Jean Valjean in 21st Century America

I recently just watched Les Miserables, and I was so moved by  John Valjean, a criminal whose crime was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece.  Stealing is wrong, but so is children starving.  We can punish a thief, but we have no one but ourselves to blame for the staring child. After being released, John Valjean is ready for a clean start, but no one will hire him because of his criminal history.  So what does a starving and cold John Valjean do?  In a moment of desperation, he robs a priest.  It was only when he felt that he had no other options that he chooses to turn back to crime. It was not until someone showed him mercy and helped him that he began to turn his life around.  Jump ahead six years, and we see John Valjean as a completely changed man, a successful factory owner who helps those that no one else would care for. Yet the town’s police inspector Javert refuses to see John Valjean as anything but the criminal that he use to be.

I wish that I could have passed this off thinking well that was back in France almost 200 years ago, that would not happen here in America. However, a year of working around inmates has shown me that John Valjean is just as real today as he was in the mind of author Victor Hugo in 1862.  Before I go on, I want to say that I am not trying to justify their crimes.  What some of these inmates have done horrible things, things that make me wish I could shut my eyes and forget.  But Jesus loved everyone, even criminals.  In fact it was the lowly and the criminals that Jesus tried to love the most.  Jesus also told us to love as he has loved.  So that leads me to believe that the criminals are the type of people that we should be working the hardest to love.

I am no expert on psychology, sociology, or criminology.  But it does not take an expert to talk at an inmate and see how horribly wrong their life went.  Drugs, abuse, and a life on the street with no one to care for them at age 7 is commonplace among many of the inmates I work with.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to look in their eyes and know that no one ever loved them.  And if we take one moment to look past their crime, we will see a child that learned at too young of an age how cruel this world can be.  Who are we to judge what we do not understand?  If we were in their shoes, who is to say that we would not have ended up where they did?

Please do not think of me as naïve.  I have been lied to, whistled at, sworn at, and yes even barked at by many inmates.  If I can be barked at by someone and still believe in their humanity, then I think that you can too.  Inmates are often stigmatized by society, holding the view that they deserve the punishment they received and more.  It is easy to stigmatize inmates when they are just a collective group, but that view changes once you have not met the inmates and know their stories.  Knowing the life situations that the inmates come from makes it harder to believe they are getting what they deserved.

I am not writing this to just vent about the generalization of criminals and inmates.  Rather, I hope you read this and think before you assume the worst about criminals.  I hope that instead of judging them you will stop to show them that someone does care.  Never take for granted the power of an act of kindness.  If Jesus can feed 5000 with two fish and five loaves, then I think he can change someone’s life with an act of compassion.

“Take responsibility for nurturing the precious lives of the abandoned, abused, and wounded children who, by no fault of their own, become lost in the system, fill up the juvenile centers, and eventually overflow into the most hardened prisons.  These are the people most likely to end up on death row.” – Jarvis Masters

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