’s take a minute.” She lifted her arm up straight in the air, signalling for Whitey’s attention. “Taking a break!” she called out.
“Me too!” Whitey jovially hollared back. He and Trish walked over together, and he handed out cigarettes. Whitey was one of the good ones.” (Excerpt from “To Die a Bachelor,” by Jessica Lucci).
The corrections officer shows mercy on the female prisoners who are laboring on a difficult work-release project. By providing the treats of soda and cigarettes, he is also providing a boost of camaraderie and mutual respect. He speaks to the women as humans, not as inmates. His example of mercy became a legacy.
As we celebrate Easter or observe a special day together, take a moment to be thankful for your freedom, in whatever form it abides in your life. Please remember in prayer or in thought our sisters behind bars, who will eat their Easter dinner with sporks, and sleep behind the unturned stone of prison’s locks.
“‘… for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me. … Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40,45).