Zizek, prisons, justice and investment

We are currently talking to some rural congregations about the connection they have with the prisons in their community, and how we might develop those relationships more fully. I’ll talk more about that down the track – it’s a really exciting new direction – but a lovely part of the process at the moment is the time we are spending with rural communities hearing about their motivations and passions for being involved.*

There were two big areas of conversation with the members of one rural community yesterday: the first was on what difference faith can make in the prison. Chaplains are not allowed to proselytise – the potential for manipulation is too high. Prisoners are surrounded by psychologist and self-improvement programs. What is it that those representing faith can do? And, as importantly, what is the promise that faith can make and then deliver?

‘These Christians,’ said Alex, on my second visit into the prison, ‘They promise the world and then they give you an atlas’.

As I drove home from the meeting last night, I caught the end of a radio interview. I have no idea what the program was [i was waiting for the news about leadership spills!], or who was being interviewed, but the I heard him say that the primary question for his faith was not ‘what do you believe in?’, but ‘in what do you invest your life?’. He said he could no longer invest his life in ideas about God, but that didn’t mean he’d lost faith. His primary investment now was in justice and love; they were the things worth living for, even if they came to no end. That was the other big area of conversation yesterday – how much working in the prison changes your life. It becomes your investment.

I’ve learnt that someone has the potential to be a good chaplain when they talk about how they will change in the process, and how they don’t think they have what it takes to do this well. It seems that those who think they are cut out for it find it hard to recognise the holy ground they’re walking on…

The cliche about prison life is that I am actually integrated into it, ruined by it, when my accommodation to it is so overwhelming that I can no longer stand or even imagine freedom, life outside prison, so that my release brings about a total psychic breakdown, or at least gives rise to a longing for the lost safety of prison life. The actual dialectic of prison life, however, is somewhat more refined. Prison in effect destroys me, attains a total hold over me, precisely when I do not fully consent to the fact that I am in prison but maintain a kind of inner distance towards it, stick to the illusion that ‘real life is elsewhere’ and indulge all the time in daydreaming about life outside, about nice things that are waiting for me after my release or escape. I thereby get caught in the vicious cycle of fantasy, so that when, eventually, I am released, the grotesque discord between fantasy and reality breaks me down. The only true solution is therefore fully to accept the rules of prison life and then, within the universe governed by these rules, to work out a way to beat them. In short, inner distance and daydreaming about Life Elsewhere in effect enchain me to prison, whereas full acceptance of the fact that I am really there, bound by prison rules, opens up a space for true hope.

Slavo Zizek, The Fragile Absolute

*It’s times like this where i love being part of a denomination. I know many people are saying that the religious institutions have passed their time, and are no longer places for innovation and experiment, but i’d be devastated if denominations were to end. So much of what we do in the prison and broader community is possible only because we are a denomination. The major decision making and policy implementing bodies within our community are constructed in a way that relies on communication with institutions – I’m not prepared to let our institution go until that reality changes. Denominations are trusted with this because we have a history that lasts beyond any one person or generation; we have the depth of resources and breadth of wisdom that means we are worth listening to. We have proven that we carry through on promises and can [to a large part] be trusted with people’s vulnerabilities.

That doesn’t mean to say that I think everyone has to be part of a denomination, that i don’t think there are some fundamentally sick things about institutions, or that i don’t want denominations to change – but i get disheartened by those who refuse to acknowledge what it is that would be lost if the institution were to fold, and who define institutions by rigidity and lack of imagination. Of course, if you think the stuff of the church is simply local then none of that matters. But if you think the church has a broader role to play within the community and world, then we need to stay faithful to those collections of people and communities that together have a chance of making that happen.