Ann T. Johnston, MA
Enlightened Justice: A New Worldview
In this article I will share with you what I've learned as a lawyer and a healer about the meaning of justice. As you read this, I invite you to explore what the concept of justice means in your own life. As you do, I encourage you to put aside any preconceived notions. Whatever your views of the current system, it is time to rethink what it is possible for it (and us) to become.
Justice as Punishment vs. Justice as Healing?
What I've learned the hard way is that our contemporary American legal system institutionalizes trauma. Whether in the criminal or civil context, the system functions primarily by extending pain to the losing participants. This is because the system's "remedies" are essentially punitive in natureprison terms, fines, or monetary damage awards. And while the deterrent effect of extending pain sometimes leads to needed behavioral shifts, more often than not (as shown by rampant recidivism and our burgeoning prison population), its punitive methods do not work. Why? Because they are not designed to change the conditions which lead to problem behavior in the first place.
It is time for our system of justice to rethink its reason for being and allow itself a broader, and fundamentally more progressive, societal role. What I envision is something far nobler than what passes for justice in today's world. It is justice as a proactive force for healing in our world. Fortunately, this is taking shape now in what has come to be known as the restorative justice movement.
Leaders in this movement know "who we think we are determines what kind of justice we think we need [because] justice flows from us." We create it in human society based on our own self-conceptson our notions of what it means to be human.* This means that to evolve our system of justice, we must first evolve our own self-concept. We must begin by asking: Who are we as humans at the core of our being? Are we innately bad people who need to become good (the Judeo-Christian "original sin" model)? If so, then our punitive system of justice makes sense. However, if there is a different explanation, something more complex, judgmental ways of thinking keep the justice system stuck in polarity. Neither offenders nor victims are able to heal.
Healing Woundedness: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach
Healers have long understood that crises and "acting out" behaviors (which includes crime) can serve as wake-up calls to change. Viewed in this light, crises are gifts because they serve as catalysts for growth and healing. When the pain of life's experiences is used consciously to deepen self-awareness and self-acceptance, self-change results and new forms of being are birthed. To achieve this, however, one must first suspend judgment.
A wise teacher taught me years ago that "we are not our behavior." At the core of our being is an essence (I believe spiritual) that is far greater than we have ever been taught to believe. Thus, while our behavior may have negative consequences, and rightly so, the behavior is something we did, and not who we are. This means we cannot define a person solely by their actions at any given time. To heal the person, we must learn to separate their "bad" behavior from their essence. If we do, we can identify the reasons for their dysfunction and the needs the dysfunction meet. Then we can teach new and healthier methods to meet these needs, all the while facilitating that person in becoming all they can be.**
Transpersonal psychologists also know that the human ("ego") aspect of who we are is simply one of many parts. In other words, "who we are" includes our spiritual state of being, or true Self. Jungian psychologists view the human psyche similarly. Contained within us, and accessible with the correct professional assistance, is an innate wholeness, our true self, a place of "godliness" (or good) waiting to be tapped. We move toward that state as we heal the dysfunction and trauma of our personal and cultural biographies. And if we're fortunate, we find the mentors and significant others who literally help us transform ourselves along the way.***
The implications for our system of justice are profound. If at our core we are spiritual beings, then human life is sacred. That means all of it, and not simply the humans who look like us or whose values we share. And because there is an innate divinity even in those whose behavior we condemn, we have an obligation to cultivate it. It also means that we do not see clearly when our perception of "reality" is limited to the outer dimension of our lives, and does not include the rich and fertile inner world where transformation (both psychological and spiritual) takes place. If we are to evolve as a culture, social policies and institutions must acknowledge and develop this inner dimension.
These were the seed thoughts that led to the formation of the Center for an Enlightened Humanity and my current life's work. They are also the concepts I brought to Russia when I spoke at the Fifth Annual Conference on Conflict Resolution in St. Petersburgan experience I highly recommend to anyone who is reading this. Through a series of fateful connections and synchronicities, I returned to Russia the following year and had the privilege of visiting a women's prison in Siberia and offering these teachings. I am profoundly grateful to Victor Menovshikov, Regional Director of the Centre of Psycho-Social Aid to People in Perm, Russia, for making this incredible experience possible.
The Russia Project
I had the fortune of getting to know Victor during my workshop at the conference. The workshop by design was largely experiential and included a relatively intense heart-opening meditation, rituals, and ceremony. I recall vividly the depth of feeling which these methods evoked for most participants. The fact that we were total strangers, separated by both cultural and language barriers, made no difference. In three hours of acquaintance, we shared intimate details of our lives, as well as laughter and tears. It may seem odd that we could connect so deeply with each other in such a short time. I learned, however, that when we use ritual and ceremony to intentionally create sacred space, we can bridge the chasm that keeps us separate. We can experience true "oneness." I vowed then to return to Russia and attempt to recreate this experience of sacred space in a prison setting.
In the winter of 1998, Victor arranged for us to tour a Siberian women's prison outpost. I had seen pictures of this prison in a Life magazine story a few months before. It showed pictures of women prisoners locked in outdoor chain link cages in the bitter cold and I had no idea what to expect. On arrival, the prison itself was a cold, primitive, decaying stone structure. While we were treated hospitably and graciously by the prison guards and staff, I was left with the distinct impression that the living/sleeping quarters for the women prisoners were likely sub-human (a thought that was reinforced by the refusal of the staff to allow us to tour them).
The prisoners had been told an American was coming to do a workshop and volunteers were allowed to participate. We had eight women join the group. As the guards looked on, we created an altar in the center of the damp room and lighted candles to create a warm and safe space, a "sanctuary" if you will, to allow these women to learn of healing ideas from the West and to share openly of their pain. The centerpiece of the workshop, as in St. Petersburg the year before, was a heart-opening meditation, followed by self-esteem building exercises.
The self-esteem concepts were totally new to the inmates. "How can I see myself as good if I've done a bad thing?" they asked. "Because at each stage of your evolution and growth you are doing the very best you are able to do," I answered. And while they found these concepts confusing, they were uplifted and comforted by them. The idea that we can grow from and, ultimately, transcend the shackles of our painful past is a truly liberating thought, not just for individuals, but also for nations. It provides hope that forgiveness, redemption, healing, and harmony are possible for each and every one of us. I don't know about you, but I would much prefer to spend my remaining years facilitating the birth of a world that is consciously striving to evolve and become better, than remain stuck in the limited, negative beliefs of the past.
Toward A World without Prisons
This article would not be complete if I did not address the subject of alternatives to incarceration, which is the enlightened future of criminal justice. Although some form of confinement may always be necessary to protect society from truly dangerous individuals, long-term confinement should be the exception and not the norm. I know this because I have seen the potential of well-designed alternatives to incarceration firsthand and the results have been compelling. In the early 1990s I worked in the San Francisco area helping implement an alternative to incarceration for chemically dependent women. The program was designed by a therapist who understood that breaking the cycle of crime and addiction required a non-judgmental, holistic approach. This meant that the women needed not only drug treatment and therapy, but education, job training, family skills training, and just as importantly, self-esteem building, respect, even love. Rather than "shame" the participants and instill fear to "correct" them, the program director related to her charges more like a "den mother." It was precisely because she created a happy, constructive and healing environment for the women to flourish that the program achieved the phenomenal results it did. While recidivism rates for released prisoners typically exceed 70% within three years, only 4% of the participants in this program relapsed and returned to jail during the four years tracked.****
The success of programs like these has led pioneers in the field to rightly conclude that the successful "rehabilitation" (healing) of offenders requires an approach similar to that of a good mother raising her child. Because it is a documented fact that most people in the criminal justice system did not come from loving, healthy families, and were, in fact, themselves the victims of trauma and abuse, the role of "healthy mothering" in facilitating growth speaks for itself.
Each time I present these concepts, I find resistance. Our brains are hardwired from childhood to believe that bad behavior should be punished, sometimes severely. And yet in drug addiction and recovery circles throughout the country I have witnessed time and time again the amazing transformation of even the "sickest" and most hopeless. Because of this I have come to believe that transformation is possible for anyone who genuinely opens himself or herself to it. I also know that as long as we keep our hearts closed to ourselves and each other, we will remain locked in destructive, dualistic thinking.
If we are to evolve as a society, we must find new ways to address the age old question of good and evil. We must come to understand that we cannot conquer evil by destroying it. Renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung knew that to have any real power in meeting the challenge of evil in today's world, we must acknowledge that good and evil are elements of human nature and that we are capable of both. Jung also knew that because the qualities we most despise in others are the qualities we most despise in ourselves, we tend to project our darkness outward, all the while denying it in ourselves. Only by integrating these disowned parts (referred to in analytical circles as "shadow" work), can we as individuals, and as a society, hope to become whole.*****
Because the chaos in our world today mirrors the fear and anger in our own hearts, we will only change the world when we change ourselves. And the time is now. When our descendants look back on us fifty to one hundred years from now, they are certain to find it bizarre that we treated ourselves and each other with such inhumanity and contempt. They will wonder why it took us so very long to figure out that we are capable of so much more, and they will be grateful we finally made the choice to heal and not to hate.
Ann T. Johnston, MA
Founder: Center for an Enlightened Humanity