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Crime and Punishment: The Darkness and the Light

This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.

I once heard these words, “Moses approached the darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18),” explained as follows: That’s where God can be found, in the darkness.

My participation in RRC’s Crime and Punishment class has exposed me to a truly disturbing amount of darkness. The staggering, heart-wrenching pain and violence existing around, and all too often produced by, the criminal justice system devours offenders, their victims and the people and communities connected to them. But as the Exodus verse suggests, learning of this darkness has also exposed me to impressive godliness.

E.M.I.R. Mural ArtworkFor this session on Crime and Punishment, class coordinator Chaplain Phyllis Taylor brought us to EMIR (Every Murder is Real). Founded by the mother of 20-year old murder victim Emir Greene, EMIR supports the healing process of murder victims’ families and their communities.

We first heard about the challenges of returning citizens’ reentry into society from Hannah Zellman, anti-mass incarceration activist and Program Director of the Institute for Community Justice (ICJ). She described the criminal justice system as the “apex of systems of oppression,” including racism and white supremacy, poverty and the effects of capitalism, homophobia and transphobia, and more. The ICJ drop-in center provides a safe, stigma-free space, classes and trainings to returning citizens facing the extremely daunting task of reentering a world that has changed while they were behind bars. She told us about one man who thought everyone was crazy after his release because he saw them all walking around talking to themselves—he had never seen anyone using Bluetooth. Despite Philadelphia’s progressive “ban the box” ordinance, Ms. Zellman finds it hard to give the people she serves hope that they will find a job in this city where there aren’t enough jobs to begin with, and when formerly incarcerated people often lack the support and skills to stay in a job if they are lucky enough to find one. The near impossibility of finding a job is one of the biggest reasons that people commit crimes again. 

Still, Ms. Zellman is constantly amazed by the incredible potential people have for transformation. She told us the story of a woman who was incarcerated and lost the custody of one of her children. She would push his old, empty stroller around to mark her pain at his absence; through her own resilience and extensive work with advocates, this woman learned to manage her rage and recently regained custody of her child. In light of this story, Ms. Zellman’s admission that she only goes to synagogue on the Jewish High Holidays makes perfect sense, as that is the time of year we celebrate the power of teshuvah, human transformation.

As we turned from the challenge of societal reentry to the experience of victims, Ms. Zellman and Chantay Love, EMIR’s Program Director, agreed that people overemphasize the distinction between offenders and victims, because invariably the offenders have been victimized on multiple levels, which plays a powerful role in leading to their crime. Ms. Love told us that the murder of a family member breaks the family system to such a degree that the surviving family members have to relearn how to do such simple things as eat a meal together. Individual family members also have to adjust—mothers have to find the strength to wake up in the morning and go back to work, fathers have to learn how to look at their surviving children and once again show up in the role of dad. 

Amidst all this darkness, however, godliness was powerfully present. EMIR helps victims’ families to find their healing and sometimes even brings healing to those who have committed murder. EMIR works with victims’ families to express their desires for the murderer’s punishment, desires which often include a request for compassion - which surprises the District Attorney, who is usually seeking a harsher penalty. Ms. Love told us about one family that asked for a lighter sentence for their daughter’s killer because the killer suffers from HIV; the victim’s family hoped she would be released in time to spend some time with her family.

This darkness I have come to see in and around the US criminal justice system is especially striking to me because of another kind of darkness—my relative ignorance, until recently, of all of this suffering. While I have become largely desensitized to much of the daily horror that exists in our world, the horrors of our criminal justice system are new to me and as such stand out starkly.  

I close with this prayer, translated from Leon Gieco’s song Solo le Pido a Dios:

I only ask of God

That I not be indifferent to pain.

That dry death not find me empty,

Having failed to do enough.