I wonder how many Christians regularly visit prisoners to offer consolation and comfort anymore? I’m not talking about ministers or special group missions, but regular laypeople of the many congregations in all their many denominations all over the country. Somehow I think that the ones who call for punishment and torture and war probably don’t do that.
A prisoner is someone who is held against their will in… a prison! Oh, you can call it a penitentiary, a correctional facility, a camp, a containment center or a detention center, but the thing is what it is: it’s where individuals have been physically confined, deprived of freedom of movement and other freedoms, and are treated as subhumans. Why? Because they have been convicted (it is to be hoped the conviction was established through a through a legal and ethical process) of doing a terrible awful thing, or even several terrible awful things.
Of course, prison may also function as political tool, and that is a sign of a move toward a more authoritarian regime. In such societies, the detention of enemies of state and other political prisoners is common. Prisoners of conscience and religion, people imprisoned because of ethnicity, cultural difference, sexual preference, birth nation, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time – we can all think of examples of this kind of thing. The incarceration and interrogation of prisoners of war – and what we now euphemistically call “detainees” instead of prisoners – is common during times of war and other conflicts. We used to have some laws and standards about that, remember? Many other countries still do.
The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act. – Stanley Milgram, 1974
For a deeper understanding of a few of the social dynamics involved, I recommend taking a look at one of the most famous psychological experiments ever done: Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment. Also take a look at the related Stanford Prison Experiment.
Within the context of the society that has the power to imprison, prisoners are considered to be a danger to others. This is often true enough, although much can be debated about the process – in any country – by which certain people are imprisoned and other people are not. There is also a very strong ideological debate, of course, about the merit and effectiveness of ideas about punishment/vengeance as opposed to rehabilitation.
I find much to loathe in certain kinds of criminality, but I also find much that is detestable about the ways that we choose to deal with prisoners. In some circumstances, cruel treatment – and even torture – has been condoned and approved of by many Americans.
One of every 100 Americans is incarcerated. In the United States of America, there is now a thriving private prison sector. We impose the death penalty, although almost all European nations (not to mention Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and most of Latin America) have abolished it.
Some of the people who are most enthusiastic about the punishment, torture, and killing of prisoners profess to be Christians.
Isn’t that strange?
It seems to me that following Jesus is all about interrupting cycles of violence, not perpetuating them. I don’t understand how someone can say that they are following Jesus and then ignore everything he ever said and did. Doesn’t that miss the whole point – the “good news” part?
There are clear directives not to judge or condemn others. Who can ever forget Jesus confronting the would-be executioners of an adulteress in John 8? Sure, start throwing stones, just as soon as one of you is without sin or fault! Right! Now take a deep breath and chill. Do you know that there are people who call themselves Christians who would like to bring back stoning? And when will they give UP on controlling women? It’s tiresome.
God knows what we need before we even ask, but we should pray for forgiveness for the wrongs we have done, and remind ourselves every day that we must first forgive others. Only insofar as we have forgiven those who have wronged us may we be forgiven our own wrongs. There have been times, I admit, when my prayer has been to be released from that obligation. Sigh.
If you, then, bad as you are, know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!”
But how does that chapter (of Matthew 7) start?
Pass no judgment and you will not be judged. For as you judge others, so you will yourselves be judged, and whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt back to you.
It’s all about measuring – and that takes a bit of mindfulness and humility. It sounds a lot like conscious karma, and it’s certainly a very wise piece of guidance for the soul’s path.
Yet, for someone who knocks, the door will always, always be opened – that is grace. That is the gift, and it is open to all.
God’s gifts are irrevocable.
One very important way to understand what some of those gifts can be (and how to practice them) is to model the way you’d like to be understood and loved in your relationship with others. When you offer yourself in service to others, even in a kind of “secret service,” you are blessed in turn. It just happens.
Christians are not meant to be vengeful. It only escalates violence into never-ending cycles of death.
Over and over, the biblical Christian texts tell us to leave vengeance to the Lord, to turn the other cheek (to make them think?), to care for the least among us – the poor, the downtrodden, the detested, even to call down blessings on our enemies and persecutors! That last bit is a little over the top, but maybe the writer had an affection for flourish. At least, I hope so.
To be joyful with the joyful and mournful with the mournful, to be humble and caring and moved by love (not by hate) – to me, that’s the heart of a Christian. The whole law, Jesus believed, was completed in Love.
Not only wasn’t he the fully Anointed King of Israel that they were expecting (to usher in a messianic age of war and then a time of peace) but he even forgave the ones who were crucifying him! Nobody was ever expecting that. Seems like lunacy on the face of it. I don’t know. I only wonder how important these things really are that we fight about.
Who are you to say that you know for sure who is and who is not accepted – or acceptable – by God?
Maybe God loves everybody, even if they’re a jerk. You don’t know. Maybe there is no God – maybe it’s all about power after all. Maybe God has God’s own ways of deciding things without consulting your interpretation. Maybe God is that which is greater than anything that you can think, or that can be thought. Maybe God is Love. Maybe God is an abyss with a big eye looking back at you. Maybe God is an alien. Maybe God exceeds our expectations. Maybe God is nothing at all like anything we think.
But America, brought down so low as to forget that we are all human – or to remember but be too complacent to believe it, or to be too busy trying to live to think about it at all.
You so-called Christians that condone or cheer for the abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and other places like them, who turn a blind eye to our prison-for-profit systems and detention centers and extraditions for torture…
You who will not look at photographs because “images are too disturbing” while you let the actions that you have no spine to observe continue … it’s too easy to blame someone else…
You who think that it’s so macho and even sexy to hurt and dehumanize others…
You hypocrites and compartmentalizers, you sociopaths lacking empathy and simple human understanding…
When is the last time you visited someone in prison to console them?
When was the last time you showed kindness to someone that others in your little in-group might find detestable?
Are you so sure that your smug dehumanizing arrogance is pleasing to God? If you really are sure, give us a wee hint – how can we make you less sure? You’re destroying us.
It’s time for Christian assistant shepherds to recall their flocks to the meaning of the message. Cool, clear water of life, ratch ‘ere.
How can torturers and greedy war-mongers and spreaders of lies and fear have become so triumphant that they can brazenly assume that any real Christian could or would be a part of their “base”? How can Christians support such degrading and oppressive corruption as this? It’s a culture of fear and death.
We’ve gotten into ruts in our thinking – it’s all full of ideology and false oppositions and judgments that aren’t based in reality but on dark fantasies and projections.
Don’t dehumanize others – that’s where it all starts. Counter terror with justice, not sadism. Yes, there are reasons for prisons, but there is never a reason to degrade another human being, to invade them, to rape them, to torture them, to kill them.
And yes, I realize that I’m strident. There is an irony here, I know.
I try to understand and even to love those who hate just as much as I can. It’s a major challenge, and so perhaps the board of Benevolent Deities Inc. is having a little laugh watching me here in Georgia. For now, it’s about daily practice, trying – one person at a time – to understand how it happens, and to plant small seeds of its undoing while my imaginary guitar of the spirit gently weeps (the guitar is a permanent installation designed by John Lennon).
My assessment is that American pseudo-christians need to de-familiarize themselves again – to step away from their customary ways of thinking about religion so that they can hear and see and form their own insights again.
Agape love is a powerful way to inspire creative confrontation, restitution, and reconciliation.
Americans also need to remember and uphold the standards that we tell ourselves that we hold dear and which have been sold far too cheaply.
Ok, that’s all rather heavy, isn’t it? It all came out in a rush.
“My mind’s been going places without me lately”…
And after I truly finished the first draft, I went outside to see that the sky was an unearthly yellow.