Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lent Two: All things new

A decade ago, a house near ours burned to the ground. It was then rebuilt on the exact same
footprint. Some windows may be a bit larger. I'm sure bathroom and kitchen are more up-to-date. But in many ways, the new house is the same as the old. 

I wrote about the house five years ago, asking: 
If you were going to build a new house, wouldn’t you want to make it really new? Start with a new, more functional design, rather than settle for new siding?

I suppose the interior may be totally redesigned, but from what I can see, it’s new, but not really.

That word “new” is a tricky one. There are two words in Greek that are sometimes translated “new”. Neos has the same root as new:  “With neos the temporal aspect is dominant, marking out the present moment as compared with a former.” 

That new house on Biddle is neos: fresh, recent, in the same way that the new growth in my yard is neos: fresh, green, but showing up where the same plants grew last year.

The other word translated “new’ is kainos:  qualitatively different from what came before; unprecedented; unheard of; new not just in time, but in substance.
The past twelve months have shaken so much of what we know, upending patterns, shredding friendships, leaving so many around the globe anxious, depressed, angry, alone. 

We've seen the ugly underbelly of our comfortable systems: escalating inequality, partisan idolatry, angry assertion of our personal right to endanger others rather than face momentary discomfort. We've seen our fragile loyalty to fact and logic and moral consistency falter. Families, churches, communities are divided on everything from the efficacy of masks to the validity of electoral outcomes, the science behind climate change, approval or dismay at a golden statue of a former president. 

As winter snow melts, leaving oozing mud, I find myself praying, longing, hoping for the newness of kainos: qualitatively different from what came before. I don't want to go back to the old forms and formats, comfortable as that might feel. 

I've been meeting recently, by Zoom, with some organizational leaders to talk about the intersect between gerrymandering, prison gerrymandering, and unjust prison policy. We've been wrestling with ways to bridge the divide between impacted communities and places of privilege. Zoom has opened the ability to meet with new people and host new conversations, and our hope is to host regional meetings where stories not often heard can be told. 

Some of those stories break my heart. I wrote about Robert Saleem Hollbrook last August: a kid who was sentenced to life as an accessory to a capital crime. He spent 27 years in prison before gaining release. Now executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, he speaks softly, a calm, thoughtful, strategist with a steely determination to make sure his friends still behind bars are heard. We are planning a series of forums together: stories of maps, of prisons, of aging inmates locked away far too long.

Thirty years ago I heard our friend Dan Van Ness, my husband Whitney's colleague at Prison Fellowship, speak at a staff retreat about the need for paradigm reform. He  described the failures of "lock them up and throw away the key" policies and the need for a new, more Biblical approach.  Since then he's written extensively about restorative justice. He became Executive Director of Prison Fellowship International Center for Restorative Justice about the time we moved to Pennsylvania. Thirty years. Has anything changed? 

In 2005 the US Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. Most states either passed legislation to re-sentence juveniles already serving such sentences or held parole hearings to release them. Not Pennsylvania. Our state now has the highest number of juvenile lifers in the world. The average cumulative cost to the state for each child held for life: over 2 million dollars. Imagine if that money was spent on early education, or on under-funded schools. Or on public services for struggling families caught in cycles of poverty.

What would kainos look like? How can I lend my weight, my voice, my own privilege to open doors of life and hope to geriatric prisoners who have never once seen a beach, or a lake, or a backyard hammock? What would it take to create new, transformed political structures that would enable wise policy rather than partisan folly?

Leaving my conversation with Saleem and others this week, I headed out for my carefully-planned biweekly grocery run. As I turned on my car, I heard
You make all things new
You make all things new
in places we don't choose.
You make all things new. 
I had left my Porter's Gate CD Work Songs disc in my car. That part of the song caught me off-guard. 

What would all things new look like? For Saleem's friends still in prison? For the deeply-divided, angry, even dangerous partisan politics of PA? For our churches, our schools, our families, our world?

The song continued:
May the words of my mouth speak your peace.
May the words of my mouth speak your peace.
May the words of my mouth speak your peace.
May the words of my mouth speak your peace. 
As the refrain continued, I found myself praying along;
May the words of my mouth speak your peace.
May the words of my mouth speak your peace.
May the words of my mouth speak your peace.
May the words of my mouth speak your peace. 
I'm not sure what speaking peace looks like. I'm not sure what newness looks like. Maybe the first step is to recognize how much kainos is needed, and to refuse to settle for neos instead.