The scourging of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia

Fellow blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes by a Saudi court for “insulting Islam” under what international news organisations called “the country’s harsh anti-blasphemy laws,” received the first instalment of fifty lashes yesterday.

And yesterday, Friday, meditating on the Sorrowful mysteries, the second of which is the scourging of Jesus by the Roman soldiers, the image of this beautiful young man came to mind.
scourging of Jesus
Before I sat down to pray, I had only seen the twitter news feeds, and had not read the stories, so didn’t realise that his punishment would be meted out in weekly instalments. I naively assumed they would deliver the thousand lashes in one session.

I wondered how he would bear them— how the whipper (is that what he is called?) would count one thousand lashes — would he have a counter? would he become exhausted and have to be relieved? Would his fellow whippers take turns scourging Raif, as the Romans no doubt took turns scourging Jesus?

I wondered how Raif’s mother felt, as I prayed the rosary with the mother of God, watching with her as Jesus asked that the cup be taken away from him in the garden of Gethsemane, knowing what awaited him. Then watching with her again as he was scourged, as the whips bit into his skin and he bled. Wondering if Raif’s mother had watched today, would watch every week. The news reports didn’t mention her. His wife and three children are in Canada.

The mothers of American prisoners who are executed in American prisons also visited me in prayer. Some attend the executions to watch through the glass, to be there for those very last moments with their sons and daughters as the state straps them down and puts them to death. Could I do that?

After praying, I read the news stories about Raif. Then I found out that sentence would be delivered in instalments. Fifty lashes per week, which means twenty weeks of scourging, five months. Unimaginable … a drawn out cumulative punishment; waiting each week for the next whipping, and the next, and the next.

Jesus got it all over with and went straight up the hill to the crucifixion. Was that a reprieve? Compared to the five months that await Raif Badawi, who is thirty years old, about the same age as Jesus when he was scourged and crucified? “Witnesses said Badawi was flogged after the weekly Friday prayers near Al-Jafali mosque in the Red Sea city of Jeddah as a crowd of worshippers looked on.”
Al Jafaili Mosque

What were the worshippers thinking? As someone schooled in Ignatian prayer, I wondered — were they disgusted, titillated, relieved that it was not them, satisfied that he was getting his fair punishment, his comeuppance for “insulting Islam” on-line? Witnesses said Raif’s face was visible and, throughout the flogging, which lasted about fifteen minutes. He clenched his eyes and remained silent.

Europe, where I live, has been riveted to the news from Paris, where both hostages and Islamic “extremists” have been killed in tense standoffs following the Charlie Hebdo killings. The stakes are being raised on all fronts. Raif Badawi, like Jesus, offered his body to the scourgers, How will this end? How will I show up? This cup won’t be taken away.

Paradoxical Joy: stigma and coming out as the mother of an incarcerated person

me and pablo

Our simultaneously freedom- and control-obsessed society stigmatises prisoners, former prisoners, children of prisoners, siblings of prisoners, and parents of prisoners, much as it stigmatises people who use drugs and sex workers, particularly if they are poor and non-white. My oldest son is biracial:Caucasian/Salvadoran, tattooed from head to toe and, growing up in Northern New Mexico, always identified as Chicano. As a youngster he was in and out of juvie, has been homeless in New York City and Albuquerque, and no matter how many treatment programs, counselors, and twelve step groups he has attended, has been unable to stay sober for more than 18 months at a time.

When he relapses, Pablo blacks out and commits non-violent misdemeanours that a California judge finally rolled into a felony charge, a “strike”, sending him away for a three year bid at a maximum security prison. He lives in a “dorm” rather than a cell, with hundreds of other men, including many lifers, one of whom is now his “accountability buddy” in a prison twelve-step program. When I visited him the other day he was sober, clean, and very clear about his spiritual freedom. We had a wonderful five-hour visit.

As the mother of an incarcerated son, I have the choice to either accept the stigma, the shame society projects on me by never to talking about this “status”, or can reject it by speaking the truth aloud when appropriate. I don’t beat people over the head with it, or bring it up out of context. Neither do I avoid it if the subject of where my children live or what they do, comes up in conversation.

When I do mention that my son is in prison, most people respond with shock and embarrassment, much as they do to announcements about terminal disease or death. “Oh I am so sorry” said the African American Enterprise shuttle bus driver as he took me, his only passenger, to my rental car at LAX at 5am. He was making polite conversation about my destination  once I picked up the car, and when I said I was going to Tehachapi, to visit my son who is in prison there, he predictably expressed dismay. Yet we ended up having a wonderful conversation, as he recalled how energised he and his uncle would be when he visited the nursing home where his relative was confined following a series of strokes.

Although the US has more than 6 million people under “correctional supervision”, a number comparable to imprisonment rates in Stalin’s gulags, people who don’t know, or don’t have an incarcerated loved one, are still shocked that an ordinary looking middle class, middle-aged white mom such as myself should have a son in prison. The multi-billion dollar “corrections industry” functions in a parallel universe from the comfortable lives of most Americans. It is, however, the universe of many lower income African-Americans, Native Americans, or Hispanics from certain neighbourhoods and states, and often I am the only white person in the visiting line, surrounded by women and children of African and Hispanic descent. Prison temporarily effaces the privileges of whiteness.

“Coming out” as the mother of an incarcerated person means telling people how much I love visiting jails and prisons to see my beloved oldest son. Which does not, of course, mean that I think he, or many of the other men we interact with during visits, belong inside. I love it because I get to feel and share in the joy and anticipation among the women and children in the waiting rooms, in the lines we have to form to get into jail, and in the shuttle bus to the yards. There is a palpable sense of community, family, sharing, friendliness, and the relief being about to see our loved ones after a long separation. Shame and stigma have no place in our interactions. We are all there because we love our prisoners. We are not strangers to one another.

Yesterday, when I was meditating on it, I realised that the joy and anticipation I experience in visiting a jail or prison to see Pablo, resembles the joy and anticipation of Advent. We are all waiting to see, hold, and speak with our loved ones, something that happens only rarely for most of us. And we anticipate their joy at seeing us, at feeling the first hug, drinking in each others’ presence for a limited time, and telling all the news and truths we can squeeze into those brief hours before the call “Visit’s over”. There is a quality of appreciation in the encounters that is lacking in most of our encounters in the outside world, a quality that reminds me of the how I used to feel as a hospice volunteer, being with people during the final stages of their lives. Our precious time together is distilled into the very few things that really matter. The value of our moments together is magnified in a way that our non-prison encounters, sadly, are not.

The central dynamic of both terminal illness and incarceration is, of course, loss of control, or rather loss of the illusion of control, and yet it is almost a cliche to say that many people who are dying, and some, like Pablo, who are locked up, sense an inner freedom that was previously inaccessible to them. The freedom of not being in control is a source of joy. Another paradox of the power of love, which relegates the power of the state to the shadows.

Faith and harm reduction. What defiles and defines us.

cypriot jesus

Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,

“Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” Mark 7:14-23

People who use drugs that are illegal are not “defiled” by the substances, although they might be harming their health, since the drugs enter their physical system but not their “heart” – and end up back in the sewer. The ones who are defiled are the people whose hearts generate “evil thoughts” – particularly the arrogance and folly that condemn the most vulnerable to a life of stigma, shame, unemployment, prison, or worse because of their drug use.   They are the politicians and elites who continue to support policies that benefit powerful constituencies while hurting the weakest, easiest targets.

So what is the best approach to those evils that come from within? I’m afraid – since I must do it – that the best approach starts by being aware of the “evil thoughts” in myself, watching them as they arise and motivate me.  I certainly have my share of thoughts that are full of judgment, arrogance, and folly.  I am no stranger to licentiousness, unchastity, adultery, greed, envy, blasphemy or deceit, much as it embarrasses me to write those words.  I too am defiled from within.  So how I can I judge the ones who make policies that cause harm?  My spiritual practice teaches me to pray for those who persecute me (Matthew 5: 43) and to bless those who persecute; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14).

My humanist friends will no doubt gag at such a sentiment and practice (as do I initially), but then people of faith are “fools for Christ” and tend to do things upside down from the perspective of the secular worldview.  Praying for those who persecute us and being aware of our own defilements in no way prevents us from working for justice, though.  We can bless and not curse while still taking whatever steps need to be taken in public life to ensure that people who choose – or are no longer able to choose – to put certain substances in their bodies that are designated illegal are not treated as though they were defiled, stigmatized, punished, and executed.   We can still ensure, by taking practical steps, that people are treated with friendliness, dignity, and compassion, rather than contempt.  I’m on the right track if what comes from my heart doesn’t defile me, or anyone else when I do my work, which is always a challenge as someone who has been brought up, and professionally trained to be a critic.