[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Crime is a hot-button issue in our society. How should we regard people who commit crimes, and how should we deal with them when we apprehend them? A common answer is the get-tough-on-crime, law-and-order approach: “These people are the scum of the earth—lock them up and throw away the key!” That, we are told, is the only thing that will keep us safe from all the monsters out there. However, more and more people are coming to realize that another answer is not only possible but actually far more effective: We can see these people as human beings with inherent worth, and help them discover that worth so they can return to civil society. Our safety lies not in condemnation but rehabilitation. PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly recently profiled Pat Nolan, a man who has taken a transformative journey from the former to the latter view—a view very much in line with A Course in Miracles.
Pat Nolan grew up in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Los Angeles, so crime was a personal issue for him. As minority leader in the California Assembly, he became a passionate proponent of “get tough” measures to severely punish criminals. One former prison warden says of him, “He was a madman. He was Attila the Hun when it comes to lock them up and throw away the key.” In large part through his advocacy, California built “11 or 12 new prisons” in his recollection. He says, “At the time I thought it would make us safer.”
But then something utterly unexpected happened: The “lock them up” guy got locked up himself. Nolan was convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions and spent two years in prison. While there, he was stunned at what he saw: “I saw virtually nothing was being done to change the mind or hearts of the inmates. Nothing was being done to prepare them to live healthy productive lives when they got out.”
This situation is all too typical in the American prison system, which has largely abandoned rehabilitation. One prison guard interviewed for this story says that the system has become “for the most part, almost a warehousing operation. And I think there’s not too many people in the system who would disagree.” This system has disastrous results: Ninety-five percent of people who go to prison will eventually be let out, but since they have been given no tools to help them live on the outside, sixty-seven percent of them will be back in prison within three years. The system Nolan thought would make us safer doesn’t make us safer at all.
Nolan’s epiphany, which included a spiritual awakening that led him to embrace Christianity, turned him from a passionate advocate of prison building to a passionate advocate of prison reform. He still believes that there are people who need to be locked up, but he now believes in using that time in prison to change their minds and hearts, and give them the skills they need to live successful lives once they get out. He leads a faith-based rehabilitation program called Justice Fellowship, a part of Prison Fellowship Ministries, which offers mentoring programs for prisoners. His work is very successful; a University of Pennsylvania study of his programs showed that they reduced the recidivism rate from that sixty-seven percent national average to eight percent. Programs like these are what really make us safer.
Nolan has also become a political activist for prison reform: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed him to a task force to fix California’s prison system, and he’s lobbying Congress for a “Second Chance Act” to help prisoners re-enter society. All of this is in the service of a vision that has grown out of his newfound Christian faith: “Morally we have to care about them. This is a child of God, and just as they have sinned, we’ve sinned, and if we can accept Jesus’ forgiveness, how can we deny it to them?”
A Course in Miracles would change “sinned” to “made mistakes” in Nolan’s statement, but with that alteration the Course would agree with him. Our usual approach to crime is truly a nightmare. The Course speaks frequently of the folly of defending ourselves against attack with more attack, which is what we do when we respond to criminal acts with harsh treatment of those who commit them. Our defense does nothing more than keep in motion a vicious circle that has a devastating effect on our minds:
Attack, defense; defense, attack, become the circles of the hours and the days that bind the mind in heavy bands of steel with iron overlaid, returning but to start again. There seems to be no break nor ending in the ever-tightening grip of the imprisonment upon the mind. (W-pI.153.3:2-3)
Our criminal justice system is a great example of this vicious circle. There’s an attack: certain people commit crimes. This leads to a defense in the form of a counterattack: Society throws them into prison and withholds from them the tools and guidance they need to change their lives. This leads to another defense in the form of a counterattack: Many of them commit more crimes when they get out of prison. This leads to yet another defense in the form of a counterattack: Society throws them back into prison. And on and on and on.
This approach seems to promise safety, but what it really does is imprison all of our minds with fear, a fear that seems inescapable. Hasn’t this been the actual result of all those get-tough-on-crime measures (especially those directed at the headline crime of our day, terrorism)? According to the Course, this exacerbation of fear is no accident. It is actually the ego’s purpose for all of our social institutions:
All [the world’s] structures, all its thoughts and doubts, its penalties and heavy armaments, its legal definitions and its codes, its ethics and its leaders and its gods, all serve but to preserve its sense of threat. For no one walks the world in armature but must have terror striking at his heart. (W-pI.135.2:4-5)
How do we break this vicious circle? The Course says that we must see attacks on us—like the attacks of those who commit crimes—in a whole new way. Rather than a call for defensive counterattack, we must see that “attack is a call for help” (M-29.6:6), or a call for love. As we answer this call with love—for instance, through helping prisoners rehabilitate themselves—the Course promises that something remarkable will happen: The fear engendered by attack will be replaced by an experience of the love that we ourselves are truly calling for: “Answer [a brother’s] call for love, and yours is answered” (T-12.II.3:5). Real safety, then, doesn’t come from attacking those who attack us. On the contrary, the course insists, “Safety is the complete relinquishment of attack. No compromise is possible in this” (T-6.III.3:7-8). Real safety comes only from offering loving help to those who attack. This breaks the vicious circle, as fear is shined away by love.
Workbook Lesson 192 uses prison imagery to illustrate the two alternatives we’ve discussed:
Who could be set free while he imprisons anyone? A jailer is not free, for he is bound together with his prisoner. [The jailor] must be sure that [the prisoner] does not escape, and so [the jailor] spends his time in keeping watch on [the prisoner]. The bars that limit him become the world in which his jailer lives, along with him. And it is on [the prisoner’s] freedom that the way to liberty depends for both of them. (W-pI.192.8:2-6)
To get the full impact of this passage, it helps to visualize it. Imagine a prisoner in a cell with a jailor keeping constant watch on him. It’s patently obvious that as long as this situation continues, both are stuck in the prison. The jailor can’t leave any more than the prisoner can. This is a metaphor for what happens to our minds when we condemn anyone: When we lock him into the prison of our hatred and condemnation, we lock ourselves right in with him. How do we escape this dilemma? The lesson is clear: “Therefore, hold no one prisoner. Release instead of bind, for thus are you made free” (W-pI.192.9:1-2). The only way to escape is for us to let go of condemnation and forgive the person we’ve imprisoned with our hatred. The only way out for both of us is to let him out and walk away from the prison together.
Now, this is a metaphor. I don’t think the Course is counseling us to literally release every single person from prison today. Like Nolan, I believe that there are times when it is appropriate to lock someone up on a form level. In cases where the person would otherwise harm himself or others, this can be a loving act. But it is a loving act only if we don’t lock that person out of our hearts-only if, like Nolan, we see this person as a child of God and lovingly offer him the help he needs to recognize his true worth and rejoin the human community outside the prison walls. Only in this way will we find safety. Only by releasing everyone from the bondage of our condemnation will all of us be truly made free.
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