“It could have been me”: Some thoughts on Prison and Compassion

prison 10Next week I’ve been invited to speak at a weekly book group for prisoners in a Category B prison. Over the past few months, the group has been reading and discussing my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering. I feel very privileged that this group of male prisoners have chosen my book as a starting point to explore their own backgrounds and situations.

From my past experience of visiting prisoners, I know that many will have had traumatic backgrounds which are often contributing factors to their present predicaments. I was personally blessed with an upbringing that shielded me from many of the more unpleasant or unhelpful experiences that some people go through as children or teenagers. Yet, I have no doubt that, if I had more malevolent formative experiences and influences, then my life would have turned out very differently. As the sixteenth-century English reformer John Bradford is purported to have exclaimed when he saw a group of prisoners being led to their execution: ‘there but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford’.

prison 5The role of compassion is to grasp and accept this difficult realisation – the realisation that, if circumstances were different, our actions and behaviour could be drastically altered. As a prison teacher explains to Kristin Scott Thomas in the recent French film I’ve Loved You so Long:

‘I spent 10 years teaching in a prison. I realised that people in prison were like me. They could have been in my shoes, or I could have been in theirs. It’s such a fine line sometimes.’

In the past I have taken groups of young students to a prison for young offenders, as part of a University course on social action. After the visits, the students would reflect on their experience. Every year they would report back the same experience. They would explain that, as they chatted to the inmates there was a dawning realisation that these young men were not ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. In fact, they were, by and large, young, energetic people like themselves, with similar interests, dreams, and aspirations. The only real difference was that most of the prisoners had either fallen in with the wrong crowd, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had experienced unfortunate childhoods which had influenced their later actions.

prison 1On one occasion, I took a group to visit a maximum-security Category A prison. Once we had got through all the prison checks and had been escorted through half-a-dozen locked gates and doors, we were met by an amicable helper. He sat us all down in a room, served us tea, and made pleasant chitchat with us. After twenty minutes of friendly conversation, he asked us if we were concerned in any way about our visit. Our students proceeded to tell him how worried they were about actually meeting the inmates face-to-face, all of whom were incarcerated for serious crimes. ‘Well, I’m afraid you’re actually talking to one of the bad ‘uns right now’, the helper answered my stunned students. Before we had realised that he was a ‘criminal’, we had been able to relate to this man as a fellow human being and we had seen beyond the label to how God saw him – loved and embraced, whatever his past misdeeds.

prison 4To be compassionate means recognising our common humanity with others, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done. Part of this journey is to become aware of our own backgrounds, prejudices, and conditioning, so that we view people as they truly are, rather than as we imagine them to be. By doing so, we acknowledge that all are fully loved by God and, thus, we cannot fail to be moved by their suffering. After all, our call is not simply to sympathise with another person’s predicament. Rather, it is to recognise that, if circumstances were different, we could be in the same position as them. This drives us to the radical compassion of the New Testament, as we are drawn to actively enter and share the suffering of the other person: ‘remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured’ (Hebrews 13:3).

To explore this theme further, see Chapter 6 ‘There But for the Grace of God” in my book The Compassion Quest.

prison 11

“Jesus, do you hate me?” Same-Sex Marriage, the Church and Compassion

QTIn a recent Question Time on BBC television, Welsh politician Chris Bryant recounted a time when the Papal Nuncio asked him how his wife was. The openly-gay Member of Parliament answered: “he’s a man”. To which the Roman Catholic dignitary responded: “what do you mean? Is she very butch?!” Bryant explained that he was gay and that he was in a civil partnership. The Papal Nuncio’s response was shocking, as he told the politician: “you do realise that you will do more damage to this world than climate change”. On the Question Time panel, Bryant then looked at the audience and gave a challenge to those who “for maybe understandable reasons” are passionately opposed to gay marriage: “just think of how you advance your arguments, because it can be very, very painful to some people”.

This anecdote reveals something of the oft-ignored issue in Christian discussions about same-sex marriage – the pastoral issue. Whatever our own theological and ethical viewpoint, it is undeniable that the Church’s attitude to gay and lesbian people has, at times in the past, been negative, judgmental, and uncompassionate. Instead of standing alongside a group of people who already feel wounded by a prejudiced society, the Church has either turned its back on them or, worse still, has been actively hostile. In other words, it has often failed in its pastoral duty towards a section of our community that has needed visible signs of God’s love. Ironically, in light of our call to offer pastoral care to all within our churches and parishes, the Church’s uncaring and unsympathetic attitude has led to a sense of disapproval, abandonment, and alienation.

MorrisseyIt is a sad fact that our faith, which should offer unconditional love, hope, and liberating forgiveness, is seen by many in today’s society as hateful, guilt-inducing, and judgmental. On Morrissey’s critically-acclaimed 2004 album You are the Quarry, the one-time lead singer of 80s iconographic pop group The Smiths announces he has finally found it in himself ‘to forgive Jesus’, who has left him with guilt, hang-ups, and low self-esteem. He finishes the song by screaming repetitively at Jesus – ‘do you hate me? Do you hate me?’ Instead of being a source of forgiveness, the Christian faith is now deemed to need forgiveness itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our attitudes towards gay people, who have felt unwelcome, unloved, and branded as ‘sinful’ by Christian reactions towards them.

The Church, therefore, needs to express an apologetic contrition for its past treatment of gay and lesbian people, before embracing a future pastoral response rooted in Jesus’s teachings and actions. Such a response must be centred upon a radical compassion – an uncompromising, self-giving, unconditional love that transcends differences of politics, ethnicity, and sexuality. We need to follow the risen Christ on the Emmaus Road, who came and walked alongside the two disciples, not forcing them to stop or to turn around, but entering into their current situation and engaging with it. As in any pastoral situation, there must be a desire to encounter Christ in “the other” (Matthew 25) and an openness to the possibility that our own attitudes may be radically changed from our engagements. After all, too often gay people are talked about, rather than listened to, in our churches.

LoveA pastoral statement to lesbian and gay Anglicans from 188 member bishops of the 1998 Lambeth conference, including Rowan Williams, pledged to ‘continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church’. Such a pledge has profound implications for gay people who are already professing Christians, but also for those on the periphery of the Church community, and it should radically challenge those of us in ministry. After all, at the very heart of Jesus’s life and teaching is the ideal of a compassion that is intimate and intense (Greek splanchnizomai), rather than simply a basic compassion (Greek eleeo). Jesus’s whole existence was one of standing alongside “the other” and championing God’s deep, unconditional love for all his children. Our call, which is both simple and challenging, is to follow that model of radical compassion.

“The life of Jesus suggests that to be like God is to show compassion” (Brennan Manning)

For more on this theme, see chapter 5 “Radical Compassion” in The Compassion Quest.

Thanks to Revd Rosie Dymond for helping me formulate some of my thoughts in this blog post.

“Not all those who wander are lost”: The journey of young Anglican Christians in South Wales

I remember one eventful journey I took a few years ago. I was returning from London to North Wales, sitting in a train and enjoying my CD personal Walkman, in the days before i-pods. The train pulled into Birmingham and stood still for a few minutes. We then left the station and I drifted into peaceful sleep. When I woke up, I looked outside and, to my horror, I saw that the train was pulling into Glasgow station! The train had divided into two sections in Birmingham, and, because the Beatles had been playing so loudly in my ears, I hadn’t heard the announcement! On informing the guard in Glasgow, he told me that another person had done exactly the same thing. We were, therefore, put on the train back to North Wales. I sat with the other passenger and we chatted and laughed about our experience as we travelled back. I got to know that fellow traveller well during the train ride and he is now a close friend of mine. By today, I can’t remember why I was in London and I have no idea what I did when I got back to North Wales, but I’ve never forgotten the journey itself.

We spend so much of our lives travelling and so it is important to recognise the importance of appreciating our journeys. In fact, life itself is a journey. Perhaps that’s one of the timeless attractions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, both in book and film. Some have joked that the films show a group of Hobbits walking for almost nine hours, before we have a final few minutes of them reaching their destination at the end. But fans of the series would argue that this is exactly the point! They are changed and formed by their travels, learning lessons of love, friendship, and sacrifice on the way! As Tolkien himself reminds us in the final book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy:

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost

Of course, the great religious pilgrimages of former times reflect this fact. Pilgrims used to travel long distances to holy places – to Rome, Jerusalem, or local sites, like Bardsey Island in North Wales. The purpose of these journeys, though, was not simply to reach the endpoint. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales shows that the destination was only a small part of the pilgrimage. In this fourteenth-century poem, we never discover if the pilgrims even reach the famous cathedral, because the story is not actually about Canterbury. Rather, the story describes the travellers taking turns to chat to each other, telling interesting and amusing tales about their lives. So, the journey allows them to learn and find out about each other.

Of course, faith is also a great journey, with both ups and downs. As such, during every step of the way we should be nurturing and developing our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. I run a group called ‘The Journey’ for 16 to 24 year-olds who attend Anglican churches, schools, or chaplaincies in the diocese of Llandaff in South Wales. It aims to support young people, encourage them in their faith journeys, and give them opportunities to meet other Christians of their own age. The primary focus is fellowship, friendship, and food, and each meeting is centred on a contemporary issue of faith or morality that is relevant to young Christians in the twenty-first century. For some, it will help develop any call to ministry they may have. Others may not feel such a call. For all, though, the group will be a chance to share their journeys with others of their age and to discuss and develop their thoughts and beliefs.

The last Journey event looked at “Faith and Film”, where we analysed the theology of Jesus films (such as King of Kings and The Passion of the Christ), as well as films such as Superman, ET, and the Harry Potter series. The next Journey event will be a “Grill-a-Bishop” event, where Bishop David of Llandaff is coming to be grilled with challenging questions – women bishops, does God exist, is the Church dying, same-sex marriages, why does God allow natural disasters, etc!

Whatever your age, please do show your support of this venture by following us on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/journeyllandaff and following The Journey’s facebook page http://www.facebook.com/thejourneyllandaff Thank you!


Divide and fall: Reflecting on UKIP, Politics, and Faith

ukipThe success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the recent local elections may well be a protest vote of frustration against the three principal political parties, but it is a protest vote which should be a challenge to each one of us. After all, many politicians have already attempted to win back disenchanted voters by reassuring them that they themselves are now taking seriously the issues which have led to the increase of support for this right-wing populist party. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, immediately vowed to win back Conservative voters by concentrating on those matters on which UKIP had centred their campaign, in particular immigration and the welfare system.

While I have no doubt that politicians need to take seriously such a protest vote against them, Christians need to recognise that this reflects the increasingly divisive nature of politics, which stands in direct conflict with the teaching of a faith which asserts that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus”.

Media interviews with UKIP candidates and with those who voted for the party seem to be reliant on using terminology that presents an “us” and “them” society. Thus, such politics (which can actually be found across the political spectrum) is reliant on scapegoats – the “immigrants”, the “European Union”, “multicultural society”, “foreign aid”, the “welfare scroungers”, the “tree-huggers”, the “criminals” and so on.

scapegoatAs a teenager, I would try (largely unsuccessfully!) to impress potential girlfriends by taking them on dates to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, near Birkenhead.  My favourite picture in the gallery was Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat. This famous pre-Raphaelite painting shows a goat symbolically bearing the sins of the Jewish people, having been thrown into the wilderness and awaiting certain death (Leviticus 16:22).

The concept of the scapegoat is certainly just as relevant and significant to us today as it was to Hunt when he painted his masterpiece. The French thinker Rene Girard suggests that communities and societies have always been engaged in the practice of finding victims to pay the price of their shortcomings. We have certainly seen this in recent years, as a plethora of evils have been blamed for our nation’s ills and thus become targets of our venom.  Among our contemporary scapegoats are asylum seekers, our educational system, Islam, parents of wayward children, the NHS, the media, the Church, and so on.

blameWhile we should, of course, continue to foster critical minds and champion free speech, we should never ignore the dangers inherent in supporting such a divisive society of blame. Apportioning blame was, after all, the first consequence of the fall of Adam. The man blamed the woman and the woman blamed the serpent. Only in the willing self-sacrifice of the ultimate scapegoat, Jesus Christ, could this cycle of blame be ended (Isaiah 53:4). Those of us who consider ourselves Christ’s followers need, therefore, to stand against such a divisive and hateful scapegoat culture. Sometimes this will mean swimming against the tide of public opinion, sometimes it will mean being ridiculed, and sometimes it will mean being despised ourselves. But Christian love never was about being popular.

“Grace, she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain. Because grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Grace finds goodness in everything” (U2 ‘Grace’)