The story I’m most struck by in the Bible is the one of the woman who encounters Jesus at the well. The multilayered narrative is both salacious and jarring: holding cultural truths on one end and spiritual truth on the other.

At the peak of day while women were busy with their domestic duties, which included fetching water from the well–the prominent location of resource—Jesus is found chatting with a woman who is in the middle of a love triangle.

Based on Hebrew culture it was not permissible for Jesus to engage women in such a way, particularly with no man to stand proxy. Yet, Jesus sits by her side unearthing this woman’s past and—before she knows it—pointing her towards a new future.

The scene moves quickly—within six verses we learn the woman has been involved in many sexual relationships; the most recent was with a man who was not her husband. In antiquity, the law stated adultery was punishable by public stoning. From what we see in the story of the woman caught in adultery this was not an offense that was treated lightly. But Jesus does not take the woman to task for both her cultural crime and spiritual sin. Within His right as both a Rabbi and the Son of God, Jesus does not condemn the woman to the punishment she deserved by cultural standards.

Instead, He reforms her by pointing her to the true source of hope. Jesus shows her that the very thing she had been searching for in her extramarital relationships was contained in Him, the author of Life. Jesus gave her a new life.

I’m most struck by this story because at its crux is mercy: the unending goodness of a loving God to absolve us of the punishment we deserve. Mercy that leaves us better than it found us. In this way the story is beautiful and humbling: I’m reminded that however far I drift from the spiritual standard set for me in Christ, mercy awaits me.

But I’m also struck by how differently our culture—the American justice system to be specific—operates from this biblical truth. Sadly, as rich as the story might be, it only takes life off the pages of the bible insofar as something we read in church on Sunday to internalize in a fleeting moment.

How we label people

There is much to learn about justice reform from Jesus’ exchange with the woman at the well. The first lesson is that those cycled through the criminal justice system need to be seen as more than criminals.

By the very nature of calling those who have made bad choices “criminals” we have stripped them of an identity outside the confines of their wrongdoing. Labels are important because they shape our perception of how we see each other and ourselves. When we call someone a criminal all we see is the act of his or her crime. Our minds then begin to categorize those individuals as bad or “other.” As such we are less likely to engage them with empathy, compassion and, most importantly, mercy.

In the same way, the label of criminal is oppressive because it keeps individuals from overcoming their momentarily lapses of good judgment. To call someone a criminal is to tell them their being is so intimately connected to their actions that they must be identified in such a way. What would it look like if we were all labeled by what we did rather than who we actually are?

When we go back to the story of Jesus with the woman at the well, we find no trace of Him labeling her. He did not call her an adulterer or a promiscuous woman. Jesus looks deep into her and identifies the pain that led to her actions.

Looking at the heart

For true justice reform, we have to be willing to look to the hearts of those who are dangerously teetering on the wrong side of the law. Systems must be put into place to help them navigate to a better version of themselves—save that there are also real systemic injustices also needing to be addressed, which has led to unfair prison sentencing. Bad decisions should not warrant imprisonment and marginalization.

Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, points to the startling statistic that the United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. justice system has been built on a precedent that assumes perpetual guilt. Worse, the structure of our prison system is doing nothing to help former inmates reintegrate into society. There is very little evidence to suggest longer prison sentences rectify bad societal behavior.

Where we see growing incidents of solitary confinement—according to the Equal Justice Initiative about 75,000 people are held in confinement—we also see growing cases of anxiety and deep depression. This level of treatment weakens the opportunity for someone who has been imprisoned to work through any issues that may have led up to the crime. We do not treat prisoners as humans needing support to turn their lives around, but we treat them as animals who are different from us, and they become the invisible people. They are forgotten about, lost, overlooked and highly scrutinized should they make it to the outside of the prison walls.

Of course we cannot assume everyone who commits a crime will, with support, empathy and care, turn their lives around. Some people need to be locked away because they pose a threat to society, but this is not a generalization. Most prisoners would greatly benefit from structured rehabilitation services to set them on the right path because most prisoners are facing prison sentences far exceeding the nature of the crime. Take for example that a drug offense in the U.S. carries a 5-10 year sentence.

Mercy

For reform, we must rethink the approach to the justice system. The undercurrent of the system must be impassioned with mercy, the very mercy God has for each of His children. Only mercy will allow us to provide our most vulnerable citizens with the grace to change. And only mercy will help us to see them as individuals beyond their actions. Only mercy will help us create an environment of openness and forgiveness. All things are needed if we truly want to help people change.

In August, the Justice Department announced it would end its use of privatized prisons. This is certainly a step in the right direction of creating a balanced justice system—one that does not allow big business to capitalize off of people’s lapses in judgment.

But there is still a long way to go. If, in the United States, we are to be one nation under we God, we must model the very God who faced a woman and her crime, pointed her to living water, set her free and said sin no more.

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