Published in the Courier Mail 12 May 08
I VISITED a women’s prison for the first time last year.
As we drove around the corner towards it my stomach felt uneasy. It was an imposing and intimidating place and I experienced a mixture of emotions – apprehension, sadness, uncertainty.
I was with a small group of women who were visiting and working alongside one of the prison chaplains to conduct the chapel service.
We had submitted our security clearance forms months in advance, risen early in the morning to get there, and journeyed through the very many security clearance sections, filling out forms, being searched and walking along corridors as doors shut behind us.
We were to hold three services, including one for maximum security prisoners.
I’d be lying if I said I was confident how I would feel when I met these women. But I was not expecting how I was to feel when I walked away from the prison that day.
It is with great interest that I have read media reports and heard the public reaction over the past week regarding medical treatment for Valmae Beck and serial rapist Jeffrey William Voois. Their stories have led me to ponder my prison experience last year.
As a pastor, my job, my vocation, my calling causes me to reflect broadly on the human condition. Interacting with people, being exposed to crisis, pain and wrongdoing, I must think deeply, spiritually and practically as to how to respond. I see the best and worst in people and of people. And I am aware that the human condition is one common to all – including me.
When I left the prison that day, I walked away not with revulsion but with humility. I sensed that any one of those women’s stories could have been mine – but for the grace of God.
What Beck and Voois did was deeply and horribly wrong and it is only right that such behaviour stirs us to anger. It is right that society condemns such behaviour in the strongest possible way. It is right that Beck and Voois are payng a high price for their actions.
It is right that they be incarcerated and receive the full penalty the law has determined. I affirm all of that. Yet much of what has been filling the airwaves has left me feeling uncomfortable.
We seem to be condemning the person, and not their behaviour. Suggesting we let Beck die without adequate medical treatment is pronouncing judgment on a person, not just what she has done. And that is a very, very dangerous position to be in as a society. The flawed logic behind this view condemns us to be victims of this behaviour.
Those who scream “Let her die” have not taken into account that people can change their behaviour. Leopards can change their spots.
This way of thinking leaves no room for redemption but consigns a perpetrator to a life of hopelessness. Society too becomes a place of hopelessness, for we will remain as victims of negative and destructive behaviour and will never be able to see positive change.
Either we are moral agents with free will who can choose to do wrong or to do right, or we are slaves to instinct, hormones and base desires. If we think it is only the types of behaviour that society currently deems abhorrent which cannot be changed, but other types can be, then we live in denial.
None of us is perfect. While we may not have murdered a child, we may have nursed murder in our heart as we have rehearsed vengeance, or harboured violent bitterness towards another. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “We are all fallen creatures and all very hard to live with.”
Redemption is possible. It’s possible for you, it’s possible for me, and as hard as it is to comprehend, it’s even possible for Beck and Voois. It is possible to save their souls.
And redemption is not an easy way out. It’s an often painful journey. It requires an admission of wrongdoing and recognition of need. This is often, like with alcoholics and drug addicts, the most difficult part of the process.
We must create a society where the possibility of redemption is part of the public dialogue. It can only happen if we hold to the idea that our behaviour is ultimately a product of our choices, and does not define us, but can be changed.
Adlai Stevenson, an American politician and UN Ambassador, said: “Every age needs men who will redeem the time by living with a vision of the things that are to be.”
When faced with an angry lynch mob, such a vision takes courage. Redemption always has.