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.

Empathy: Seeing beyond the bars

This week’s guest blog is by Stephen Siemens.  Stephen recently completed four years as Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada. These reflections are adapted from a presentation he made last spring in Ottawa at an event sponsored by the Christian Council on Justice and Corrections (CCJC) during National Victims of Crime Awareness Week.

The parable of the Good Samaritan has become one of Jesus’ most famous parables. It teaches us about empathy – empathy coming from an unlikely situation and an unlikely person.

We all know the story. A man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked by thieves, beat up and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest came by – a likely helper – but he saw the injured man and passed by. A Levite, another religious leader, also came and also passed by. Then a Samaritan came along. He bound the injured man’s wounds, took him to a nearby inn and provided money to the innkeeper to tend to the man’s needs. He promised to pay more when he returned.

Photo Credit Radio Canada

Photo Credit Radio Canada

Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach his Jewish listeners about being neighbourly.  Importantly, the story did not portray their religious leaders – the priest or the Levite – as those who were neighbourly. Quite the opposite. The neighbourly person was a Samaritan — their enemy, the one they considered devoid of basic humanity, the “absolute other.” It was the Samaritan who felt empathy for the injured man and acted to help him.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see clearly that empathy can come from an unlikely situation and an unlikely person. One of the important lessons that we have learned in the Church Council on Justice and Corrections is that offenders – unlikely people – can in fact demonstrate profound empathy for victims. Indeed, as they recognize their own victimization, offenders can offer deep and sincere empathy to victims of crime.

Planting Peace 1

Photo credit MCC Alberta

But the scandal in the parable is not only that empathy can be found in an unlikely place and in an unlikely person, but that the category of neighbour is boundless, permeable, and it extends to the ultimate “other.” Our calling is to love our neighbours—anyone and everyone—without any wiggle room, without any loopholes. Jesus made it clear that “neighbour” means anyone and everyone. There are no exceptions, including those we want to write off or consider as “other.”

This biblical imperative calls CCJC to pay attention to empathy because the Christian story itself hinges on empathy. God coming in Christ was itself victim empathy work with offenders, indeed with humanity.

Ann Jervis says it well, in “Empathy and the New Testament”:

The New Testament believes that God is an empathetic God; that God’s
empathy extends beyond the capacity to understand human experience to
actively entering into human experience. The New Testament presents Jesus
as the supreme example of empathy, as one who fully understands both the
experience of God and the experience of humanity.  And Paul challenges
followers of Jesus to empathize fully with Jesus’ faith and Jesus’ death, and to hope for his resurrection.

So ultimately CCJC is interested in nurturing empathy because God, in sending Jesus, has offered empathy to all humanity. Our motivation compels us to provide opportunities for empathy with victims, and to nurture empathy in places and among people who society would rather not entertain, such as federal offenders. When we help offenders to recognize their own victimization, we enable them to develop empathy for victims and take responsibility for their actions.

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!