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.

Praying by the prison, Part 3: Forgiveness

This week’s writer is Randy Klassen, national Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Canada, based in Saskatoon, SK.    Restorative Justice Week will be held in Canada, and throughout the world, from November 20-27. 

Tricky thing, forgiveness. As I walk the park trail near my home, in the pre-dawn quiet along the wide South Saskatchewan River, I ponder the words about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Across the river, a line of lights twinkles, marking the Regional Psychiatric Centre (a hospital within the Canadian correctional system) with its high fences and razor wire.

Forgiveness, it seems to me, is as foreign a concept to the criminal justice system as it is the focal point of the Christian message—and practice—of reconciliation. Is there a place for the concept of forgiveness, as we explore what it means to pray near our prisons? Or is the gap too wide, the worlds of faith and justice too distant, divided by a cold river that can’t be crossed?

There are many reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner to our justice system. At its core, the criminal justice system is built on a foundation of the impersonal and abstract. A crime against a neighbour become an offense against the state, symbolized as “the Crown.” The Crown, not the victim, is the principal actor. This was adjusted slightly in 1988, when victims were given a (proxy) voice in the court process, through victim impact statements—although it took another eleven years before victims were actually allowed to read their statements to the court. But in general, the system is designed to keep victim and offender separate; the focus is on the offender alone, on guilt and punishment, and not on the dynamics of the relationship that bind together victim and offender. Forgiveness is fundamentally about what happens between persons on either side of an offense, and criminal justice builds a high wall exactly where forgiveness wants to take up residence.

forgiven-forgotten-promo-pic

If you are in BC (Fraser Valley, Kelowna, or Victoria) Nov 17-27, come see the play, “Forgiven/Forgotten,” touring as part of National Restorative Justice Week. Tour details are available at https://forgivenforgotten.wordpress.com/

There are other reasons why forgiveness is a foreigner: it might be the wide variety of ways people think of forgiveness. Some consider that offering forgiveness to a wrongdoer excuses the offense, undermining its severity or ignoring it altogether. Others are offended by the proverb “forgive and forget”—and I agree with them, for that’s another way we might minimize the very real harm done in an offense. And if we underestimate the harm done to victims, aren’t we actually abetting the offender? We end up re-victimizing the victim, and adding to the original offense. Forgiveness goes sour; rather than a healing balm, it becomes poison.

For those schooled in the ways of Jesus, it seems to me there’s another way in which forgiveness turns toxic. The words of Jesus, right here in the Lord’s Prayer and many other places, urge and even command his followers to forgive. There is no getting around this—Christians are called to forgive. And this can induce huge guilt in a victim. “Am I not a good enough person to forgive?” Or the community can place its expectations on the victim to take the moral high road. “Just get on with your life. You ought to forgive” (and we can almost hear the unspoken conclusion, “…and forget.”) And so forgiveness becomes an unbearable weight, or a volatile fuse.

And yet… and yet, there are people who have suffered unspeakable things, and who forgive their wrongdoers. Such forgiveness is real, and such stories show up everywhere. If we can say anything about authentic forgiveness, it is that it is a mystery, and a gift. We can never demand it of the victim. Like true love, it is intensely personal: each person’s path towards forgiveness is unique. Like true love, we don’t create it (although we can create conditions for it to take root and flourish)—we find it, or even, it finds us. In fact, forgiveness isn’t like true love, it is a form of that divine love.

So, are there ways to bring back the relational element, the dimension of community—preconditions of forgiveness—into the justice system? Many communities (and even some courts) have restorative justice processes that lead in that direction. They add an element of humanity to the journey, giving voice to the victims, and increasing the possibility of offenders taking responsibility for the harm they caused.

And for those in prison? Does this line of the Lord’s Prayer mean anything for them? Two thoughts cross my mind. The first is this: how long do we continue to label someone based on their offense? They have done a bad (even horrendous) deed; must they forever be labelled a horrible person? Do we as society do right to continue to label them? Or do past (and duly recognized) misdeeds have an expiry date? Is there a place and time where we can agree to release people from stigma, from blaming and shaming? That release is part of what Jesus means by forgiveness.

A second and final thought—relating to something I observed at the Willow Cree Healing Lodge, near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, a federal correctional institution based on Indigenous cultural practices. The men there are not called “inmates,” nor “patients” (as they are at Saskatoon’s RPC). They are n­īcisān (NEE-tsan), Cree for “brother.” They are treated with humanity and dignity: guard and n­īcisān walk side by side (and I was told more than once how very difficult that is for any guard trained in a regular prison). They celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts together, again side by side. A humane relationship like this creates the space for a new start, for a healthier re-entry into the community.

And it makes me think of another word of Jesus: If someone offends against you, go to him alone. …If he listens to you, you have gained a brother. Even in our prisons, is this not a taste of forgiveness?