Spoken like a true man of God!
By J. BARRETT LEE
To my fellow Christians in Oneida County: There has been much ado in the headlines about the county’s temporary housing of sex offenders in Utica motels. Private citizens and elected officials alike are raising the voice of protest against this practice. I’ve repeatedly heard complaints about the county using Utica as a “dumping ground” for sex offenders.
The implication behind these statements is that such people amount to human garbage. I find this implication to be spiritually and morally troubling because of what it says about us as a community.
As a survivor of sexual assault, I can testify to the dehumanizing effect that such a violent act has on a person’s sense of self. The perpetrators of such acts necessarily objectify their victims and treat them like garbage, tossing them aside when there is no longer any use for them. I know firsthand what that feels like.
When we as a society compare our sex offenders to garbage, we do the same thing to them that they did to us. In doing so, we stoop to their level and perpetuate the cycle of violence.
American society at large endorses such violence because no one is said to be more despicable than a sex offender. We seem to have made it OK to dehumanize and hate these people because of what they have done to others. We use them as scapegoats and a “dumping ground” for our own rage, frustration, and self-hatred. Again, we do to them what they did to us. We become what we judge.
With this housing crisis, I believe God is presenting us with an opportunity to rise above revenge and break the cycle of dehumanizing violence. We have a chance to stand in solidarity with Jesus, who ate with tax collectors and sinners, the scapegoats and “sex offenders” of his day and age.
Christ’s commitment to a deep theology of grace empowered him to accept the “bad guys” and separate sinner from sin.
There are communities around the continent who have committed themselves to Christ’s path of radical hospitality. I’m thinking primarily of churches like Welcome Inn, a Mennonite church in Hamilton, Ontario. Their church has chosen to welcome sex offenders and surround them with circles of acceptance and accountability. They become a second family for program participants. They meet regularly with released offenders and nurture them into reintegration and active participation in community life. This way, sex offenders are simultaneously cared for and checked up on by people who care enough to love like Jesus.
Is there any reason why churches in the Mohawk Valley could not start similar programs? I can’t think of one.
All I can think of is what Jesus told his followers in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Be blessed and be a blessing,
J. Barrett Lee is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Boonville and a participant in St. James Mission, a progressive, ecumenical, spiritual community in Utica. He also teaches philosophy at Utica College.