Healing Our Social Wounds

Nonviolence

Healing Our Social Wounds
Friday, September 22, 2017

Today’s meditation is longer than usual, but important. Many people associate the word “justice” with the penal system and retributive justice. Yet the prophets and Jesus clearly practiced what we now call “restorative justice.” Jesus never punished anybody. He undercut the basis for all violent, exclusionary, and punitive behavior. He became the forgiving victim so we would stop creating victims. He “justified” people by loving them and forgiving them at ever-deeper levels.

Punishment relies on enforcement and compliance but does not change the soul or the heart. Jesus held out for the heart; he restored people to their true and deepest identity. When the church itself resorts to various forms of shaming and punishment for “sin,” it is relying upon the retributive methods of this world and not the restorative methods of Jesus. We have a lot of growing up to do in the ways of Christ.

Our current criminal “justice” system has more to do with making a profit (through unpaid labor and filling quotas) and oppression of the marginalized than restoring individuals to wholeness and health. Though the United States holds only 5% of the world’s population, it houses 21% of the world’s prisoners. African Americans and Hispanics are imprisoned at much higher rates, in spite of similar rates of drug use and crime as whites. [1]

Today a friend of the Center for Action and Contemplation, Ray Leonardini, shares his own observations and experience teaching contemplative prayer in prisons: [2]

People in prison commonly live with a sense of personal failure. Most prisons and jails foster, even amplify, this sense of failure by dehumanizing practices like constant herding and extreme over-crowding. Prisoners’ efforts to cope with these humiliations result in behaviors similar to those identified with veterans as PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).

The violence in a war zone, like the threat of violence in a maximum-security prison, creates a chronic debilitating state of fight or flight for the individual. To simply cope, the prisoner develops the ability to avoid and numb feelings and represses intrusive memories. This leaves many of them with enormous anxiety and a deep sense of personal shame.

When their basic sense of personal worth is stifled in this way, the sufferers are driven to further extremes of self-loathing. As penal institutions perpetuate a culture of dehumanization, the symptoms of PTSD proliferate. Though they can be visible (angry outbursts, aggressive behavior), they also fester in secret (night terrors), buried in the deep crevices of the psyche.

As one prisoner describes it, “The external reality and climate of violence that dominates one’s existence and sense of self in these high-security prison environments cuts a prisoner off from any sense of personal interiority.” [3]

Experts tell us that the deepest wound of PTSD is a “moral injury,” that is a wound to the soul, caused by participation in events that violate one’s most deeply held sense of right and wrong. The perpetrator or victim realizes how wrong it was. The irony, of course, is that this “disorder” is actually an appropriately normal response to an overwhelmingly abnormal situation. No wonder medication and talk therapy are less effective in addressing this “moral injury,” researchers say, than Yoga and meditation, which by-pass the mind and unlock the unconscious wounds of the spirit, where the core wound of PTSD resides.

My experience teaching Centering Prayer in prisons for ten years supports this conclusion. Receptive, contemplative practices like Centering Prayer are uniquely suited to healing deep psychic wounds of this kind. [4] Centering Prayer bypasses the mind with its horrific memories and trauma and invites practitioners to “detach” from their narratives and “let go” into the spaciousness of Silence. There they can encounter God or Divine Reality through the deep longings of their hearts. The silence pulsates with a compassion and warmth that other remedies cannot replicate. The deep sense of moral injury and shame no longer needs to be repressed. They can begin to forgive themselves and feel like they just might be lovable.

Gateway to Silence:
Love your enemies.

References:
[1] African Americans and Hispanics comprise 32% of the US population, but comprise 56% of all incarcerated people (2015). See NAACP’s “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet” for more information, naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet.
[2] Ray Leonardini, a retired lawyer and volunteer chaplain, is the Director of Prison Contemplative Fellowship, uspcf.org, a nonprofit organization that fosters contemplative prayer in prison by sending books and prayer materials directly to prisoners, and supports prison chaplains and volunteers in starting prison and jail centering prayer groups. He can be reached at [email protected].
[3] Josh Gilmore, Folsom State Prison, California.
[4] For a full description of Centering Prayer, see a previous meditation, cac.org/centering-prayer-weekly-summary-2017-02-18.

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