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.

Elsipogtog: an opportunity to rebuild trust

This week’s blog is written by Christina Farnsworth, MCC representative for the Maritimes. She is based in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Friendship seems too to hold states together, and lawgivers to care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel faction as their worst enemy; and when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.  – Aristotle, Nichomanean Ethics, Book VIII, translated by W.D. Ross

The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among aboriginal peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels. – James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada, October 15, 2013

In a blog posted here in September, I reflected on the importance of bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples together to work out how we can live in peace and friendship. The need for peace and friendship has arisen still more urgently as I have reviewed coverage of the recent confrontation at Elsipogtog and the Sacred Fire Encampment near Rexton, NB.

KAIROS Elsipogtog

Mi’Kmaq Elder Billy Lewis and members of the Halifax KAIROS cluster participate in a solidarity event on fracking. New Brunswick, June 2013. Photo courtesy of KAIROS.

Since July, a coalition of Mi’Kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Acadian and other Maritimers has gathered to protest against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick. On October 17th, the RCMP moved in to enforce an injunction to remove protestors who had been blocking access to SWN Resources equipment since September 29th. The situation deteriorated into violence with the RCMP using non-lethal force and pepper spray. Five RCMP vehicles were burned by the protestors, and it is reported that some protesters threw Molotov cocktails at officers.

Aristotle says, “When men are friends they have no need of justice,” and this sentiment is echoed in the Bible when Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:30). If we loved our neighbours and cared for them and their interests as much as we care for our own, would we need to be reminded by laws to listen to those who are struggling to make their voices heard?

The media has been full of images of burning police vehicles, police snipers, Elders and Indigenous People facing off with lines of RCMP officers. If we focus on the events of October 17th exclusively, I believe that we will miss a greater reality and opportunity: there is a legacy of struggle and distrust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous People in Canada; and we have the chance to build new bridges if we choose to engage in respectful dialogue around our differences.

The Sacred Fire Encampment has brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to peacefully protest shale gas exploration (also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) and industry in New Brunswick. When I visited the encampment this past July, I met people of all ages and walks of life who share concern for the environment and have worked together to make their concerns known. Much of the proposed fracking is on traditional Mi’Kmaq territory, including that of Elsipogtog First Nation; it should be noted that no land was ceded by Indigenous Peoples in the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 1700s.

We cannot reduce what was over three months a non-violent protest uniting New Brunswickers of all backgrounds to a face-off between Indigenous People and the RCMP. As Canadians and as Christians, we need to be asking how we can re-build trust, how we can ensure that all involved are heard and valued.

We also need to be cognizant that this protest is speaking to two issues. One is a deep concern around the protection of the environment; the other confronts a lack of awareness of Aboriginal rights and responsibilities related to land and resources. This is not the first time Canadians have witnessed dramatic events that link these two issues. Some have referenced Oka when talking about the October 17th altercation. Others have pointed to the Ipperwash Inquiry Report as a resource that could have been useful in averting the violence. If we truly want to be inclusive, honourable and selfless as a country, as Governor General David Johnston described Canada in his recent Speech from the Throne, we cannot allow ourselves to write off legitimate problems because of the methods that were used to highlight them.

After he wrapped up his recent nine day visit, James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, noted in his Statement upon conclusion of the visit to Canada that “resource extraction should not occur on lands subject to aboriginal claims without adequate consultations with and the free, prior and informed consent of the aboriginal peoples concerned.” Until the question of rights over land and resources is addressed, how can we discuss the use of resources in good faith? And are we as Canadians requiring that our governments and our industries meet the requirement of free and informed consent before beginning any development on Indigenous lands?

Our society is deeply divided with fear, misunderstanding and a lack of safe space for dialogue. Elsipogtog, and other contexts like it, provides a new opportunity for creating such space, bridging gaps of mistrust and fear, and building a reconciled community. It offers a possibility for deeper and more just friendships.

Mennonites and Human Rights: Uncomfortable bedfellows or collaborative cohorts?

Insisting that secular leaders govern justly is not a foreign concept for Mennonites, suggested César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, in his plenary address[1] to the “Mennonites and Human Rights” conference held at the University of Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago.

Using the language of human rights, however, is indeed quite new.

César García (Mennonite World Conference photo)

César recounted his experience meeting with a U.S. State Department official in Washington to explain the adverse effects of the US military support of Colombia suffered by Anabaptist churches there. At the end of his presentation, the official asked him “which human rights are being violated in the context of your churches?”

An innocuous question. But César couldn’t answer. He didn’t know. His theological training and pastoral experience hadn’t provided any framework for translating Christian concerns and faith into human rights discourse.  Indeed, there was even some suspicion due to “their secular and non-Christian base.”

Paul Heidebrecht[2] along with other presenters at the conference echoed this reality – that Mennonites have not quickly taken up human rights language. Some presenters challenged us to do so more quickly in order to be more faithful and effective, while others were significantly less enthralled and called us to remember that our frame of reference is Christ and the gospel.

The former highlighted the huge advances in human security and safety since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while the latter described human rights as based on western individualism to the detriment of community-focused values, Christian and otherwise.

However, presenters weren’t as far apart as this stark description of positions suggests. Most agreed with a middle ground that saw Mennonite and human rights as complementary or overlapping. Thus, in César words, “we need to identify our shared goals and to work together based on what we have in common.”

Nevertheless, for César, a global Anabaptist response to human rights difficulties within the worldwide Mennonite community should be 1) centred on God, 2) church based, and 3) compassionate.

  • Centred on God because we are “motived by God’s love and Jesus’ focus on the vulnerable in society, the victims of systemic injustice and violence.” Indeed, “our pursuit of justice begins in God’s heart. It is the fruit of our communion and relationship with God.”
  • Church-based because we do resonate with the critique of a human rights framework as being individualistic. César insisted that only religious faith “can provide the moral foundation that human rights requires” because it teaches humans to live in ways that first, “reduce our natural tendency toward egocentrism,” and second, “teach solidarity, non-violence, equality, and justice.”

Indeed, César strongly affirmed “the centrality of the church in God’s strategic plan of social transformation,” suggesting that human rights activists with Anabaptist convictions who “look for justice at the margins of the church are living with a contradiction of terms.”

  • Compassionate because a follower of Jesus, according to César, “cannot be indifferent to those who cry out in pain” and thus “advocacy is the minimum” we must do on behalf of those who suffer. Indeed, César suggests, we cannot do less than what human rights advocates do. We are called to “to walk alongside those who suffer, to stand with them, and to try to stop the cycle of violence as Jesus did.”

According to César, “we may avoid the language of human rights, but we cannot avoid the language of Christ.” He laments the fact that “some Christians expend too much time today arguing against human rights language while millions of people suffer the oppression of governments that do not respect human rights.”

Thus, César calls us to “acts of a global and compassionate multicultural family” that will make a real difference in the lives of suffering people around the world.

César concluded that “human rights are a good tool in order to work toward justice”; it’s a “language that can be heard today.’ Still, he reminds us that “even though justice is very important, it is not our final goal. Our final goal is reconciliation. It is to make up a new people, a new global family through the ministry of reconciliation.”

Conclusion: Reconciliation in a global community as the final goal, and human rights as an excellent tool.

What do you think?

By Tim Schmucker, MCCC Public Engagement Coordinator


[1] César García, “Human Rights, the State and the Global Mennonite Community.”

[2] Paul Heidebrecht, “Looking for the Right Words: Human Rights and MCC’s Advocacy Work.”

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.

Period.

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!

Tearing down the walls around the fish pond

By Hanna Coppes, Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern

I had often viewed the task of engaging in politics as a daunting, overwhelming task that could be left, to journalists, to political science students, or to people who just have too much time on their hands. I rarely thought of political engagement as a major task of Christians or Christian organizations.

I held the belief that politics should be left to the politicians, and Christians should worry about running soup kitchens and showing Jesus’ love directly to the world. The work of soup kitchens, shelters, after school programs, and all of the international relief and development work done by grassroots organizations including MCC without a doubt play an essential role in displaying Christ’s love, and becoming God’s hands and feet in a hurting world.

Broadening my worldview.

My program of Social Justice and Peace Studies at the University of Western Ontario encouraged students to develop a critical eye towards understanding the systemic injustices that have permeated all aspects of daily life. A major influence of systemic norms, values, and daily life is without a doubt is our political system.

What should the Christian approach be to this body of influence?

The well-known Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime,” and the church has played an essential role in both giving and teaching people to fish.

Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne in his book Irresistible Revolution: Living as an ordinary radical articulates the idea adopted by many Christian advocates stating, “We give people fish. We teach them to fish. We tear down the walls that have been built around the fish pond. And we figure out who polluted it.

Tearing down the walls that have been built around the fish pond.

What are the walls within the current system that inhibit people from accessing essential resources in providing for their well-being?

Figuring out who polluted it.

Is there specific legislation that could be implemented to ensure better distribution of resources? Is there current legislation that has hindered this access?

This does not mean as Christian advocates we should be pointing our finger at politicians, or at specific laws and simply pass judgement. Instead, in order to approach every situation with love as advocates we attempt to hold government officials accountable to the needs and rights of Canadians, and our brothers and sisters around the world. We attempt to stand in solidarity and love with Canadians, with MCC program, with our friends, and with politicians. Engaging in politics involves not only approaching the world with a critical eye, but also understanding the priorities of the current government in order to fully understand where it would be best effective to exercise our voice, and raise awareness to the public around the systemic injustice.

Who polluted the fish pond? Let’s engage and work to bring down the walls.