Praying by the prison (part 4): “On earth as it is in heaven …”

By Randy Klassen, national Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada, based in Saskatoon, SK.

This week, May 28 to June 3, Canada is marking National Victims and Survivors of Crime Week. It’s an important initiative that aims at supporting and caring for the hurt among us.

And, I’ll confess, it’s specifically important for me, as I journey in this world of MCC’s restorative justice work, because I’m also so involved and invested in what we often call “offender-based” service. We visit prisoners; we walk alongside those who have offended sexually, in “circles of support and accountability” (the CoSA program). We do this because we sense a divine push to these dark places.

But in our willingness to enter these broken lives, we sometimes forget the trail of other broken lives left in their wake—the broken lives of victims.

victims and survivors of crime week

Or, even if we don’t forget them, we don’t invest in them in the same way. Maybe we assume that they’re being taken care of. Maybe we assume that since victims and survivors and crime have a moral right to attention and care that they are indeed getting what they need. But, if you listen to the victims’ voices around us, you’ll soon discover how the initial pain or loss, so tragic in itself, is often heavily compounded by how the criminal justice system deals with victims. This reinforces a perennial public complaint: our Canadian justice system focuses more on the rights of offenders than those of victims.

And so, as I walk along the river across from one of Saskatoon’s prisons, and as I walk the sidewalks of my neighbourhood where I know families are enduring the impact of crime, I ponder what part of the Lord’s Prayer I need to focus on. The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven…” pops into my head. But not in a good way. Today that phrase pulls me right into the biblical story of Job.

Job—the wealthy, the privileged, the pious—undergoes a frightful experiment of “heaven on earth.” He becomes the victim of a heavenly conversation that is baffling and, frankly, rather chilling. The conversation goes something like this:

God: Have you noticed my man Job? Isn’t he awesome?

Satan (the prosecution): Really? Take away the power and privilege you’ve given him, and watch him crumble.

God: Okay, you’re on.

Whatever we make of that divine deal, the outcome is that Job becomes a victim. And the basic needs of Job, shown throughout this ancient tale, are still the basic needs of victims and survivors of crime today: presence, communication, acknowledgement, and acceptance. Job rages, he despairs, he laments. Job calls for justice. Tragically, he does so alone—all while his so-called friends blame him for bringing such trouble on himself.

Way of letting goThe story of Job, as a case study in the experience of victims, has much to teach us. So do the on-going stories of today’s victims, such as the profound reflections in Wilma Derksen’s latest book, The Way of Letting Go

Survivors of crime need to be heard. Their experiences, their pain or their anger, need to be acknowledged and validated. They need to be empowered in how they move forward in life—something that the current criminal justice system really struggles to accomplish.

True, we have in Canada the option of registering a “victim impact statement” for the court. But even this tends to reinforce the victim’s role as a witness to the crime, rather than as the actual recipient of harm. It tends to reinforce the criminal justice system’s goal of finding and punishing the wrong-doer, rather than addressing and restoring, as much as possible, the harm done to an individual.

The biblical Job walks a journey from victim to survivor. The word “survivor” connotes an active accomplishment (“sur-” means “over, above”), a dynamic reality of outlasting, even triumphing. Job does so in an encounter with the “kingdom, power and glory” of the Creator, the Voice out of the whirlwind.

Wilma Derksen, in Letting Go, does a similar kind of thing, although the Voice shows up differently for her, throughout her hard journey of more than thirty years. The Voice gently appears as “the Nazarene” in chapter after chapter. Derksen bears witness to the resilience of the survivor. And in so doing, she also bears witness to the grace of the One who walks alongside all victims in this world’s vale of tears.

So now, I walk and ruminate on those final words of this prayer, “for Yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory…” I hope and pray that the invisible realities these words express will strengthen the weak, give hope to the struggling, and carry those who are grieving. In a word, that those who have experienced harm, and loss, and tragedy in this life, might arrive at their journey’s end not a victim, but a survivor.

Harm, healing, hope: reflections on Restorative Justice Week

This week’s guest writer is Eileen Henderson, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Ontario. 

This week  is Restorative Justice Week in Canada. Across the country, people are celebrating restorative justice (RJ) through a variety of activities and events. From Church Council on Justice and Corrections’ Imagine Justice Art Gallery, to a national symposium in Quebec City, to seminars within some of our federal prisons — organizations and communities are holding events and hosting conversations with the intent of engaging the larger community in the concept of restorative justice and the use of restorative practices.

Restorative justice (RJ) is a way of looking at crime that moves us from viewing it solely as the breaking of laws to regarding it as the breaking of relationships. It moves us beyond arrest, plea and sentencing to the needs of all those who have been impacted, including the recipient of harm (victim), the author of harm (offender) and the larger community.

imagine-justice-banner-RESTORATIVE-JUSTICE-WEEKFor the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of working with an amazing group of colleagues at Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCCO) and with others across the country who are committed to walking alongside women and men returning to the community after incarceration. Through Circles of Support and Accountability, community-based work (ARISE here at MCCO), or prison visitation initiatives, staff and volunteers have committed themselves to walking with those have created harm, listening to their stories, offering support, requiring accountability, encouraging and advocating for truth to be told, while never losing sight of the needs of those who have experienced pain and loss due to victimization.

In other areas of our RJ work, we have the privilege of sitting with seniors who have experienced elder abuse, listening to their stories and being a presence in the midst of pain. We meet weekly with women and sometimes men who are in abusive relationships marked by trauma, again listening, supporting and advocating for them as they begin their journeys toward hope and healing. Yet another aspect of RJ work involves supporting congregations that are struggling with boundary crossing and sexual violence, longing to discover where God is in the midst of the pain and brokenness.

In the midst of working with broken inter-personal relationships marked by pain and desperation, grace and hope, RJ workers are also caught up each day with the pain and brokenness of the wider world.  The news of destruction, violence and fear this past week from Paris, Beirut and Baghdad seems a difficult if not impossible backdrop to Restorative Justice Week.

RJ candle

At the conclusion of a learning tour on prisons, participants shared ideas and commitments to action on small pieces of paper. MCC Photo/Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz.

As a person of faith, a follower of Jesus and a citizen committed to the concept of restorative justice, it has been pivotal for me to return to the foundations from which I work. This is where I find strength and am enabled to move beyond my fear or anger into a place of engagement and resilience. All of us are created in the image of a loving God who invites us into relationship with himself — a relationship that offers grace and mercy, forgiveness and restoration — no matter who we are, what we have done, or what has been done to us. This is always my starting point and the foundation for moving to the next level: namely, that out of our relationship with a loving God we are called into relationships with each other — relationships that are to be defined by grace, mercy, inclusion and an invitation for change. My faith grounds me in restorative justice work which is all about relationships which have been broken and relationships where there is the opportunity for hope and a movement toward change and healing.

These are the foundations that keep me going during the difficult days, the days when change is hard to see and where hope seems illusive, days when the events locally and on the world scene feel overwhelming.

Today and for the rest of this Restorative Justice Week, the lyrics from an old hymn will be the ones playing over in my head and in my car: “This is my Father’s world, and though the wrong seem oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

A spirituality of advocacy

Perhaps it is because we are in the season of Lent… Or perhaps it is because I was recently trying to explain how the work of our Ottawa Office differs from self-interested lobbying… Or perhaps it is the findings of a 2014 research project that challenged us as staff of the Ottawa Office to be more explicit about how our work is grounded in our faith…

Whatever the reasons, my thoughts have turned to articulating the spirituality that shapes the way we speak to government about issues of concern to MCC. What are the components of a spirituality of advocacy? How do we seek to faithfully express and embody this spirituality? I offer the following as preliminary thoughts.

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who came to Jordan in January 2014. One of her children is disabled, unable to walk, speak or eat by himself. They are living day to day in an apartment in one of the poorest areas of Amman with no furniture, no income and no family support. Together with MCC partner Caritas Jordan, we were able to bring blankets and relief buckets prepared in Canada. (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen) (Beneficiaries are from Syria which is an MCC Country of Sensitivity. Last names of beneficiaries are withheld for security reasons.)

Hannah and her 8 children are Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan in January 2014.  (MCC Photo/Gordon Epp-Fransen)

Solidarity.  MCC’s advocacy work arises out of program work – more specifically, from the call of partners that we work with in Canada and around the world. We seek to respond to the longing of real people for justice, for peace and for human dignity, and to call for government actions and policies which will fulfill those longings.  We are inspired by the biblical call to “speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).  But more than speaking for, we seek to speak with those who demand justice.  In other words, we try to be about solidarity. In the words of Samantha Baker Evens, “We are not ‘a voice for the voiceless’; we lend our privilege as a megaphone.”

Integrity.   We know that words and deeds go together; deeds in fact give integrity to words (James 1:14-17). Thus, MCC has learned that the words we speak and write to government have weight when they are grounded in the practices of MCC’s supporting congregations and communities as they do God’s work in the world. We can urge our government to welcome refugees because the communities that support us are willing and ready to sponsor refugees. We can call on the government to implement restorative justice approaches within the Corrections system because ordinary MCC supporters are involved in programs like prison visitation, victim assistance, or Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA).  We depend on the practical service and witness of our supporting communities to give our work integrity.

Respect. In our advocacy work, we try to be respectful of all people in the political system – to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12) — whether we agree with them or not. We try not to be drawn into partisan debates, though we admit this can be very difficult. Sometimes our commitment to truth-telling makes us want to loudly denounce particular people or policies (and perhaps there is a time for that). We remind ourselves that no one political party has a monopoly on the truth and that each person in “the system” is a child of God, worthy of our respect and consideration.

Humility.  We seek to be humble in our witness to government, remembering Paul’s words to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).  Although we try to listen carefully to our partners, do our research, and get our facts right, we recognize there are times when we don’t have all the information. Sometimes we simply don’t have ready alternatives to suggest. In October 2014 MCC sent a letter to the federal government urging it to reconsider its involvement in a military campaign against the group which calls itself ISIS. Our letter acknowledged that some of our partners in Syria and Iraq actually appreciated those airstrikes.  For MCC, as a pacifist organization, it was a difficult thing to do.  A commitment to humility meant we needed to do it.

drummingLament. Sometimes, when we as MCC workers listen well and are really honest with ourselves, we glimpse the insight that we – as individuals, as an organization, as a church – are part of the problem, rather than the solution.  Even though we as staff may consider ourselves advocates for social justice, at times our partners remind us otherwise.  Our Indigenous partners, for example, remind us of the ways that Mennonites have participated in and benefited from the colonial history of Turtle Island, and the ways that MCC continues to perpetuate unequal relationships with Indigenous people. In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they demand to know whether MCC is prepared for true reconciliation. At times, in the spirit of Psalm 51, we can only confess, weep and lament in response.

Hope.  Our advocacy is inspired by a big hope – an eschatological hope. There are many disappointments in advocacy work.  As much as we hope for the success of a change in policy, or an amendment to a bill, or some helpful new regulations, the results often fall short of our goals. And yet, if we depended on this kind of “success” to carry on, we probably would abandon the task. Indeed, a longtime civil servant once said to one of us, “The people who hang on a long time in government are either alcoholics or Christians.” As people of faith, we are assured that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. We remember the promise that God’s reign of justice and peace will surely come (Isaiah 2:1-5, Luke 4:18-19). And so we carry on, believing that God blesses our meager efforts and makes them bear fruit in ways we may not see.

 By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office. 





Restorative Justice and the Scandal of the Gospel

By Stephen Siemens, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada

Restorative justice has the power to display the scandal of the Gospel. I love the Gospel, and I love to see the word “scandal” close by.

Why? Think of those familiar Bible verses, “God demonstrates his love for us that while we were still sinners [offenders] Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); while I was an enemy of God, bent on my own self-destruction and the destruction of others “Christ was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19).

God is not content to sentence me, to simply remind me of my past record and make me prove my repentance before pouring out love and compassion. Scandalous, isn’t it?

So scandalous that common assumptions about justice–an eye for an eye–are immediately called into question. While “an eye for an eye” is indeed in the Bible, it had a specific purpose of limiting revenge–1400 years before Christ (and as good biblical scholarship has demonstrated the command to limit revenge, when compared to Israel’s neighbours’ moral codes, was actually quite redemptive and ahead of its time).

But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus takes the calculation of revenge out of the equation altogether, and instead calls for enemy love.


Yet, even though we know this well, we are still very good at distancing ourselves from “offenders” and “law breakers.” In a stable society like ours, criminals are often the closest thing we have to an “enemy.”

So often we have thought, talked and lived a Gospel looking scandalless.

Perhaps you’re saying to yourself that theologizing has its place but what about public safety? “People want to feel safe.”

Amen. I agree.

The need to feel safe should always be validated.

Unfortunately we are justifying our punitive attitudes and policy to feel safer but in reality the Canada we know is simply choosing revenge over (and at the expense of) public safety.

We are seeing this reality expressed in a number of aspects of what Bill C-10 – the Safe Streets and Communities Act – is bringing to the fore, such as new mandatory minimum sentences and  longer sentences—which inexorably will house more inmates for longer periods of time making prison expansion the logical outcome. As the US has shown, the more we focus on prison expansion the more we lose sight of prevention and other creative community approaches to make our streets safer.

Based on decades of working with both victims and offenders of crime, MCC’s experience has demonstrated time and again just how much safer we are when we become involved in the lives of offenders, and when we support those who have experienced the trauma of being victims of crime.

We are safer – a lot safer – when we put dollars into the community, into prevention, mediation, and victim services rather than into the bricks and mortar of more prisons.

There is a place for prisons.  There needs to be a place to detain individuals who are too dangerous to themselves and others in the general population for a time.

But is that where the church, too, should put her energy?! Is that what the body of Christ should be gravitating towards? Should not we look different than culture around us?

Should not the Gospel break through cultural obsessions with revenge?! What about new beginnings? Is not God reconciling the world to himself in Christ?  Have we not been commissioned as ambassadors of this message?!

For over a thousand years Christians did not live with a “state law” as we do now (ironically it was only after the church produced her “Canon Law” in the 12th Century that secular legal systems and state law took shape and form?!). Christians took the call to be Christ’s ambassadors by showing radical hospitality and love to anyone, with no “easy way out” to exempt and insulate themselves from certain groups of people who “broke the law” and “had a record.”

The Gospel was drenched in scandal.

Sadly, though, living on this side of a state law can often trump radical love, quarantining the scandal of the Gospel.

MCC hopes to encourage and remind the Church of her justice background. A justice that is “set apart,” completely “other” from the world’s take on justice. Justice that looks a lot more like enemy love rather than a calculated eye for an eye.

From coast to coast MCC is involved in—and has been catalytic in establishing—creative community approaches to crime. For example MCC facilitates Circles of Support and Accountability, where four to five folks from our communities and churches voluntarily walk with released federal offenders that are deemed “high risk to reoffend” upon release.

They do this so that there are no more victims! And that there is a possibility for redemption.

There is power in transformed lives—victims, offenders, Christians!

Power even greater than empirically proven safer streets.

Every time Christians choose to gravitate towards offenders, crossing the chasm between “themselves” and “the offender,” “us” verses “them,” or “me” verses the “enemy” they are mirroring God’s reconciliatory nature and power!

They are ambassadors of a Gospel fully loaded with scandal!