Camden Town, where I was in charge of a church before I moved here, is a famous place of protest. Many were the Saturdays you could hardly move for young and not-so-young idealists marching with red flags and placards. I remember one young man, I assumed a student, waving a banner emblazoned with the words “prison is inhumane.” And certainly, early 20th century socialist movements called for the abolition of prisons and the freeing of all inmates. But, I wonder in this national week of prayer for prisoners, would that truly be an act of liberation?
I served among many people in Camden who had been (or would be) in and out of prison, especially the homeless people who took refuge in our church and its garden. Many were ex-military, most were alcoholics and/or drug users, almost all had mental health problems of some kind. They soon told me that their basic problem as homeless people was not, as you might expect, actually the lack of a home. One - a very talented musician - told me that you could put him up in the Ritz, but he knew that because of his drug habit, by the end of the week he would have trashed it. The basic solution to homelessness for him and many was not a home, but months of very expensive therapy in rehab: and who was going to pay for that?
Talking to ex-offenders, I learnt that prison presents a similar problem. Locking someone up to put them off doing whatever it was they did again, the prison service knows well, tends not to work. Let them out, and often, they repeat the offence: unless, that is, something in them has changed. Freeing people from prison does not liberate them from themselves. True liberation needs to happen within.
All of us to some extent are imprisoned by the historic influences that have defined the boundaries of our selves, the behaviours and reactions learnt from infancy, especially from our parents. This is a psychological truth, not a religious one. And yet there are unmistakably religious responses to this truth.
One of the best known is the ancient Greek motif, ‘know yourself.’ This makes good sense from a Christian perspective, too. An honest knowledge of oneself is the vital starting point on the journey to liberation. The saints and mystics have long taught that this self-knowledge is best found in silence, stillness and contemplation.
You can see your reflection more clearly in still water than when it is being busily swilled around; and when you finally see yourself clearly, and see yourself warts and all, you see how ridiculous it is to think that you might liberate yourself. You need to turn to a higher power for that liberation.
This first step is what we in the trade call “repentance,” and it is no coincidence that it is one of the Alcoholics Anonymous key steps towards rehabilitation. Turning oneself to look into the endless well of compassion which Christians (for want of a better word) call “God” is the key in the lock of the prison of the self.