Everyone loves a good redemption story: the reformed criminal who services the community, the recovered addict who helps others find sobriety, or the once greedy financier who sheds the pursuit of money for the pursuit of a deeper calling. There is no one moment that defines a person and it is in fact possible for people to change. Even a long period of time spent in terrible pursuits, life can be redeemed.
A redemption story is the redirection of narrative. In order for this redirection to take place, the story’s hero makes an internal change before it is recognized by anyone in the outside world. The outside world, though, must make some affordance for this redirection; if the ship is to be turned around, we have to allow for space for the about face.
This week’s episode of the Making Kairos podcast gave a great example of that. Mike Dunford lived his first thirty-six years going down a certain track. A track that many people never return from. He was abusing drugs and alcohol and had been arrested a number of times. This is the start of a story that encaptures an incredible amount of men who are now incarcerated for the rest of their lives. Mike’s story, however, did not follow that line. His ship made an about face. He got sober. He got a job. He got an education. He got a new job. He is pursuing further education. He now is completing law school to become a civil servant. It is an incredible story of redemption.
Mike’s story, though, is not one of blazing his own trail to recovery. In the justice system, he was sent to Drug Court as a way to possibly divert him from a life of crime and punishment. He went into a halfway house system that progressed him to societal reintegration. He was given a chance at a job where he was able to establish himself through years of steady performance. He was admitted to higher education despite previously poor academic performance. While he put in the work, there were institutional avenues that provided space for him to redeem himself. What a benefit for not only him, but society who will now have a trained and passionate individual looking to pursue justice, rather than wasting away in a life of petty crime.
Mike’s story is an easy one to see value in. We should rehabilitate and not punish. Likewise, in episode six of the Making Kairos podcast, Michael Gropman made this case for juvenile offenders. He cited statistical data that youth offenders who are entered into the system only get worse. However, when society takes on an engaged and integrated plan of development for these young individuals who have shown great signs of risk, we can facilitate the process of an individual turning their life around.
Both Mike’s personal story and the statistical story of youth offenders lends credence to the notion that we should forgive and assist, rather than punish and ostracize. Great justifications for a progressive system of criminal justice. These sorts of stories and arguments bring me back to my days of studying political philosophy. They shed light into a system of public policy led by rational compassion.
The goal, however, for the Making Kairos podcast and blog is expressly non-political. My goal for Making Kairos is to identify principles that can be applied to life broadly and steer clear of potentially toxic political debates.
Redemption, though, obviously need not be a political concept. In thinking about redemption, I also remember an experience I had with some old friends:
I once worked with a guy who became a close friend for a time. One night we went out on the town and he met a girl that I’d been friends with for a while. The two hit it off and they started dating. I felt like I was at a bit of a dilemma; this girl had once dated another friend and there was some static from my friend that she had conducted herself in a fairly reprehensible manner. Should I tell my new friend? I did. I didn’t want him to get blindsided by the same behavior when I felt like I had information that he’d want to know.
When I sat him down and told him, he made an incredibly laudable statement: “Thank you for telling me. She’s told me some about that past relationship. You know, I’ve done things in my past that I hope wouldn’t be the summation of people’s judgement of me. I’d like to be able to have the chance to grow as a person, so I’m going to give her that chance as well.” He was affording her a space of redemption.
I was blown away by his compassion.
I must admit, it is easier for me to make the compassionate case in the instance of public policy, but harder in the instance of personal discretions. I can deride retributive notions of justice based on an enlightened ideal of rational compassion, but give a person a second chance to do right in their next romantic relationship? I find it easier to make a space for redemption in a large abstract sense, but harder in personal interaction
I’m sure my personal history influences my leanings, but I’m also sure that I’m not alone in finding it easier make space for redemption in a social case than a personal one. If a principle is sound and just, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If there can be space for redemption in the world of crime and punishment, I should be able to make space for redemption in personal endeavors. If I am to be so bold as to judge someone’s behavior as wrong, I should be brave enough to ask how can I make space for them to redeem themselves. While I may be guilty of hypocrisy when applying principles in one area of life and not another, I hope to grow and be better, to get my own chance at redemption.