Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Love One Another: Prisons and Devotion to Enemies

In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King wrote "We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself."  Paraphrasing Gandhi, he added a word  for those who considered themselves his enemies, "In winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process."

This is a radical idea, one that is like the ideas of Jesus and St Paul that we should love our enemies.  If your mind does not stumble over those words, you might be a saint; or you might not be listening to them.

King's argument is that we need our enemies.  They need us to make them into the kind of people who embody love, not hatred.  And we need - in the depths of our souls - the work of loving them in such a way that we win them over to the side of love and away from the crippling hatred that owns them.

It is easy to say "that's fine for church," or "I will love my enemy in my heart but in my life I will punish him."  But what would happen if we thought of our worst enemies - I have in mind criminals and terrorists, the people we most seem to fear - as people with a "heart and conscience" that could be won.  As people without whom we are incomplete.

We're good at finding ways to make people pay for their wrongdoing.  We have great technology for warfare, and a brilliant system of criminal investigation and prosecution, perhaps the best history has ever seen.  I don't propose eliminating those things.  Instead, I am asking this: what if we decided that we would put the same creative energy and financial resources that have gone into creating our fine military, police, and courts into winning the consciences of our enemies?

When it comes to our anti-terror policies, I don't see what we can do to win terrorists' consciences, other than living our lives in such a way that anyone who supports our would-be enemies must feel shame at hating such virtuous people. That sounds to me like an end worth pursuing for its own sake, after all.

As for our prisons, our prisons seem to be good at exposing non-criminals to criminals; and to exposing criminals to more criminals, breeding gang culture.  Violent criminals surely merit our censure, extraction from society, and punishment.  But that doesn't mean our hearts need to be full of a desire for vengeance.

"Peace."  Over the head of the angel of peace in Bruton Parish, Williamsburg, VA. 
I'm not good at this, but I'm trying to become the kind of person who regards criminals as people I need, who need me to love them, who need me to win their consciences.

I believe a society needs to be prepared to use force against those who would forcefully harm others.  But increasingly I am coming to believe that individuals in each society also need to be prepared to fight fire not with fire but with the healing waters of love, waters that overflow from hearts that daily struggle to regard the people we most hate and fear as the people we also most need to love.  It's not easy.  But it may be the only way to become "a community at peace with itself."

I have written two other posts about prisons, and Charles Peirce's reasons why our current system is a mark of insanity--or at least that it evinces a serious lack of love--here and here.

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