Next 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’.
The 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.
On 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.
To 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.