One of Every Hundred Citizens in Prisons

In a recent sermon I quoted a statistic which was incorrect–I thought I had remembered that one out of every thousand adult citizens in this country is incarcerated.  Actually, it is one out of every hundred.  This is one of those figures that is difficult to believe, but it was reported on the front page of NY Times on April 23.

The article went on to say that we are, of course, the world leader in “producing prisoners” (and “producing” is probably the correct term), with China a distant second.  The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population and almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.                 

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized countries are apparently shocked by what they see when they look at our figures.  For example, the U.S. has 751 in prison for every 100,000 people; England’s rate is 151, Germany’s is 88; Japan’s is 63.  Russia is the only country that comes close to us, at 627 per 100,000.
Explanations are given: guns easily available, the drug trade, lack of a social safety net, and the American temperament, with its emphasis on individual responsibility.  Several experts have pointed to one salient factor, a surprising one: democracy.  In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants, insulated from popular demand for tough sentencing, whereas we have a highly politicized criminal justice system.
Whatever the reason, putting people in jail for long periods of time for dubious reasons is not serving us well.  There is little emphasis these days on rehabilitation–the justice system (surely a misnomer) is mostly heavy on punishment.  So what are these folks going to do when they get out?  Be upstanding citizens that go out and get good jobs and pay taxes, perhaps?  Not a likely scenario.  
Maybe we need to ask whom we are punishing and why, and what the result is of all this recrimination.  Vengeance doesn’t work on the individual level, nor on the societal.  Maybe we should consider mercy–at least for those non-dangerous “criminals” who are filling our prisons and stealing our tax dollars from social services and schools–which, incidentally, they could be attending more cheaply than it costs us to keep them in jail.  


Moms and Guilt

Last Sunday I preached on the topic “What Do Our Children Require of Us?”  In this sermon, I pointed out that the consensus of professionals in the field of child development is that perhaps the majority of children in this country are not getting the care that they need in order to grow into healthy adults.  These researchers point to a troubling shift in child-rearing patterns since1970′s, saying that since then there has been a huge increase in the numbers of babies and young children being cared for in daycare, the great majority of which is unsatisfactory.  This conclusion is overwhelming, if you look at the literature.            On Monday, I received a call from a congregant, a mom who has her child in day care, complaining that my sermon had “made her feel guilty.”  I knew this response was a risk I took in preaching this sermon, because women have been guilt-tripped forever about the needs of their children.  If the child has a problem of any kind, look no further than the mother, the “experts” have said, for a very long time.  This has been a heavy burden to bear–it was for me when I was a single mother, and it is for all moms–and I don’t wish to add to that burden.  (The current literature, incidentally, is not “mom-centric,” but more focused on policy.)

    I went on to say in the sermon that I do not consider the daycare problem something that resulted from the women’s movement.  I went on to characterize the problem as a systemic one, referring to national priorities and policies, both in government and in business.  I tried to be clear about this perspective–but the guilt button is easy to push. 
    So for you moms out there in cyberland–I know from experience that we all balance a tremendous load of responsiblity, and it’s easy to blame ourselves when we can’t do it all.  Own only what is yours to own, and no more.  Understand that we are living in a culture that doesn’t really value children and families, so families must struggle in a very difficult context.  Families that have money have more choices; families in which two parents can share the care of children have more leeway; families in work situations that allow them to stay home part or all of the time find child-rearing easier.  But there are those families who have a single mother working two jobs to survive, no interested dad, no extended family around to pick up the slack.  These moms have no choice but daycare, and that daycare should be a lot better than it currently is, and that is the responsibility of all of us.
    Let me end by repeating what I called for at the beginning of my sermon:  “So what is it that children require of us?  I think they require three things: (1) to feel safe, (2) to feel loved, and (3) to feel hope.  Children get these qualities from consistent positive contact from stable, loving adults.”  I hope all of us, parents and non-parents alike, will concern ourselves with the cultural and political changes that are needed for our children to grow into healthy, productive, loving adults.


Re-defining Sin

 It seems that the Vatican has been tinkering with the notion of sin.  It’s about time.  There was a recent suggestion by a bishop from the Vatican’s “office of sin and penance” (I think Unitarian Universalists could use such an office, actually–more on this later), in which sins such as trashing God’s green earth (corporate polluters) and robbing the poor (economic inequity) should be recognized along with the usual bread-and-butter individual sins. 

    I say “about time,” because far more pain and suffering are caused by these systemic sins than by the paltry seven deadly sins conjured up in the medieval period.  Do you even know what these are, my friends?  I confess I had to look them up myself, to get all seven.  They are:  lust, gluttony, pride, envy, anger, avarice, and sloth. 
    Think about it–how does a little lust compete with a tobacco company’s lies?  How does just a pinch of envy measure up against a manufacturer of land mines?  Give me the individual sins any day, compared to the systemic.
    And as far as Unitarian Universalists go, a cursory look at the seven deadlies tells us that this list is just not suitable for us.  These are just not our big sins. 
    In fact, we could do with a little more of some of these.  Take lust, for instance.  We could be more embodied, more passionate.  Can you imagine anyone saying, “Now those Unitarians, they’re a lusty lot”?  And how about anger?  We like to repress ours–after all, we wouldn’t want to appear unseemly or impolite.  Another of the seven we could use more of is sloth.  Sloth–what an appealing sin!  But Unitarian Universalists are worker bees, doing one project after the next.  I know every time I attempt to be slothful, I just become paralyzed with guilt and remorse.
    Actually, though, our paramount sin, our really big one, is in fact one of the deadly seven–it is pride.  We believe that we can think our way to salvation instead of depending upon mercy and grace.  Too often we are self-righteous, disregarding our own moral and ethical failings, and thinking of ourselves as just a cut above the rest. 
    There is one main reason why black churches are so exciting, so full of passion, on Sunday morning–you see, people who are hurting, people who are oppressed, know know they need one another and know they need God.  Too often Unitarian Universalist services can be emotionally dead places, because UU’s think that we are in control (and we are so very wrong); and we think that man is the measure of things (just the measure of little things); and we think that we don’t desperately need one another (and we do), and we think that we don’t need God (because we’d rather split theological hairs than humble ourselves and pray).
    My grandmother, who read her big black Bible daily, and outloud, used to say, “Pride is the only unforgivable sin.”  As a child, I never understood her.  Now I think I do.  Pride is the only sin, you see, that irrevocably separates us from God–it is the sin of putting ourselves in the place of God.  And it follows that we then separate ourselves also from others and sever those bonds of compassion that make us one.
    So I suggest that we Unitarian Universalists have an office of sin and repentance, too.  But of course we couldn’t use that language, since many UU’s don’t believe that sin even exists–just bad parenting.  We could call our office something like “Office for the Support of the Morally Gifted.”  Yes, it’s a euphemism, but hey you do what you’ve got to do.