Outside Looking In: Lenscraft

5 05 2011

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

When considering the nature of the US prison system, I suppose one must establish, or have established, a point of view concerning the subject. I tend to refer to this as viewing the subject through a given lens. If, for example, someone is keen on “law and order”, there may not be enough police on the beat, laws on the books, or prison cells to clean up the street, town, county, city, state, country, continent, and so on. Such a person may view crime and punishment through the lend of absolute adherence to the law, and if the law is broken, then the law will dictate the punishment, up to and including prison time.

Another lens exists, that of the self-described “abolitionists” such as Critical Resistance. In brief, imprisonment is tantamount to slavery, and is not an appropriate response to a wide range of crimes, including rape and murder. This does not mean that crime is to be accepted unconditionally or that criminals should not atone for their crimes. Imprisonment, they argue, does nothing to address the root causes of criminal activity and may serve to aggravate it.

Yet another series of lenses is available, that of the many religions and spiritual schools of thought.

A while back I did some reading about the Wesleyan church. Being an avid college sports fan, from time to time I see “Wesleyan” universities on the scoreboard, and wondered what that meant. Apropos to this article, the Wesleyan church was born out of an opposition to religious justification for, or silent acceptance of slavery.

Despite not being affiliated with the Wesleyan church (or any other), I did appreciate that the church takes the time to write out position papers on various issues through the lens of their particular faith and doctrine. If the issue were that of prisons, the Wesleyan church would review their doctrine and develop an official position pro or con and explain why they must opine as they do. Agree or disagree, I like that they do this as it is a core tenet of mine that all beliefs and ideals should be held to public scrutiny and debate. I may not agree with what their position is or how they arrived at it, but they did “show their work”, in math parlance, and for that I applaud them.

Officially, the Wesleyan church does not have a position explicitly about prisons, but I did find this passage in a paper about domestic violence that might give some insight as to how this church might view crime and punishment in the present day:

The Wesleyan Church is committed to alleviating domestic violence and to providing refuge and care to those who have become its victims. We recognize and accept our biblical responsibility to offer the redemptive transformation of Jesus Christ to perpetrators of violence, as well as hope and healing to its victims. (Cite)

Shifting to a more ancient time, a book I do read fairly often is the Tao Te Ching.

Briefly, and not to speak for the Taoists, the Taoist view on prison finds its roots (as do most things) in desire. Someone coveted the Neat New Thing and stole it. Someone coveted a woman and attacked her. Someone coveted a neighboring country and invaded it. By ridding one’s self of desire, the Tao argues, things like crime and punishment become immaterial because one is no longer inclined to entertain the urge to commit crimes to gain the thing that is found lacking.

And what of the person who is imprisoned? How might the Tao be instructive?

Again, the issue is that the prisoner, whether imprisoned rightly or wrongly, desires freedom, and has none. Therefore the prisoner becomes despondent, depressed, violent, or suicidal. By ridding one’s self of the desire to be freed from prison, the prisoner can be content in the “now”, uncaring if freedom is granted or it is not, and instead taking the opportunity to live in accordance with the Tao, or nature.

What I don’t like about such lenses, and other non-religious lenses may be applied as well, is that they necessarily block out a set of alternatives or ideas because they are not prescribed in the governing doctrine. Put another way, what is the religious view specifically pertaining to using an Apple brand computer or a PC?

Being that computer didn’t exist back in the days when many religious doctrines were established, perhaps nothing explicit to this effect might be found. Or parables that were relevant to the time have to be adapted to such a topic and a position taken. For example, someone could say “Eve ate the apple, and that was a sin so it is our duty to use PCs.” Is this a reasonable justification for this policy?

The purpose of this article is not to bash religion in and of itself. I would like to point out to the strident voices against organized religion that they too have put themselves in a box, decrying the evil that has been done in the name of religion while ignoring the good that was done as well.

Are prisons inherently good or evil? I cannot say. My motivation for writing this series of articles is to challenge my own complacency and passing interest in the topic. At times I am exhorted to accept the things that I cannot change, but that acceptance does not have to be offered uncritically.

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