E-mail Conversations Spring 2000

America's vast prison population

A study by the Justice Policy Institute calculates that on February 15, America's prison population exceeded two million. The number is astronomical. In 1970, the prison population was just 200,000. This number rose to 315,974 in 1980 and 739,980 in 1990. The Justice Policy Institute's findings indicate that by the end of the year, we will have increased the prison population by 61 percent more than we did during the 80's. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the US has one fourth of the world's prisoners.

Many people attribute the current decline in violent crime to this rise in prison population, stating that harsher laws have kept criminals off of the streets. In considering this argument, it is important to note the following facts:

Jurisdictions that have had the greatest increases in prison populations have not necessarily had the greatest drops in violent crime. New York has seen a significant decline in violent crime despite the fact that it has one of the lowest rates of prison population growth. California and Texas, on the other hand, have had large increases in prison population rates with less significant drops in violent crime.

The biggest contributor to prison population growth this decade has been for drug offenses. More than half the people incarcerated in this country, 1,222,155 are in prison for nonviolent offenses.

This new policy of incarceration is not cheap. In 1999, the total cost of incarceration in state and federal prisons and local jails was $39.04 billion.

With alternatives to imprisonment and prevention programs available, we must ask ourselves to evaluate our priorities and determine whether we should be putting our money, resources, time, and creativity elsewhere.

Andrew Don

In Communion's abortion issue

One of the readers of the last In Communion felt that my article failed to recognize how women are driven to have abortions by circumstances -- "battered women with alcoholic husbands, women in cultures in which they will be made outcasts if they have an out-of-wedlock child, etc." She also commented that abortion is not only a question for women "but of men, of family life, of social and economic conditions, of knowledge and information. And yet it is also a question of morality and religion -- a question of the Church! Therefore please have mercy toward those women who have had abortions."

Here is my response to our friend.

Dear Xxxx, Thank you for your letter in response to my article in In Communion on abortion. I think we agree. I was not accusing women for having abortions; I was simply pointing out that when we speak of "freedom of choice" in the abortion discussion, it's not real freedom for many women. Just as you said, many women are forced into abortion by circumstances. They feel surrounded by death (which is why we chose the Masereel drawing to illustrate my essay) with no way out. In such a situation, to speak of "freedom of choice" is almost cruel.

I've known many women who have suffered deeply after having had abortions, and when I was younger I was almost one of them. It is a terrible, terrible thing to feel that everyone around you is suggesting that abortion is the most "sensible" way to deal with a difficult situation. And you are right, abortion is not just a question for women. Women need husbands, parents, partners, friends -- the whole community -- to support their decision to go ahead and have their babies. They need a supportive community that is willing to help them economically, and a church that will accept them with love. And women who have had abortions need forgiveness and the assurance of God's mercy, as you pointed out.

Nancy Forest

Coming to repentance

The new In Communion issue has excellent articles on abortion. The one by Michael Gorman reveals the symbiosis between a pagan culture and the Church, in which abortion was a practice which could be found in the Church, even as the Church was defining itself as opposed to murder. Nancy's article explores the meaning of "free" in "free choice" with care. Renee has good examples of the ongoing experience of guilt.

How do we address these issues without ignoring the command to proclaim Christ and the Gospel, without capitulating to the fears of chaos and destruction around us (and within us as in the early Christian times) by becoming a moral voice which focuses more on the issue of abortion than on the proclamation of the Gospel. We might be able to reform our culture without one person coming to repentance. Is this what we want?

Alice Carter

Part of what is needed to bring people to repentance is an understanding of sin. We recover our moral sanity by recognizing that sin exists and that not everything is relative. Without this knowledge, repentance is impossible. Some sort of moral catechesis is needed if people are to come to repentance. Repentance makes no sense to those who do not know what sin is.

The long catechesis of the early church was more ethical than dogmatic. You were taught what you must not do and checked up on. If you blew it, you started over again. Many of the dogmas were not explained until after baptism. Before baptism, you learned some dogmas, but mostly you learned how to live a moral life.

Not only could you not see the Eucharist being partaken as a catechumen, you could not know some of the dogmas. That is why instructions for those immediately after baptism often went on for some time.

Daniel Lieuwen

This concern comes from a sense that we are adrift from the Church engaged in a huge moral project, not instructing catechumens in how to live a Christian life. Moral agendas have more power than the Gospel in our culture.

We are not called to live apart from the world but to proclaim the Gospel, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Second Coming of Christ, to proclaim the Kingdom which has begun and is to come.

The Church, the Body of Christ celebrates that Kingdom and its Feast every Sunday. But the Church as "sanctuary" needs to have some definition.

In the vacuum after the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome, the Church was the center for all who needed help of any kind, the Christians were the ones who buried the dead, abandoned where they fell in war and during the plague. The Bishop had a diakonia out of which came food, money, hospital care. There were no civil organizations to do this.

To build a sense of where real hope can be found, we need to understand both those dimensions of Church. I don't see us needing to pull out of the world, but to center ourselves in Christ, in the Eucharist, in the Ecclesia, in order to truly serve. It is important that people know that we will seek to preserve them and their children when they draw near us. I like Daniel's point about the long instruction needed for those coming in to the Church. I also feel we might do well to return to the ongoing exorcisms of the Catechumenate for the same reason.

Alice Carter

Alice's point is well taken; we must "do it all" -- be a witnessing presence sometimes by proclaiming the gospel straight out, and sometimes by fielding the challenges that the world throws our way by acting in accord with the Holy Spirit, and with love of God and of our fellow man. I think it may only be in these dialogues that the two seem to be different "threads" (as cyberspeak has it). In practice, the person who is helped to bear a child -- and to care for it -- will not be seeing "policy" or "controversy," but simply compassion; and if compassion, then the word of God.

Alex Patico

Peer group pressure

Miles commented: "It's a strange contradiction in the US, but it seems that many of the folks who take a pro-life stance regarding abortion are pro-death penalty, and that many people who support abortion oppose executions."

One of the reasons is peer group pressure. Social beings that we are, most of us take our cues from those around us -- or sometimes counter-cues. If you happen to see yourself as belonging to the feminist tribe or to most peace groups, it's a holy miracle if you aren't for abortion. It's part of the peer group package.

Jim Forest

From Buddhism to Orthodoxy

Since I came to Orthodoxy from a long Buddhist involvement, I thought I could say a word or two that might shed some light on those who seek peace along non-Christian Eastern paths.

Many of the folks that I met in various Buddhist groups come because it was a way to distance themselves from the Judeo-Christian traditions with which they felt no "connection." For some it was a way to rebel. For some a place that offered a way to find some measure of inner peace, for others a close-knit community with whom you shared some togetherness. Probably many of the people I met entered the Buddhist path for the same reasons that people come to the Church.

I think it always begins with longing.

And those longings for completeness, and meaning, and truth are perhaps, calls by God. Maybe we each hear the music a bit differently. Some like rock and roll, some jazz, etc., but the longing seems to be a humanness we all share.

God granted me a chance to hear His music while tuned into a different station. His radio blasted into my heart unexpectedly and it has been a year since His Unfolding began. I was a Buddhist "priest" in a Tibetan Tantric Lineage and had a wonderful Teacher. He taught me that awareness and kindness were the roots of Buddhism and I think that is true. How God calls and determines, how he whispers, who He lets rejoice in His Great Goodheart is beyond me.

But I will tell you this as truly as you can. When you are thirsty most any water seems to taste good and quench your thirst. When you are starving any scrap of food is a delight.

I think that we all are thirst and hungry and I appreciate all the more the banquet that God has presented to me for the very reason I came to him later and had the opportunity to taste water from different pools. Finally to see the ocean after living by a stream has been so very wonderful. And the gratitude I began to learn in the Buddhist path has increased in measure by seeing the shore.

Miles Stryker

Destroying the city to save it

Tom Snowdon wrote: "We continue to live in a world where all sorts of people who identify themselves as Christians see no contradiction between saying they are believers in and followers of Christ and yet are prepared to kill millions of people if commanded to do so by their military superiors, many of whom would say they were also believers."

Proofreading the text of Bishop Kallistos's lecture on confession (now on the OPF web site), I was freshly struck by how seriously the early Church objected to killing, even accidental killing.

Such acts resulted in long periods of penitential exclusion from communion. This sensibility is still reflected in canons which bar anyone who has killed another from being ordained a priest, but the profound implications of what all this means for eucharistic life are little thought about in the Church today. It is normal to think that we can indeed follow two masters and that it is even our Christian duty to do so, though of course in tight spots one can only follow one master, obeying -- or disobeying -- the murderous commands of the tribe one happens to belong to.

There were the appalling images on the news this morning of the utter devastation of Grozny: a hellish moonscape that made me recall the famous remark of an American officer in Vietnam: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

It need hardly be noted that the Russian political and military apparatus paid not the slightest attention to Patriarch Alexis' appeals on behalf of Chechnya's civilian population. The Chechen capital is now nothing but a vast ruin. No one is ever likely to know how many ordinary people were killed in the bombardment -- yet one can be sure that many Orthodox Christians taking part in that bombardment thought what they were doing -- obeying the state no matter what it asked -- was not only their civil not their religious duty.

Jim Forest

Orthodox conflict resolution

Catherine Hampton wrote: "Maybe we should try to write some curriculum on nonviolence and conflict resolution, from an Orthodox standpoint?"

What a good idea. I've been mulling it over all morning, and we discussed it at breakfast. What would such a curriculum look like? I suspect it would (or could) be based on stories, because stories work so well and are such a basic part of Orthodox teaching methods. Stories from the Desert Fathers. Stories from the lives of the saints. Or from Orthodox literature.

While proofreading Bishop Kallistos' lectures from Vezelay, I was struck by how many stories he told in getting his points across. In one of those lectures he retold Dostoevsky's story of the woman and the onion. It occurred to me that this story could be adapted to any conflict situation -- for example the recent property dispute in Jericho. Just change the names. The onion becomes the contested property. The woman becomes whoever is grabbing on to it, and kicking all the others away. In the end, everybody falls back into hell.

Nancy Forest

I would suggest that a curriculum on say "Living the Beatitudes" would be the way to present such an attempt. Stories like the monk who went to Rome and stopped at gladiatorial fight by getting in the way and being murdered by the irate spectators -- but causing contrition to the emperor, who banned the gladiatorial contests -- would be good. Stories of forgiveness. If the course was to be shorter, then tying it to the Lenten journey would be useful -- Forgiveness Sunday has obvious tie-ins.

Daniel Lieuwen

Kill your television

Any residue of faith one might have in humanity to set itself aright surely has been crushed under the soul-suffocating weight of the modern television. While driving to work this morning, I listened to a radio program discuss in detail TV's reigning hypnosis: a show called "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?"

The idea was to get a rich bachelor on a primetime slot while a host of women in wedding dresses optioned themselves off in competition to be his bride. A woman won and the two were married while the cameras rolled. After the show was over the couple went to Las Vegas for the honeymoon. Then reports surfaced about the groom's violent past and his dubious claim to wealth. Now, the whole affair is following the post-tabloid pattern of morning "news" programs interviewing the unhappy couple. Separately, of course. The same world who watched the show, who sunk in its hollow drama and made the show a ratings hit, should know better.

That sound you hear outside your window is the crumbling of western civilization. But it's inaudible to most people because the television is blaring. You may be among the wiser types who watch with discernment: Discovery Channel, Nature Channel, History Channel, etc. If so, you're a more disciplined viewer than I. My family's only recourse is to simply not own a TV.

Like to watch Discovery Channel? Instead watch a live animal giving birth. Want nature? Explore your backyard or the nearest tree. Want history? Visit a retirement home and start a conversation. Interested in weather? Go for a walk and feel the wind on your face.

Television, like sugar, is good if used correctly. But it's also addictive and we can grow to like the taste too much. Then, imperceptibly, the rest of life grows bland. So follow your bliss, as long as it leads you outside and into the fresh air.

John Oliver III

Orthodoxy and paradox

So much about Orthodoxy is paradoxical. One paradox involves the basic understanding of our human nature. In Orthodox Christianity, human nature is described in both exalted and deeply penitential terms. This is a paradox but not a contradiction. Perhaps what is really at the core is the paradox of the Cross ... God's own willingness to face death.

But the paradoxes I've been thinking about lately are much less basic. Some have to do with the current status of Orthodoxy in American culture, so are clearly not timeless paradoxes or essential to understanding the faith. Still ...

I have agreed to speak at a local Episcopal church as part of the church's adult education series. The theme is "Authority." They've had discussions about the authority of scripture, tradition, church hierarchy, etc. My topic is: "The Authority of Personal Experience."

At first it struck me as ironic. After all, I have entered a communion that sees Authority as grounded in the Church and its traditions. The emphasis on personal experience sounds so Protestant and American. Yet personal experience certainly had quite much to do with my embrace of Orthodoxy.

More than that, our culture encourages "church shopping" and the adoption of religious traditions other than those we are born into. A generation or two ago, did we even have this whole notion of picking and choosing a religious affiliations in such an autonomous way? Wasn't religious affiliation seen much more as a matter of one's birth or station in life? (Isn't this still so in much of the world?)

Then there is the matter of tradition. When I became Orthodox, it was important to me to feel and acknowledge that I was bringing all of myself and my history along. I must say that as a teenager, when I began to fall away from church life and question the faith, it was music -- usually pop music, but not always -- that gave voice to the longings within me that were clearly religious longings. I was never an Elvis fan -- but just get me going on the Beatles! There was something real and genuine and human in the music that spoke to me -- and helped me stay in touch with those deep longings for meaning and God. The same is true of literature.

I'm the mother of two children, and I certainly do censor their reading to some extent. But I am much more fearful about their exposure to what is banal, bland, and trite. I believe that we can begin to meet God in what is created out of genuine human experience and longing. As one example, children's literature is my great passion, and I think that traditional folk and fairy tales are deeply human and give us all sorts of hints about who we are and what we seek.

So -- I must say that when I consider what brought me to Orthodoxy, I sometimes think the answer is "all of it." As one of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, says, "Listen to your life."

Juli Tarsney