Restoring the wilderness
“..as prison chaplain (and Presentation Sister) I am called to challenge unjust systems, to be a voice for the voiceless…”.
Whenever I am asked to write something on justice in the light of my experience of working as chaplain in Wheatfield Prison for the past twenty years, I am always reminded of the young man who approached me one day with a piece of headed paper in his hand and said: “Will you look at this, ‘Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice’, I know what Faith is but, what’s Justice?” I can’t remember the answer I gave him, but it is a question I frequently ask myself and struggle to find an answer to.
In today’s world we all struggle with issues of justice and at times are inclined to feel that there is very little evidence of any real justice to be found. As a congregation our Constitution calls us to challenge unjust systems. So for any of us working for justice is not an optional extra but a constitutive element of who we are as Presentation people. For me, it has been ‘a call within a call’, because as prison chaplain I am also called to challenge unjust systems, to be a voice for the voiceless, and promote the principles and practices of restorative justice.
Challenging unjust systems
How does one challenge unjust systems while continuing to work within the criminal justice system? At times I feel like John the Baptist ‘crying in the wilderness’. The wilderness of my own being, the weariness of keeping going, and the unimaginable wilderness of the poverty and helplessness of people who struggle daily to survive. This continuous reality has forced me to seek the way of justice and peace from within, while continuing to fight the good fight for justice from without.
This young man referred to earlier has been part of the criminal justice system practically all his life, and in the eyes of many he is getting his ‘just deserts’ and reaping the rewards of his actions. He would say the same himself. “It’s all my own fault; I was just stupid; I was out of my head on the gear”.
Prison has its place in society. However, I believe it should not be given the central place it has in the criminal justice system in Ireland. In my experience (weighed against the harmful effects of imprisonment and the high rate of recidivism) the current system should be regarded as ‘no longer fit for purpose’. It has a limited usefulness as a means of caring for a small number of people who need to be removed from society either for their own safety and/or the safety of others.
- Prisons should not be home to the homeless, but they are.
- Prisons should not be the place for the mentally ill – they need to be hospitalised.
- Prisons are not for the addicts – they need, and have a right to treatment centres.
- It is no longer acceptable that prisons are the places for people society ‘wants rid of.’
This out of sight, out of mind mentality still prevails among us, and many of us subscribe to this mentality without even realising it. It can be a way (for some) to avoid the inherent messiness of life.
As a congregation some years back we were invited, and called upon to form community ‘among those made poor’. This invitation still awaits us even now in our advanced years. A call to get in touch with the passion and zeal for the ‘mission ‘of Jesus that is in our hearts’, was how the Congregational Chapter of 1991 described it. Nano Nagle’s legacy continues to evolve and find its expression today wherever we find ourselves ‘hand to heart’ alongside ‘those many people kept poor’ in our society.
There is a view that as a ‘post-recession people’, Ireland has become an unforgiving, self-righteous and vindictive society, and that in our vindictiveness we feel the need to develop and sustain a punitive system for all wrong-doers. Our capacity for compassion and empathy has been greatly diminished to the point that reconciliation and forgiveness are not words we hear spoken of openly in the mainstream. I would go so far as to say that their usage has almost become ‘politically incorrect’ outside of a religious milieu! It seems to me that self-righteousness has somehow crept in to replace reconciliation, and vindictiveness has replaced compassion. This is a common societal problem which in the long term can harden hearts!
People of welcoming heart
There is an urgent need to restore right relationships with each other based on Christian values and to develop a ‘climate of care’ especially for the weak and vulnerable among us. ‘Care of the Earth’ must include ‘Care of the Poor’ in the here and now. We need to rediscover how to ‘love the sinner, while hating the sin’ otherwise we stand in danger of becoming a soulless society.
Nano Nagle ministering to the poor on the streets of Cork in dark and challenging society of the 1700’s saw the physical and spiritual needs of the person first and foremost. Their suffering humanity called her to action amongst the almost insurmountable political, financial and social challenges of her time. She did not look away. Nano’s legacy to all ‘people of welcoming heart’ continues to evolve and express itself wherever Presentation people find themselves—locally and globally. We carry with us a responsibility to the society in which we find ourselves, that this should be so, and to find a practical expression of compassion in ‘our work for just systems’ appropriate to our time and place.
My hope for the future is in a system and process of restorative justice that is embraced as an alternative to the current retributive and adversarial system.
The concept of restorative justice has been recognised at international level as having the potential to restore the lives of all those affected by crime, including the victim and the perpetrator.
In 2009 the National Commission on Restorative Justice published its final report stated that the Commission was convinced that the implementation of a restorative justice model on a national basis would make a positive contribution to the lives of all citizens. It went on to state that victims, offenders, their families and their communities can all benefit from a restorative approach to criminal behaviour. The Commission strongly recommended national implementation in a structured way. We are still waiting, and this report like many other such reports is now decorating our shelves or gathering dust in some governmental department.
Restorative Justice provides a way for all of us to reflect on our own way of life and on how, unknowingly, we too may be part of the societal sin among us. This is no easy ask. Alongside this recognition, victims of crime need to be cared for, and perpetrators of crime need to accept responsibility for their actions and for the damage they caused to victims.
They need our care, and they need to make restitution and repair the damage in as far as it is possible. None of this happens in the current criminal justice system whereby the victim and perpetrator are kept apart, and neither allowed express the hurt and violation suffered or the regret and remorse experienced.
I strongly believe (with others) that a restorative justice system is the only way forward, and for this to happen it must be preceded by public education and support and acceptance for it as a way of working. She said:
“The Kingdom of God ‘on Earth, as in Heaven’ will be realised when in a just, caring and forgiving society, right relationships are restored and the people of God have learned to live as brothers and sisters in the family of God and His kingdom”.
‘All of those who have destroyed the lives of their victims do not cease to be our brothers and sisters. This is a way for us to continue to find ways to ‘love the sinner, and hate the sin’. I believe that each and every one of us needs to become the voice of restorative justice in our society, as a means of renewal and restoration both individually and as communities.
So back to that image of John the Baptist ‘crying in the wilderness’. Let us together seek the way of justice and peace starting within and then continuing to fight the good fight for justice from without.
Sr. Imelda Wickham, pbvm