It used to be said that silence is golden; however, it is also been said that all that glitters is not gold; It can be counterfeit. In 1965 Simon and Garfunkel sang about a silence that,”… like a cancer grows.”
In the current 2015 federal election campaign in Canada, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence about speaking of current criminal justice policies and prison conditions. Careful not to upset the public, one might hear about policemen being hired, but not about the fact that Mr. Howard Sapers, the Federal Correctional Investigator (ombudsman), who for over a decade has faithfully and courageously monitored Canadian Federal prison conditions, has essentially been shown the door by the Harper government. Click onto his official web page, www.oci–bec.gc.ca, and you can find his reports repeatedly calling for more enlightened crime policies and for more just and humane conditions in Canada’s prisons. His last report of May of 2015 disclosed the continued overuse of solitary confinement, which is disproportionately and inappropriately used for managing mentally ill, aboriginal, and black people; the number of Caucasian inmates’ in solitary is steadily declining. That’s dehumanizing, unjust, and smacks of corporate racism to me. Sapers’ reports’ recommendations for reform and action have been regularly ignored in Ottawa. As we know, the Harper government, having run on tough law and order values rhetoric since the beginning of its mandate, has objectified criminals as collateral for a strategy for winning votes from victims and a fear-conditioned public. Mr. Sapers’ latest report it seems paradoxically to be no longer convenient to the powers in portraying inmate-bashing as an effective moral model for dealing with crime in regards to public opinion. Official Conservative crime policy has not really been about people and the common good it seems; it’s been more about politics, and silence is golden in politics when politics demands it.
But does the church cry out in the wilderness or streets that in Christ our warfare…. against crime and drugs etc…. has been accomplished? Admittedly the ombudsman’s reports, when aired or published, don’t usually get much attention in Canadian society, church included. I can’t recall Sapers’ moral concern for prisoners’ conditions finding their way into many sermon notes or theological journals. I must admit there is aired some concern for their souls. Concern for the criminal, like the enemy, since the creation of the modern Westphalian state (1648), is left up to the care and mercy of the state’s coercive power which basically exists, it seems, to preserve itself. Most citizens in our disconnected society, therefore, don’t need to think long and hard about loving the socially distant prisoner and enemy very much, having lost their sense of co-humanity with them. A prevailing sentiment seems to be that a short prayer for their soul, and for a few prison ministries is adequate; their fate is left up to the state and God’ sovereign will do justice; not much to do here for human responsibility to other humans. Having lost the meaning of biblical justice to legal positivist hermeneutics, the public does complain fervently when punishment by the state is not seen to be severe enough. Sadly there have been politicians who are pleased to follow public opinion and silence inconvenient truths. But, as Simon and Garfunkel imply, the sound of silence will speak for itself.
Now, silence in the body of Christ about corporate injustice sounds alarmingly like collusive silence to me. We in the institutional church are not called to be political in the partisan sense, but we are called to speak our prophetic mind; to speak out against the injustice and abuse of the poor and needy; justice for the plight of the widow and orphan, and for the refugee and prisoner. The great commandment and Christ’s sermons on mount and plain, demand it. We certainly do need an intelligent hermeneutic regarding our underlying cosmology and doctrinal thinking that impact our social cognition and social action. However, as a social institution in relation with the neighbour, it is ethics, love, that is the ultimate mark of the church, not doctrine.
Increasingly in our individualistic consumer society, we may have lost a sense of covenant, relational, identity with the poor and enemy. Salvation has become a narrow search for personal salvation, a rescue from feared eternal perdition. Western liberalism’s concept of negative freedom legitimates legislation and coercion as a legitimate defense against threats to personal choices so as free autonomous citizens can achieve and enjoy what they desire. Ideologically of course there is also silence due to political philosophical forces that wish to keep religious values out of public discussions, seeking mythical neutrality. Deliberative democracy in a Rawlsian and Habermasian way, its public moral discourse, is important when done intelligently, respectful of those holding opinions of other than our own; but neutral discourse is not sufficient. Public moral conversation is anemic without transcendent values and prophetic voices. What is required is for the followers of Christ to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We will need to become aware of the shadow side of our own biases and prejudices, develop our moral insights, and speak the truth in love to a world that no longer hears the voice of God, that has lost the light of God’s direction for peace, good order, and the common good. We live in a time in history, I think, when the social-political conditions, much like those of the first century, is a time in when we are called to be worth our salt in all areas of life.