Victor Hugo, a French romantic poet, novelist and dramatist wrote:
03 Apr, 2013
Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul. Les Misérables (1862)
The story of Easter moves from pain and suffering to resurrection and hope. One aspect of the story cannot be presented without the other if we are to gather the whole meaning of its symbolism for our journey with victims, offenders, and communities – all of whom suffer from the dark tomb of crime and violence and who emerge time and time again into new healing and growth. For over 30 years now working with victims of violence I have described the pain of victimization as an “eclipse from the sun”. Someone has interrupted the victim’s vital connection to warmth, their lifeline (so to speak) to the source of their being, their connection to the sun. The sun is the one thing that we all need to grow and thrive. And when, as victims, our voices are not heard there is an effect of an eclipse that never ends, an eclipse in which the dawn does not emerge from the darkness. Everyone else seems to emerge from the end of the eclipse while victims feel they are left behind, still living in it. There is no end to the three days in the tomb and then the Easter resurrection. There is only endless tomb. The nature of resilience is such that in facing the tomb or the eclipse experience, people begin to adapt. Some people learn to remain in the tomb. Emerging from those conditions then becomes very difficult for people who have adapted so well to living in the pain. It is the darkness they know and understand. There may be very little experience of the sun and warmth and safety to begin with for these people, and chronic abuse and violence only serves to train us to remain in the darkness we know, clinging to the markers to which we are so well adapted. Other people respond to the eclipse experience by continuing to concentrate on rolling back the tomb stone, and they eventually emerge into the dawn of a new awaking. Both of these are natural responses to surviving pain. And, but by the grace of God, any of us who must face intolerable experiences of pain and suffering can go either way: either continually adapting to the darkness or continually seeking the light. And truth be told we often choose some of both intermingled, resulting in three steps forward then two steps backward. Besides the inadequate ways in which we label offenders and victims (as if their paths and profiles never cross), the same is true for offenders. The offender also experiences the same struggle to move out of the pain of what (s)he has done to another. Too often in our prison system everything works to keep the person in the tomb. Learning the markers of survival in the darkness becomes a way of life, so much so that the light of the sun that might bring new growth in empathy towards one’s victim and new skills towards improving one’s life on the outside, often goes unseen or at least not engaged enough to plant a seed of reform. To be seeking the light becomes a dangerous pastime to prison survival. The other unfortunate experience of suffering and the tomb is that as communities we do not readily help to roll away the stone. Instead we depend upon those inside the tomb to do the heavy lifting themselves if we are to consider helping them at all. This is true for victims and offenders alike. Victims are expected to handle their pain privately while offenders are expected to learn new behaviours on their own as if they know what the light looks like, and how to live in it in the first place. Of course the metaphor can go on and on, but the true test of compassion in the face of such pain is that the community will stand at the tomb and actively help to roll away the stone. In the biblical story, an angel rolls away the stone. We must be the angels if we are to come out of our own community eclipse. We will need to actively engage in helping people so confined, whether by the pain of victimization or the isolation of incarceration, to roll away the stone and step out of the tomb. It is difficult to let go of all that contributes to an eclipse, such as vengeance, overwhelming grief, hatred and despair, and an eye-for-an-eye mentality. If we choose to remain in the eclipse we must then be prepared to see vital parts of our courage and compassion as a society wither and fade away. As Victor Hugo says “Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse.” But if we wish to remain fed by compassion and hope instead of cynicism and fear, we will need to have the courage to adapt to the possibility of light and healing. We have to believe it is possible for ourselves and for others. Do we?
Janet Handy, Executive Director
The Church Council on Justice and Corrections