Last night at dinner, our three-year-old asked me why I thought we shouldn’t open any more prisons here in Minnesota. I told him that there are already more people in our prisons than need to be in prison--that we need to make sure fewer of us end up there instead of building more. He said I should tell everyone just not to do any crimes.
I wish it were so simple.
As far as the Jewish tradition is concerned, every single one of us is made in the divine image. Nothing we do can change that, however we act in the world.
That divine image we always carry gives us our inalienable dignity as human beings. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir tells a story about identical twin brothers.
One of the brothers becomes the king, and the other becomes a thief. The brother-king tells his guards to hang his brother the thief. When passers-by see the brother-thief, they point and say, “Look at the king hanging there!”
In the parable, the king, of course, is God, with God’s very image visible on the face of the thief who has committed terrible crimes. If we are not careful with how we treat people who commit crimes, Rabbi Meir warns us, we will find ourselves degrading the divine image and our own fundamental dignity.
Torah does not require us to build prisons. Torah is silent about prisons.
Torah has a different idea about how to break cycles of violence and build a responsible, peaceful society: Cities of Refuge.
In Torah, a person who kills another unintentionally cannot pay a fine – for no fine can restore the loss of a human soul. But neither can they be given the death penalty – for they are no intentional murderer. With no direct recourse for the victim’s family, Torah is concerned that they might take matters into their own hands. The cities of refuge, real cities with real people in them, would shelter such a killer, preventing the escalation of an unintentional act with powerful consequences. After the death of the high priest, these refugees could return to their homes. With time and space, healing was possible.
Building cities of refuge meant that serious mistakes had appropriate consequences. Investing in cities of refuge meant that everyone was expected to live in, and return to, human society. Constructing cities of refuge meant that we all took part in disrupting cycles of violence. Creating cities of refuge meant that we knew we would make mistakes and we knew that we could change.
Talmud teaches that the roads leading to the cities of refuge were twice as wide as standard issue roads. Those roads were paved smooth to make it easy to reach the cities of refuge. There were clear signs along the way that said REFUGE.
We stand at a crossroads.
The criminal justice infrastructure we build tells us who we are. We can open more prisons, or we can build our cities to be cities of refuge. Will our signs say dead end or will they say refuge?
I pray for our discernment to widen the roads we want to make. To widen the roads that lead to greater human dignity, to widen the roads that de-escalate our violence, to widen the roads that restore justice.