By: Kate Smoot
Justice is notoriously difficult to get right. Often, injustice prevails through simple ignorance or willful blindness. Even the best-laid plans may go horrifically awry through inadequate attention to complex social realities. In a course entitled “Health Disparities and Social Inequalities” taught by Dr. Celia B. Fisher at Fordham University, we utilize current social research to link theoretical frameworks with careful attention to context. In one study, “Pathways to Prison: Life Histories of Former Clients of the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems,” imprisoned adults were invited to tell their own stories, addressing their own understandings of justice, agency, and responsibility.
Interestingly, in this article many of the stories told by former clients of the child welfare system include downward turns based on the actions of another. Growing up in a middle class Christian context, I’m used to hearing the exact opposite: stories that turned upwards due to another’s kindness or wisdom. Such stories are prevalent and influential as their pattern fits the Christian narrative of salvation achieved through the agency of another. This observation prompted the stark realization that in church and school, I’ve primarily listened to people whose stories have worked out.
In contrast, I was struck by the recurring sense of hopelessness, rather than anger, in the face of maltreatment among children in foster care. The tendency to “give up” in response suggests not only that their condition was already quite fragile, but also that they had a keen sense of being under the power of others, and therefore their faith was placed outside themselves.
This indeed seems a cruel inversion of the Christian narrative. What do such silenced stories say about the insularity of the middle class church pew? If our vision of reality is mediated by what we see and hear, could the silencing of real misfortune affect our perception of the very real effects of carelessness or cruelty? What of the fallen children? Where is their Christ?
At first glance, it may seem that the inverted narrative invalidates the Christian vision; how can we support such a framework in the face of such desperate need? On the contrary: such horrific exceptions prove the rule and give the lie to the myth that full flourishing can occur in isolation. Whether or not the prisoner’s narratives drew on a supernatural Savior, their stories highlight a deeply rooted human need; looking upwards and outwards for guidance and protection is the human condition. We do not fully create or form ourselves. We are deeply vulnerable to our environments, and we will develop the virtues we need to thrive in the ground we’re given.
At the same time, we must address the hermetic nature of the church; while such a simple, reinforced narrative can goad ethical action, an overly rosy picture can also generate a form of moral nihilism. If Jesus saves everyone, regardless of their actions, if everyone goes to heaven, do our actions really matter? Is it that much easier to look away, to pretend that everything will be “ok,” to participate merely as bystanders?
This story also negates the idea that soup kitchens and clothing drives are enough. Our needs are so much more than material; what Christ is after is dignity and advocacy, the types of things that salvage another’s humanity. As children, these prisoners did have food and shelter; they needed guidance. What was required was a measure of protection and preferential love.
Without love, we cannot consider ourselves God’s friends; we cannot see God. In Scripture, Jesus unequivocally identifies with the most marginalized, even predicating salvation on care for the “least of these,” including those in prison (Matt. 25:31-46). While the Christian tradition holds that we are all fallen children of God, those who have received gifts both natural and supernatural are expected to develop and share them. The brute fact is, if we forget Christ in the streets, we may miss him at the communion table. If we take Christ at his word, we will find him behind bars.
Kate Smoot, GSAS ’14, is completing her M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University. She loves Nietzsche and Thomas Aquinas and is interested in the poetic texture of reality.
Wow, great essay! I worked in child welfare at the beginning of my career as a social worker. I feel such despair over the treatment of prisoners in my home state of Florida. They are treated as less than human by a government that sells prison management to the lowest bidder. So many of the people who support this call themselves Christians. Same with the folks who want to withhold medical care and food stamps. Seems like a lot of them have forgotten the people Jesus cared about most.