Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Better Than Church

The women file past me into the room. They all wear the same bland prison whites, a pullover top matched to loose pants with an elastic waistband. Most of the women are in their twenties and thirties, and not attractive in the conventional sense. Their collective presence jars me, though I do my best to appear nonchalant. The prison unit, a substance abuse felony punishment facility in Texas that offers treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, claims them for seven to twelve months because of drug possession or DWI conviction. A number of the women are missing teeth, due to crystal meth abuse. Some of the women’s faces betray hard decisions and painful memories – of which I will hear when they begin to speak.

I’m at a graduation ceremony for Bridges To Life (BTL), a restorative justice prison ministry that joins surrogate crime victims and perpetrators face-to-face. (BTL is a volunteer program that is not part of the prison’s in-house drug treatment efforts, but it buttresses those efforts all the same.) All of the women in the room have completed the ministry’s fourteen-week program that coaxes forth self-awareness, accountability, and restoration by requiring participants to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. Small group discussions allow participants to honestly share their stories with one another. The traditional healing practices of confession and forgiveness are used to help inmates examine the effects of their crimes upon themselves, upon their relationships with family and friends, and upon the relationships their offenses have created with the victims of their crimes.

It’s open-mic for this ceremony night of graduation. Three questions guide the women’s remarks: 1) How have you changed in the last fourteen weeks? 2) How do you feel now? 3) What do you want to say to the group?

The first woman to speak steps up to the wood podium in front of six neat rows of folding chairs, where her fellow inmates, ten BTL volunteers, the prison chaplain, and I watch her intently. She tries to speak but can’t as tears well up in her eyes. Immediately, a chorus of fingers snapping, raised in the air – as I’ll learn, their particular expression of support – fills the room. The woman covers her face with her hand and wipes her tears. She takes a deep breath and begins: “For the first time in a long time, I’m living actively and not passively. I feel alive again and my attitude has changed immensely. I’m letting feelings about my past go as I’ve learned I need to forgive myself. I feel important to myself again.” This last phrase jars me, but in a distinct manner from the jarring that internally shook me when the women filed into the room. I feel important to myself again – this particular description, the tip of an iceberg of human darkness and light, sets the stage. I will hear variations on the same wonderful theme for the next seventy-five, tear-inspiring minutes.

Released emotions, more tears, and at-the-ready snapping fingers accompany the ensuing testimonies, each one upon its conclusion met with cheers and applause that buoy the speaker back to her seat:

“I didn’t feel like I was worthy of change before, because I came here with a lot of guilt and shame . . . but now I have acceptance.”

“My everything has changed – the way I look at others and the way I look at myself. I’m proud of myself. I haven’t been proud of myself for years.”

“For so long, I hated myself and couldn’t forgive myself. But I feel lighter and freer now. The more I tell people about my weakness, the more restored God has made me feel. I have hope again.”

“Before I started this program, I felt like I was a victim. But when we wrote our letters, it occurred to me that I had harmed other people. I was blind, but now I see.”

The letters to which the speaker refers are confessional letters of apology to those harmed by the offender’s actions. A letter is written to a family member and a victim of the offender’s crime – the letters are not sent but used for small group discussion in one of the weekly BTL sessions, for the purpose of claiming responsibility, accountability, and forgiveness.

Others testify:

“Some of us haven’t had positive role models in our lives. To have ears listening to us, helps restore my hope. I have a future again.”

“I never used to care about completing anything. Receiving this certificate tonight is so important – now I know I can complete things. My self-esteem has been lifted up so much.”

“To come here and be loved and accepted and forgiven – we’re all God’s little miracles.”

Toward the end of the testimonies, another woman, after fighting back tears like so many before her, shares with the group six words of profound self-understanding:

“Now I remember who I am . . .”

By this time, I’ve come upon an eye-opening realization myself. I see that what these women are sharing, straight from their souls, is the most beautiful thing I’ve witnessed in some time. As a male in the yet male-dominated twenty-first century world, my first glance at women often times, almost instinctively, is one of simple examination for what my eye understands to be beauty or good looks. I don’t say this in a braggadocious way, but in a truthful and confessional way. The women this night – some with missing teeth, and others unkempt in prison whites and freed from having to present themselves to the outside world – remind me that what binds us together more than anything is the common humanity we carry inside consisting of feelings, emotions, and experiences. All of us are in need of the inner gifts of love, acceptance, and support. Outward displays of possessions, accomplishments, and good looks – all of these having positive attributes – are overemphasized in popular culture, often to the detriment of the more important inner gifts.

Bridges To Life has a crucial place in my new book on restorative justice, due out the beginning of 2018. The woman who invited me to the graduation, Ellen Halbert, told me ahead of time: “You’ll see. The graduation ceremony is incredible.” She was, and is, absolutely right. Ellen is a crime victim and a prominent restorative justice proponent – the prison unit in Burnet, Texas where we’ve gathered for the graduation, is named for her. She was a presenter, during an earlier session of the fourteen-week program with this same group. The women were so moved by hearing Ellen’s story that they insisted she come back for their graduation.

As we linger in the room and share refreshments with the graduates and volunteers, I – a preacher – share with Ellen my evaluation of the evening: “You’re right, Ellen. This was great – better than church.” She smiles and nods her head. She’s seen it before and she’ll see it again: The healing power of shared story and testimony to make a new way forward, for bearer and listener alike.

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago). JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

 

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Can Science Replace Religion?

New Atheism – led by scientists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and others – is deeply critical of religious teaching and practice. Harris says in support of his book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2011), “Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one.” He and others posit science as a better way to determine worthy human morals and values.

Harris is right to criticize religious understandings that place oversized emphases on an afterlife at the expense of present day concerns – consider the 9/11 terrorists and the supposed promise of virgins awaiting them in paradise, a tragic blend of hate and misogyny inspiring them to act in this world. Harris is also right to look to science to determine better ways for humans to know, think, and interact – making the world a better place now and in the future.

But, before we get too excited about its promoted versatility: science will never solve all of our problems. The human family yet needs good religion. Getting rid of religion, as advocated by Harris and Dawkins, would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Additionally, it increases the risk of making science something it is not – a religion.

Consider, for example, forgiveness. Science can teach us about the benefits of forgiveness, but it can’t teach us how to put it into practice. That’s what religion does. Furthermore, religion and science working together help define and categorize different types of forgiveness, a mutual enhancement that makes the world a better place. People who practice forgiveness tend to have lower blood pressure, live with less stress and anxiety, and understand thou shalt not kill as a good guide to navigate relationships with other human beings in this present world. Forgiveness incorporated rejects the option of vengeance. All of these are enhancements to the health and well-being of the whole human family.

The word religion, from the Latin religio, means to fasten, bind, or reconnect. There is no question that religions are human constructions, and consequently not perfect. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, forgiveness is central to their religious understandings for life in this world. Forgiveness – ritualistically part of all three systems – reconnects adherents with the Divine and binds adherents to one another in this life. Human beings created religions, in part, to help forge community ties. Forgiveness enhances and binds those relational ties, from birth to death.

The story of Joseph, son of Jacob, is shared by the three monotheistic religions. Dreamer of stars and moons, Joseph, the younger offspring and favorite of his father, is sold into slavery by his jealous and envious older brothers. Only later, when the brothers and their families are suffering from hunger and famine, do they unknowingly face their long lost brother Joseph. They are in a most desperate situation, physically and emotionally. Joseph, now powerful and holding in his hands the fate of his brothers and “their little ones,” has the option to choose vengeance upon his brothers for having sold him into slavery so many years earlier. He instead chooses forgiveness – and family reunion.

Of course, religion has been misused through the ages. It has caused great and painful suffering, even to our present day. But it has also taught humans to love one another, to accept one another, and to forgive one another. Religion, like anything else worthy of human attention and endeavor, needs to be continually reformed in order to be better. The old story of Joseph and his brothers has the unique ability to instruct and reform the current and future human family; forgiveness is an essential element for the very survival of humanity.

British writer Bryan Appleyard critiques thinkers who endow science with the ability to give a “final and full account of the world.” Harris and Dawkins have legitimate critiques of religion and some of its practices, but ultimately they advocate science as the one and only true way – essentially, a new religion. This type of thinking is categorically fundamentalist – a type of thinking that usually is not beneficial to the health and well-being of the human family. Atheism is a belief system just as much as any religion can be. True wisdom understands the world to be a big place, large enough for the scientific theories that explain the essence of stars and moons and large enough for the religious systems that bind us together as people who practice virtues like forgiveness.

 

These blog posts are representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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