We all have those things from our past we hope no one ever mentions. Those things we hope certain people don’t find out about. The things we try to convince ourselves never actually happened. I’m talking about our mistakes—the big ones—the ones that are more than just mistakes. I’m talking about those shameful things that are evidence we were once somebody we hate. Those things that reveal an image of self from which we are ever trying to divorce ourselves. Those things that we feel would make people instantly distance themselves from us if they only knew. Those things that we find ourselves reminded about when we least expect it, that we can’t ever seem to get away from. The things that make us wonder: Is escape from the past possible?
Escape from the past ought to be possible. A person’s life should be evaluated on the basis of the entirety of their character, not just the failure of a few moments. However, our American society built on retributive justice often defines people by their worst mistakes. In our criminal justice system, people are quickly labeled drug addicts, thieves, sex offenders for life. The totality of one’s existence becomes expressed to society in terms of the things that mark the lowest points of people’s lives. This is not true justice.
Even those who prove themselves to be evil in their core have the potential to be different. People are more than their vile actions. Maybe Norway is on to something with its 21-year maximum civilian imprisonment. Its justice system focuses on protecting society from people who could be considered dangerous rather than on outlandish punishments that assume people never change. Norway’s justice system is founded upon the truth that rehabilitation is possible. In the American system, however, it is much easier to discard people, to write them off as eternally hopeless than to be present with them in their brokenness.
Genesis tells us that God created humankind in God’s very own image. While humanity is often a fragmented expression of that image, the statement is no less true. In that light, why are people judged and identified on the basis of their worst mistakes? Maybe you have experienced this kind of branding yourself. You don’t have to have been charged and convicted of a crime to be subject to it. Or maybe you have been guilty of casting people into the mold of their biggest downfall. May we always remember that each person we desire to ostracize is cut from the same cloth we are. “Those people” possess God’s image just as we do.
The Gospel of John’s proclamation that Jesus was “full of grace and truth” brings much to bear on this discussion (John 1:14). In embodying these attributes, Jesus shows that God extends grace and truth to those who have messed up in expressions of God’s essential characteristic of love. What does this look like? Grace means that even the worst of mistakes is met with the chance to overcome them. Grace means that escaping the past is possible. Grace means people aren’t defined by their shortcomings and inadequacies.
Truth means shining the light on an individual’s actions to show that their behaviors fail to measure up to God’s character. Truth means revealing that things are not as they should be. Truth means judging behaviors for what they are. It should be stated that truth does not mean judging people as defined by their mistakes. Truth does not mean reminding people of their defects over and over. Truth simply means bringing blemishes to light so that a new path can be chosen. It means that God views our mistakes in the total reality of what they are and extends love to us anyway.
So again I pose the question: Is escape from the past possible? Not completely. Mistakes are lodged in our memories and in the memories of others whether we want them to be or not. While the past will always be ironically present, it does not always have to be confining. Escape, in that sense, is indeed possible. As 1 Corinthians 13:5 tells us, love “keeps no record of wrongs.” Thus, one of the greatest expressions of love we can offer each other is not labeling people on the basis of their worst mistakes. Instead, let us offer one another the freedom and opportunity to grow into the image of God we were all created in.