by Sean Goode
What is it about a broken thing that inherently makes it lose value? Why is it when something stops working and it is seemingly no longer beneficial, it becomes disposable? When does something deteriorate beyond the bounds of redemption? Who decides?
As a child, most of the toys I played with were secondhand, garage sale discoveries. This was in no small part because, as a hustle, my mother and father would spend their weekends looking through the Little Nickel, a hard-copy precursor to Craigslist, and creating a map of garage sales in affluent neighborhoods. As a family we would drive from house to house, scouring for hidden “gems,” negotiating better prices and ultimately taking these “rough diamonds” home and selling them at a garage sale of our own for profit.
We would ultimately turn someone else’s trash into our treasure.
Although I haven’t gone to a garage sale in years, I still find myself sifting through the many people and ideas discarded because of their perceived low value and discovering hidden treasures waiting to be redeemed.
I understand the temptation to dispose of the things we disagree with. To align the cacophony of differing perspectives on any given subject into a soulful harmony seems difficult to orchestrate, particularly when we have a curated playlist of preferences at our fingertips. Yet the magic of finding cohesion amidst the chaos — and the sound of serendipity resulting from that synchronicity — has no equal.
So why throw it all away when there is much to be created out of our shared humanity?
In short, we tend to believe there are some things that can’t be — or require too much work to be — redeemed; that it is better to start over from scratch, regardless of the cost, than to leverage what is to create what can be.
This is, in part, the premise our current criminal legal system functions from: either there are people who have caused harm, who are beyond redemption or would require too much work to be redeemed so must remain locked away for life or their life taken; or there are those who are living with addiction, experiencing a mental health crisis, or living unhoused who are showing up so frequently in courtrooms it would be better to have them in jail than on the street.
There is enough data to demonstrate that criminalizing people’s behavior doesn’t lead to healing for the harmed or the accused, but it does provide the perception of safety for some. When this perception of safety is predicated on the narrative implying some of us are beyond redemption, we fight to uphold the narrative because we believe our safety is tied to it.
At the same time, as we work to create a system that heals the harm and doesn’t simply criminalize behavior, there are many people working in the existing system who are also seen as being beyond redemption. Individual police officers, prosecutors, and judges often are vilified because of the role they play in upholding the system causing harm to many.
This is how, in part, defunding the police and reimagining public safety becomes divisive. People on either side of the conversation are fighting for the redemption of those they most closely identify with — fighting for them to be seen as treasure and not trash.
If we are not careful, we quickly can find ourselves in a cadence of dehumanizing people with opposing ideas and, in doing so, creating an echo chamber of affirmation ultimately leading us to becoming the very thing we opposed.
This cycle is vicious and intentionally keeps us from the place of our greatest strength: togetherness. A place I’m convinced can only be found by looking through the lens of grace.
Grace as a lens doesn’t show us what someone deserves but shows us the possibility of their humanity. In pursuit of togetherness, I’ve had to apply this lens to all things personal and professional.
This lens of grace allows me to view my father not as a sum of the harm he caused but as fully human and doing the best he could to navigate his own trauma while parenting through his addictions. It allows me to look back at the years of bullying I endured, leading to many moments of suicidal ideation, not as the product of ill-intended adolescents but as actions by children, much like me, who were struggling with identity and externalizing their pain on others.
This lens of grace allows me to see people who have caused harm not as the harm they have caused but as people who can heal and become who they were purposed to be. It allows me to look at those who work today to uphold a criminal legal system not as tools of the oppressor but as people, within a system of oppression, who also are worthy of redemption.
Grace selectively applied is favoritism. So if we are to look through this lens, we must be willing to see all of creation through it and, when we do, to see our most obvious connection to each other: our shared humanity. We share shortcomings, we share anger, we share harm, we share love, we share joy, we share healing, and we can share in our liberation.
I’ve spent a great deal of time searching through piles of discarded humanity. I’ve committed my life to scouring through what society has deemed trash. Through it all, I’ve yet to encounter any who were beyond redemption, and I’ve met many who were simply hidden treasures.
Sean Goode is the Executive Director of Choose 180.
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