Friday, May 25, 2012

Reflections on Mother’s Day

As an academic, May is a very hectic time for me professionally.  It was a blur, but Mother’s Day was almost two weeks ago.  Around that time, two very different Mother’s Day-themed articles caught my attention.  They seemed apropos to share in light of my recent posts on women’s roles and family separation.

The first article is about the “most powerful” moms:  It originated from Forbes. 

I wasn’t really sure what they meant by “powerful.”  That is sort of an ambiguous term.  Power derives from a variety of sources, e.g., actual authority in the work place, influence in the home, influence in one’s community or profession, physical strength, the size of one’s bank account or credit limit, etc.  I wasn’t even sure what kind of power Forbes was intending. 

And it just seemed an odd thing to try to rank.  Power is hard to quantify.  I’m not really sure why one would want to quantify it and rank people, but there is interest in that apparently. 

When I came across the article, I also just wondered about societal attitudes towards power.  I guess by virtue of this ranking by a famous business magazine, power is something people admire and maybe even desire. I suppose I know that intellectually, but that does not make a lot of sense to me.  And I don’t know I had any particular admiration for the women who made it into this elite list.

From a Christian world view, power is not something to be envied or necessarily pursued.  Jesus rejected attempts to give him earthly power and instead made himself vulnerable on the cross.  Dr. Tony Campolo wrote a fascinating book about that: Which Jesus?: Choosing Between Love and Power.  I blogged about the book a couple years ago:  It is a terrific book and I highly recommend it.

The second article I came across was a photo essay about Mother’s Day in Prison:  Having just spent a lovely day with my own precious kids, I shed a bunch of tears when I looked at these photos on Mother’s Day evening. 

Being a mom inspires one to want to protect and nurture the vulnerable little human beings who are your children.  That is what being a mom is all about.  It is your job to take care of them, keep them from harm, and help them develop into the people God intended.  You’re supposed to hug them when they have nightmares or get frustrated by long division.  You are supposed to give them a smile and tell them they are beautiful even when they feel ugly due to a new hairstyle or a pimple.  You are supposed to make them a healthy breakfast even if you are exhausted and haven’t consumed your coffee yet.  You do those things not because anyone makes you do them, but because you have such a profound and powerful love for these little people.  You’d do just about anything for them. 

With that mindset, I looked at the photos in this slideshow and tried to imagine the experiences of these children and mothers who live so far apart, who see each other so infrequently.  These children, who have to be bused in to see their moms on Mother’s Day, are essentially growing up without a mom.  Quite a stark contrast to the Forbes article, these incarcerated moms are incredibly powerless.  The most personal, most vital relationships of their lives are completely dictated by the impersonal decisions made by others in the criminal justice system.

I teach Criminal Law.  I understand retributionist and utilitarian arguments for imprisonment.  But the reality is that the vast majority of women in prison have not committed any violent offense.  Most are serving time for drug offenses and/or are caught up in an overly broad net of accomplice liability when their husbands, boyfriends or lovers actually commit the target offense. 

And I won't even get into the issue of wrongful conviction.  Over 90 percent of criminal cases never go to trial.  Hiring a lawyer is expensive and court-appointed attorneys are notoriously over-worked.  So, there are serious issues as to whether people in prison have even committed the crimes for which they are serving time.  But that is a complicated issue for another day.

Even assuming everyone in prison is guilty, in this age of dire government debt and overspending, I don’t understand why we insist on continuing our ill-conceived experiment in mass incarceration.  Others have written at length how we incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other nation—even the People’s Republic of China can’t compare.  Criminologists and fiscal conservatives have made cogent arguments that we need to take a smarter, more financially responsible approach to criminal justice.  I tend to agree.

But looking at this photo essay, the more pressing issue to me was what we’re doing to families.  Our experiment in mass incarceration has been going on for several decades.  In a country that purports to embrace family values, how can the ripping apart of families be a good thing?  How can there be no allowance made to support the retention and nurturing of family bonds?  What do we think will happen to the precious little children who grow up without enough hugs and encouragement from their moms (and dads)?

Psalm 116:16
Truly I am your servant, LORD; I serve you just as my mother did; you have freed me from my chains.

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