Why it Pays to Imprison: Interrogating the Prison-Industrial Complex

by Andrew Krinks (published in The Contributor, April 2010)

In a February 22nd special feature spotlighting nine new and innovative Nashville “Entrepreneurs of the Year” who show extraordinary promise in excelling their business in 2010, The City Paper celebrated the entrepreneurial expertise of the owner of Prisoner Transportation Services (PTS) of America, LLC, “a prisoner extradition company that transports inmates for state and local agencies.” Taking advantage of a key niche in the market, PTS is proving not only to possess “‘a lot of room for growth,’” but is even “recession-proof”—which, as the editors note, is surely the mark of “doing something right” in our current economic climate.

As any expert in free market economics knows, the key to successful entrepreneurialism lies less in being able to summon profit from scratch and more in identifying and narrowing in on those areas of the market-at-large that bear unique potential for profitability. In the case of PTS, the cue very well may have been taken from national politics, specifically the growing resentment at an ever-increasing influx of illegal immigrants coming across the U.S. border. Riding a ground swell originating most recently in the Bush administration, and seemingly continuing through the present one, the company’s owner is right to expect continued growth. As The City Paper explains, “Crackdowns against illegal immigration are helping to grow a new line of business for PTS—sending planes full of deportees back to their home countries and continents.”

In all honesty, it is not so difficult to understand why such business is celebrated, even held up as an exemplar of ideal entrepreneurialism. After all, who can deny the significance of a company that has somehow managed to increase its profit 13-fold in the span of a few short years—in a recession no less? And so, in one sense, there is no question that PTS is most definitely “doing something right.”

Unfortunately, though, in an economy such as ours, it is all too often the case that the mark of “doing something right” in terms of financial profit is precisely the mark of doing something wrong in terms of human life and its flourishing. Of course, such isn’t the case with every entrepreneurial endeavor, which is why it is important (if we hope to become better judges of what, exactly, constitutes “good” business) to ask better questions of a company than “did it increase its profits last year?” Indeed, we might even begin with a more thorough engagement with that that age-old question: what is the measure of success?

Of course, it is rare today to find such a question asked seriously, if at all. But this should be no surprise, for it is risky—dangerous, even—to call into question what philosopher Cornel West calls our “tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions,” especially when doing so might very well jeopardize not only our business’ bank account, but the very systems whose purpose it is to maintain the profitability of such business in the first place. For while it is most definitely the nature of “good” business to take certain risks, it is most definitely not the nature of “good” business to take the risk of self-examination; institutions, by their very nature, are in the business of self-perpetuation at any cost, and self-perpetuation, by definition, excludes the asking of questions.

Therefore, in the spirit of what we might call truly “good” entrepreneurialism, let us endeavor to take our own risk. For it would be anything but risky to simply echo the praises of The City Paper toward what it considers to be an exemplar of successful entrepreneurialism. Likewise, it would be playing it just as safe to react in a demonizing, self-righteous, fire-and-brimstone posture toward the company at hand. Indeed, both responses allow narrow emotional impulses to eclipse the more important task of critical reflection. In moving beyond these rather mundane options, let us opt instead for a more thorough—and perhaps more difficult—examination of what exactly is going on beneath the surface-level of our perceptions when a company makes its profit off the imprisonment and deportation of human beings.

*     *     *

To start, it is important to acknowledge that companies like PTS don’t just originate from scratch. By no means the first to make a profit off the transportation of prisoners and the deportation of illegal immigrants, PTS (along with similar companies) is the grease that keeps what is often referred to as the “prison-industrial complex” running. The prison-industrial complex, loosely defined, is the multi-faceted network of companies and organizations that keep both state and local correctional facilities operating by offering their services on a for-profit basis. Existing independently from the state itself, companies that comprise the prison-industrial complex make their profit by doing the job of the government, only more efficiently and effectively, as an outside party. Since it is in the best interest of the state to get the job done well, it makes sense to outsource their work to for-profit businesses rather than taking on the burden of paying workers internally out of what seem to be constantly diminishing budgets. And just as in the equally omniscient “military-industrial complex”, there is serious profit to be made in a country like the United States where the annual military budget (upwards of $600 billion for 2010) and the number of incarcerated men and women (over 2 million in recent years—nearly 25% of the world’s inmates) far surpasses every other country on the globe.

Indeed, crime is good for business.

Now on one hand, it could be argued that contracting out the work of the prison system in this way—thereby resulting in the very creation and sustaining of the prison-industrial complex as we know it—is in the best interest of the economy as a whole: it creates jobs and allows various pocket niches to emerge in the marketplace, leading to more competition, which is the foundation of any capitalist system. And to be sure, in a recessed economy, the creation of jobs is crucial—not to mention jobs that appear to make our communities safer by punishing offenders of the law.

But there is another side to this coin which demands serious reflection.

To begin with, it is important to note that a system (i.e., the criminal-justice system) becomes an industry when its core elements—“justice”, “correction”, and, most importantly, human subjects—are transformed into commodities and goods. And in order for something to be conceived of as a commodity or good, it must first be reduced from whatever it was prior to a “raw material” to be used in the “free”, unrestrained exchange which takes place in the marketplace. Thus, when the criminal-justice system is transformed from a site of (supposed) “justice” and “correction” into a marketplace, men and women who have offended the law are transformed from subjects into objects—no longer primarily men and women, but the raw goods of industry and market. In this setup, prisoners of the state are identified not only by their assigned number, they are even identified, as raw materials, into those numbers and statistics which make up end-of-year business report sheets, thus existing as numbers (at least) twice over.

Thus, we might make the observation that the prison-industrial complex is in the business of transformation: the transformation of human subjects into raw materials; the transformation of crime into a site of profit-making; and the transformation of “justice”, “correction”, and prison itself into the realm of market and economic exchange. Of course, the prison-industrial complex might also purport itself as effecting transformation: the transformation of crime-committing individuals into “corrected” (non-crime-committing) individuals, creating jobs in the process; the transformation of society from a state of danger at the hands of criminals to a state of relative safety at their being locked away, creating profit in the process—in short, the harmless utilization of business and market for the purpose of transforming injustice into justice.

So which transformation is it? In order to ascertain, we must make another observation. When a person or thing undergoes transformation, they are fundamentally changed, made into someone or something new, seen in a whole new light. The question truly worth asking, however, is does the act of transformation increase or decrease the inherent dignity of the person or thing? Certainly, the prison-industrial complex and its network of businesses (like PTS) effects transformation—but, I would suggest, a dangerous sort of transformation: the transformation of persons, places and things into raw materials and expendable objects to be used in the making of profit. Indeed, without such minimizing acts of transformation, businesses within the prison-industrial complex would not only suffer, they would cease to exist, for the sustenance of the whole system depends upon it.

Now it would be a mistake here to paint in strokes so broad that the finer details of a complex system are overlooked. Indeed, it would be an even graver mistake to mirror the very diminishment I am here accusing the prison-industrial complex of by diminishing the very men and women who manage and operate such facilities. As St. Paul instructs, the problem is not so much flesh and blood, men and women; the real problem is those forces, those powers and principalities, those systems and institutions whose sole purpose is self-perpetuation and profit, whose “spirit” is such that it cannot apprehend the complex reality of human life.

So on one hand, it is appropriate to acknowledge that good things do often arise out of those institutions which make up the prison-industrial complex: rehabilitation, job-training, education, and so on. However, it would be a mistake to concede that such things comprise the heart and soul of the industry. On the contrary, the heart of the industry would cease its beating if its core mission was truly the rehabilitation of individuals, for the rehabilitation of individuals cannot exist in the same space as the systematic diminishment and reduction of individuals—which is precisely what keeps the wheels of the industry turning.

Indeed, if we can be certain of one thing, it is that the spirit which makes such rehabilitation possible is not the same spirit which makes its profit off the systematic diminishment and objectification of men and women. For authentic rehabilitation and restoration do not even compute to a system whose “bottom line” (increased profit) excludes the possibility of engaging its raw materials (prisoners) as dignified persons. Authentic rehabilitation is not the product of a system that can only operate as a diminishing force; authentic rehabilitation is a seed that subverts such systems. And the fact that such seeds are allowed access to such systems is, for me, a source of great hope: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

*     *     *

If it is true, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, that “language is the house of being,” then there is much to learn from looking to the ways in which language is used (or misused) in the lexicon of the prison-industrial complex. To follow Heidegger’s metaphor for a moment, it might be said that one can “be” in a “house” in one of two ways: either inhabiting it with full and serious attention—to its foundations, its architecture, learning to make of it not just a house, but a home—or with apathy, interested in little more than the mere fact of four walls and a roof, unable to take it seriously as a space that shapes and forms us. The former understands language as a gift to be handled with care, as all gifts are to be handled; the latter relates to language as it relates to all other objects: as a tool to be manipulated and discarded along the path to self-perpetuation.

The prison-industrial complex, more often than not, fits into the latter category. And there is a notable irony to the fact of their carelessness with language: as a system which claims to operate as an executer of “justice”, the prison-industrial complex is guilty of failing to take the word “justice” seriously enough. Not only does it exhibit a lack of imagination with words like “justice”, it follows suit with much of its core vocabulary. Allow me to explain.

To start, when it comes to a more authentic vision of “justice”, I find the prophets Amos and Jeremiah to be helpful guides. As they see it, one cannot be “righteous” (one who fosters justice, one who makes things right) before God if, on their way to the synagogue (or church, or mosque), they trample upon a poor beggar, or sell him in exchange for a pair of sandals (transforming a poor person into a raw material to be used for profit). Likewise, if one praises God for the gift of a beautiful home, with spacious halls and walls made of the finest wood, and yet pays his workers a wage so meager they could never live off it, then their praise is nothing more than what St. Paul might call “clanging cymbals” or “a resounding gong” in the ears of God.

We might then question what sort of system it is that claims to foster “justice” by means of the definitively unjust act of diminishing human persons into the raw materials of business. In short, the answer is: an unjust system. Too, we might even question the authenticity of “correction” if the means of correcting is only possible thanks to the sort of entrepreneurialism that thrives off higher crime rates and deportations. How just, how correcting, can a system be if it depends upon the transformation of men and women into raw materials, the transformation of subjects into objects?

Such a separation of ends and means effectively results in the breakdown of language: if we fail to take our language seriously enough, more and more of our language fails to pack any punch, to make any lasting difference; such language fails to make physically manifest the fullness of what we evoke with our words. The same effect can be seen in the lives of politicians: for many politicians, language is a tool to be used and discarded for the purpose of self-perpetuation. As a result, word and deed are separated, which results in all sorts of scandal.

So what we discover in the language of the prison system—as well as those businesses which make a profit off its smooth running—is that conceiving of “correction” or “justice” in these terms is to exhibit a failure of imagination. Now if “justice” is primarily achieved by way of retribution, of equalizing wrongdoing with equal wrongdoing (violence for violence, an eye for an eye), then the prison-industrial complex fosters justice. But I would argue that conceiving of justice or correction in these terms is to fail to envision something richer, more peculiar, and altogether more redeeming.

Thus, in a paradoxical twist, we discover that what really needs to be made right, to be corrected just as much as those men and women who have offended the law in very real and serious ways, is the very system which claims the execution of “justice” and “correction” as its own.

*     *     *

It has been said that “an enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.” If we hear an enemy’s story, chances are, they will cease to be our enemy. And since having an enemy to loathe and fear helps fuel much of what passes as politics in our world, it follows that there is not a whole lot of storytelling or listening going on. And indeed, it is a great deal easier to keep enemies rather than submit ourselves to the vulnerability of standing in someone else’s shoes for even a moment. To make ourselves vulnerable to the ways in which other people live, to the dark and messy complexity of their sometimes grievous histories and contexts (enemies, prisoners, “illegal aliens”, homeless individuals), is to submit ourselves to a death of sorts—the death of our “unarticulated presuppositions,” our limited worldviews, our solipsistic prejudices about the ways of the world.

In like manner to the quote above, Will Campbell says that anyone “who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” The social, economic, spiritual, historical, and geographical factors that give rise to such things as crime (and tragedy) are such that a black-and-white system of retributive punishment—a form of “taking of sides”—will never be effective in either rehabilitating or restoring an individual. Since the factors which give rise to crime—and illegal immigration for that matter—are infinitely complex, it follows that our responses ought to be more complex, more nuanced, which means being vulnerable, flexible, and open to failure. Such may be foolishness to the world, and baffling to those systems which claim to execute justice, but it is the sort of foolishness so peculiar that it is in fact the very fullness of wisdom—a foolishness the world cannot do without.

In the end, it is important to recognize that human diminishment is the root of all violence. Whether the more explicit violence of crimes like assault or murder, or the more subtle violence of reducing complex individuals into flat, objective numbers or commodities, it all begins with the act of diminishment. Thus, when a person enters prison for a violent (or non-violent) crime, they are handed violence in return—not necessarily a violence as explicit as the kind they may be in prison for, but a more subtle, more systemic and insidious form of violence. Anywhere human beings are diminished, made invisible, their dignity rendered irrelevant or nonexistent, then, regardless of whether anyone has been inflicted with physical harm or not, violence has been done. It is for this reason that a “justice” system which operates on the basis of human diminishment can never actually be “just”, for true justice does not diminish human beings, no matter how “criminal” they may be. True justice restores, rehabilitates, and resurrects; true justice “makes things right” by remembering that all human beings are beloved—by re-membering those who have been dismembered from the rest of society.

So what does this wider vision of correction, this more authentic, more foolish (wise) model of justice look like? For starters, it begins with self-critical reflection. If I hope to adequately judge what makes for authentic justice, I have to begin with myself. For just like those who claim to execute justice but actually inhibit it, I too am guilty of a separation of word and deed, of ends and means. If I am willing to acknowledge my own unjust ways of being in the world, to examine, as well, what it is that gives rise to such behavior, I will also be willing to make myself vulnerable enough to acknowledge the reasons that cause others to inhibit justice, and to act mercifully in response. Because in reality, listening well is more important than speaking well, confession is more subversive than accusation, and allowing ourselves to be made vulnerable is more powerful than making ourselves strong.

Once we’ve acknowledged our complicity in the unjust systems of the world (when we “take sides” in situations in which it is, in reality, impossible to do so), it becomes more possible to treat those who work within systems such as the prison-industrial complex with greater dignity, realizing that it is not individuals but institutions that are the real perpetrators of injustice. Thus, in the end, it is a matter of either submitting to the inevitability of such systems and thus remaining complicit, or taking the risk of choosing another way.

As for those who have chosen another way, I am grateful to count many of them as friends. I am thinking of those who harbor enough foolishness to practice contemplative prayer with those men who sit on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, those men who wait for their name to be called, their day of death to be determined. I am thinking of those who break bread and drink wine with those the state has condemned as criminals, untouchable, the ultimate sinners. I am thinking of those who are mad enough to think it a worthwhile use of time to spend countless hours advocating for those whose very presence within our borders is literally defined as “illegal”. I am thinking of those who have made it their vocation to create opportunities for education within a prison’s walls—education that dignifies and illuminates, and even subverts. They are the witnesses to a more imaginative manifestation of what is called justice, and I count them as those men and women faithful enough to hold such a small candle against such a mighty wind and an overwhelming darkness.

On a more personal level, when my wife and I sit in a circle reading poetry and talking about how language works with those of our friends who live within the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women, we are not sitting with raw materials or even with “prisoners”—we are sitting with beautiful, complex, and intelligent women. When I sit at my desk to write a letter, when I open the mailbox and see the return address (name and prisoner number both), when I open the envelope and read what has been written—the poetry, the creative non-fiction—and receive the bright spark of human connection, I am not skimming my eyes over the invisible voice of a stranger, I am receiving the presence of a friend.

In the midst of these experiences—both my own and those of my peers—I have encountered a fascinating truth. When a person convicted of a crime enters prison, they are given a new name—their prisoner number, and by it they are theretofore identified. Likewise, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, when a person (convicted of sin) enters the kingdom, they are also given a new name (Jacob/Israel, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul, for example). In the kingdom, a new name is a sign of belovedness; in prison, however, a new name is a sign of nothingness. One gives life, the other takes it a way; one illuminates, the other diminishes. The wisdom of those who visit people in prison is that they possess the foolishness by which to proclaim a deeper truth within a context that does not know what to do with such truth: the truth that each man and woman behind those prison walls is not primarily a number, a “criminal”, or a raw material, but a name, a face, and a beloved child of God.

*     *     *

To bring our discussion of PTS and the nature of the prison-industrial complex full circle, let us make a few final observations. First, let us say that an entrepreneur is a person of faith. Possessing the willingness to risk personal wellbeing and security by stepping out into the unknown (starting or purchasing a company that could very well fail, for instance), an entrepreneur leaps through the darkest corners of the marketplace knowing that outcomes are never quite predictable. And yet, because, in a certain sense, they “hope in things not seen,” entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk anyway.

Let us say, also, to channel the German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that there is not one, but at least two kinds of faith: “cheap” faith and “costly” faith. Cheap faith is the sort of faith understood within the parameters of personal reward: how will my risk-taking benefit me? What is the payoff? Costly faith, on the other hand, is concerned less with what personal reward lies on the other side of our risk-taking, and more with how our risk-taking brings life to others—even if it costs us our own life. Cheap faith asks what’s in it for me? Costly faith knows better than to ask such a question (because the answer could very well be death) and chooses instead to ask what’s in it for others?

Thus, it is high time, once again, to ask: what is the measure of success? If our answer is summed up with the question “did they increase their profits last year?”, then our measure of success is not only inadequate, it lacks imagination.

Truly good entrepreneurialism, truly good business, contrary to popular belief, is not mutually exclusive with the fostering of human flourishing in all sorts of places, or even with good profit and financial growth. But at the same time, good profit and financial growth is all for naught if it doesn’t submit itself to something outside itself, namely others, especially those on the margins of society.

Therefore, let those whose expertise is in money and markets and business leap into the unknown; let them take risks, let them have faith in what is not yet seen. But—in the name of God—let it be faith that is not cheap but costly. Though it flies in the face of what is called “success” by the rest of the world, it is my conviction that history will indeed prove it to be successful, though a different, more foolish sort of success. Indeed, such “success” is not without its own reward, for the reward lies precisely in the moment when prisoners of the state and “illegal” aliens cease to become objects and raw materials, and are transformed once again into men and women, into individuals with stories to tell—if only we come close enough to listen.

Trembling for Transformation, Confessing for Justice: Reflections on the Disaster in Haiti

By Andrew Krinks (Originally published in The Contributor, Issue 23, February 2010)

[Photos by TJ McCloud]

When first confronted with the devastating reality of the events which took place in Haiti on January 12th, it was difficult to know what sort of sound to utter first. Truth be told, bombarded as we are by what so often turn out to be nothing more than ‘pseudo-events’—manufactured “news” that sells but cultivates no redeeming conversation or transformation—I am cautious about investing myself too heavily in the headlines of the day. But hearing the unspeakable numbers in the initial reports that Tuesday evening (45,000 to 50,000 dead), allowing them to settle first in the ear, then in the heart, and sensing the heavy timbre of the news reporters’ voices, it wasn’t long before the gravity of the situation became clear.

Since that first night, when tens of thousands of Haitians were killed immediately, and when tens of thousands more already-poor Haitians became instantly homeless, the situation has only grown worse. Only a week later, the number of expected dead has risen into the hundreds of thousands as much-needed aid coming from around the world is forced through the narrow bottleneck at the Port-au-Prince air and sea ports, leaving untold masses of hungry, homeless, injured, and dying Haitians in frantic waiting. Meanwhile, the time for finding any trapped persons still alive in the wreckage is now all but passed.

The stories coming from various news sources have colored the situation painfully dire: the lone family member wandering collapsed concrete jungles in search of lost loved ones; the bed-ridden hospital patient whose family hasn’t shown up since the earthquake struck; the mass graves of unclaimed dead in a country where funeral rites are among the most sacred; the newly-risen shantytowns with S.O.S. signs pleading for help—but with no help whatsoever available; the portable medical clinics abandoned by U.N. workers due to safety protocol, leaving patients to wait in pain with a lone news reporter looking on; the men and women with open wounds and broken bones pleading outside the Doctors Without Borders tent-clinics to be seen, while the doctors themselves wait with empty hands for supplies to be shipped in; and the list is literally—maddeningly—endless. Even as aid and its distribution is established more effectively in Haiti, the task of full restoration will remain a serious challenge for a long, long time.

And though they will forever remain faceless and nameless to the rest of the world, we can imagine those who live on the margins of an already-marginalized country. We can try to imagine their loneliness in this hour—as well as the loneliness of those on the outskirts of the city’s center where the quake struck, those who will receive aid last. We can try as best we can to imagine their plight, but in cases such as these, our imaginations will fail to apprehend the depth of the desperation at hand.

And so I am still asking myself: what words are there to utter in such moments? At least for a time, silence may be our only means of a reverent, compassionate articulation—the space between our words meaning more than the words themselves in such situations. But if, after our stunned silence, words should come, a good question to ask ourselves before we speak is: are they words which could be uttered in the presence of a mother weeping outside her demolished home where her children are trapped inside? Are they words which could be offered to the upturned face of a young man searching the stacks of bodies strewn along the road for members of his family? If we have faith enough, we will allow ourselves to tremble before such a grave task, to be haunted by the humanity of Haitians both living and dead, to sympathize, to suffer with those caught in the grip of death. If we have faith enough, we will find the courage to keep from looking away—not out of a captivated voyeurism, but out of a deep welling within us that longs for healing to come quickly.

If, on the other hand, we wish to see what should happen when we fail to get on our knees before such devastation, we need look no further than our well-known televangelists and political commentators, who, rather than aligning their speech with the depth of suffering at hand, have responded in the pitiful strain of men too afraid to enter with their whole hearts and minds the plight of their neighbors. But really, who can blame them? After all, it’s a great deal easier to speculate from a distance on the metaphysical causes of suffering and its foreseeable effects than it is to face suffering head on, to reach out—whether literally or imaginatively—and touch it with one’s own hands. But this is no easy task, for there is safety in separation, but danger in intimacy; clarity in autonomy, but confusion in vulnerability; comfort in averting the grief that comes with standing face to face with tragedy, injustice, and death, but bitter pain in stepping into it.

Now of course, to simply watch the news or read the detailed reports of the hellish aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake is not to fully embody the suffering of our Haitian neighbors. And yet, something sacred takes place when we allow ourselves to be afflicted by the affliction of others. As people of various forms of hope and faith believe, suffering is the site of God’s breaking into our world—whether through the restlessness of exile and oppression or the sheer violence and emptiness of the cross. Furthermore, in both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures, we learn that to entertain the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the marginalized—those who suffer—is to entertain God himself. The void of suffering and oppression is where the divine is made manifest. Indeed, it is a major paradox of life and faith that there can only be hope and healing once we have passed through this darkness. There are even those who would suggest that the darkness itself is precisely where we discover the divine, not just on the other side of it. If this is true, then far from being absent, we can trust, though it may seem impossible, that the spirit of God is at work in Haiti. Indeed, as a country that has long suffered the darkness of oppression, we can be sure that God, whoever s/he may be, was there long before the earthquake, and remains there today—in both the bloodied hands and feet of Haitian victims and in those hands and feet that work to mend them.

*     *     *

I recently attended a prayer and lament service for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. There is a rich legacy within the various faith traditions in which lamenting and crying out to God against needless suffering and death is understood as an act of deep faith. From the Psalms of Hebrew scripture (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to God himself, in Jesus of Nazareth, echoing the same words of abandonment at the moment of his own death, the cry of lament is an important one to people of faith. For to ask God “how could you let this happen?” is not to turn one’s back to God but to face him head on in the passion of grief, in the yearning for things to be made right. Furthermore, the act of crying out in prayer and tears against needless suffering and injustice has the strange tendency of compelling our hands and feet to move towards actually mending the wounds at hand, toward concrete acts of mercy that give way to justice. Indeed, it might even be said that one can only work to alleviate the plight of their neighbors after they have first acknowledged and then stood in the presence of that neighbor long enough to be shaken by their plight. As the best of our prophets, ancient and contemporary alike, teach us, we can only begin the process of restoration and healing after we have first taken the time to kneel before the darkness of suffering and grief, allowing it to send its terrible tremor through our very bones.

So when the time of prayer and lament at the aforementioned service changed abruptly near its close to jubilant praise and worship, something didn’t feel quite right. It seemed hurried, inappropriate. I couldn’t help but imagine the battered, newly-homeless, already-poor victims of Haiti’s earthquake sitting next to me in the pew. How would these songs strike them, I wondered? Could they find it in them to sing along to these hope-filled words with wounds still so fresh? Could they feasibly wrap their minds around anything other than the terror of the present moment? Though there are certainly those Haitians (a historically resilient and deeply religious people) of such peculiarly strong faith that praise and thanksgiving have been their first response, it is difficult to comprehend such jubilant singing while death still abounds so recklessly. So because I could not help that night but keep my mind fixed upon Haitians deep in the midst of suffering, my longing for a deeper solidarity with them trumped any urge to sing my way to hope too quickly. But bitter lament and mournful solidarity with those suffering now does not mean that singing will not come. On the contrary, voices will be lifted and praise will be offered—but only in time.

While I certainly don’t condemn my brothers and sisters who are blessed to be capable of such a hope-filled posture in the midst of tragedy, I would urge that in moments such as these, we resist the tendency to hurry so quickly from the darkness of grief and anxiety; for if we attempt to avert the grief of suffering, the relief and ‘hope’ we rush toward on the other side lies in serious danger of functioning as little more than a farce. Though the person of faith can have no faith without the hope of restoration and renewal, there are times when we must have faith so deep that we trust that our acts of grief and suffering—long as they sometimes last—will, in fact, be the very means by which we are transformed and energized, rather than seeking to escape or short-circuit their brutality. With time, hope comes, and singing, and renewal. But if, in our fear of the void, we skip over grieving, the hope which does come may be insufficient in bringing about a lasting transformation. For grief and healing do not exist in separate spheres but on the very same continuum, as one gives way to the other over and over again in the various deaths and births of life—even now, even in Haiti.

We may say, then, that there can be no transformation without first trembling at the loneliness, the terror of suffering. This is a task far easier said than done, but, especially for those of us who will not encounter the actual suffering firsthand, it is important that we engage in the best solidarity we can muster: not looking hurriedly ahead to hope in such a way that we forget to address the hurt which is taking place right now. For the hurt which is taking place right now, far from being a lightning bolt of divine judgment against a deserving people, is the result of a dark history in which human power has forced an entire nation of people into a posture of economic, social, and geopolitical weakness. As many writers and journalists have pointed out in the last few weeks, had this earthquake struck a better-developed civilization (as they have in recent history), the death and destruction would have been substantially less desperate.

Thanks be to God, the overwhelming response from all corners of the globe has seen millions upon millions of dollars poured out in support of those organizations working on the ground in Haiti to mend the medical, architectural, infrastructural, and spiritual wounds there. This charitable giving is one hundred percent indispensible; without it, Haiti would be in far worse condition than it already is. It is also crucial that those on the ground be as well-organized as humanly possible, and that they act quickly in this time of desperate need. But there is an oft-unrecognized danger inherent to such charitable giving—namely that, in our immediate flood of compassion, an unacknowledged past will give way to history repeated.

It is for this reason, then, that we may make another claim: there can be no justice without confession. But what is there to acknowledge, and what to confess? Haiti is often referred to as ‘the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.’ But one does not have to be an economist, or even a Marxist, however, to understand that such poverty does not simply come about as the result of poor choices on the part of its citizens or even by supposedly corrupt leaders (or by deals with the devil), but by all manner of colonial and imperialist actions on the part of the world’s superpowers, as well as by complex and finely-nuanced systems of economic domination. To be certain, the devil is not far from such activity—only not in the way folklore legends propounded by televangelists would have us understand it.

The following, though only cursory, are among some of the details which must be acknowledged. Starting with the landing of European colonizers in the 15th century to French colonial occupation in the 18th century, up through a United States invasion of Haiti in the early 20th century, the country has existed, in some form or another, under the thumb of foreign powers for centuries. Following its slave rebellion and subsequent independence in the late 18th century (after the example of other newly independent nations), Haiti has been mired by corruption from both within and without: ‘within’ because its various leaders and dictators have played a role in the country’s poverty and mass killings of certain segments of the population; ‘without’ because many of those leaders were installed by way of internationally sponsored coups and invasions.

To illustrate, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, once a Catholic priest who endorsed liberation theologies which favored the uplifting of the poor and destitute, first elected in 1990, was ousted from the presidency by members of his own government and flown into exile only a year after his inauguration. In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter helped arrange to have Aristide re-instated as president. Then, in 2000, after the intermittent presidency of now-current President René Préval, Aristide was re-elected, only to be removed four years later by way of a paramilitary coup/kidnapping, this time by U.S. Marine forces.

In the six years since then, Haiti has been stricken with terrible political instability and turmoil, the result, in no small part, of the evolution of a global market whose policies have left the nation on the underside of the rest of the world’s prosperity. For instance, foreign investment in the area of agriculture has resulted in the pushing of rural farmers into overcrowded hillside and village slums and shantytowns, unable to support themselves with the work they once depended upon for survival. Furthermore, foreign trade and world market arrangements are such that Haiti’s destitution and impotence in regards to bettering its own situation by enabling its own people to prosper are scandalously frozen in place without any sign of change.

The United Nations has also been a felt presence in recent years with a mission described as one of peacekeeping, but which, it has been argued, serves, in effect, only to pacify violence without building up or developing the nation either economically or politically. In addition, many of those U.N. nations now so generously sending an impressive array of resources also happen to be the same countries that have consistently denied Haiti the opportunity to receive the sort of long-term aid that would help build up the country’s economy and infrastructure—an infrastructure now so poorly-developed that an earthquake that elsewhere would have caused minimal damage has in Haiti directly contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Statistics also show that 75% of Haitians live on less than $2.00 a day. As a result, shantytowns and slums abound in the inner cities, whose shoddy architectural designs are in no small part responsible for the ever-growing death toll in the wake of the earthquake. As a number of people working with these socio-political circumstances in Haiti have pointed out, this socio-economic arrangement, and the massive death and injury which have resulted from it, is neither natural nor just.

While our current aid efforts are more than indispensible, if we do not first acknowledge these historical realities and confess our complicity in their perpetuation, then Haiti will be mired in a charity which offers relief and saves lives, but does little to nourish the likelihood of renewed, sustainable human flourishing across the nation in the years to come. Sending money and resources to begin mending the destruction in Haiti is entirely necessary and crucial. But if we are to think along the lines of long-term development in the aftermath of the quake, charity is akin, in the well-worn metaphor, to ‘giving a man a fish.’ Justice, on the other hand, has a two-fold task. First, it is to teach a man how to fish: empower him to know how to use the resources at hand to make his and his community’s flourishing a very real and achievable possibility. But when the context within which this man stands at the river with a fishing pole is such that even a new skill set can’t ward off his poverty and oppression, then we are confronted with the second task: to go upstream to figure out who’s contaminating the river. Who are they and why have they been allowed to do it for so long? What part have I played in creating a world in which such actions go unnoticed or without reprimand? What sort of sickness is it that keeps us from looking after our neighbors? What will we do to redeem and reform this situation?

If international leaders will allow it, the devastation of this situation can give birth to a situation in which past oppression can be reversed and redeemed. But in order for this sort of justice to be born, it is crucial that our acts of confession and acknowledgement be followed by a deliberately weak posture of giving aid. To put it another way, if a more holistic flourishing is to unfold in Haiti in the aftermath of this tragedy, it will be the result of others coming under their Haitian neighbors, rather than over them. It will be the result of compassionate neighbors working with the people of Haiti to help build a more sustainable and well-nourished country—not by giving hand-out after hand-out, but by listening and allowing themselves to be vulnerable to the complex needs of a long-oppressed people.

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The French philosopher-mystic-activist Simone Weil writes that “affliction compels us to recognize as real what we do not think possible.” In the case of the tragedy in Haiti, those who are trapped in the heart of an all but collapsed country have been forced to recognize the fierce, unrelenting power of death. But for those of us whose affliction is only secondhand—an affliction borne of compassion for our Haitian brothers and sisters—the recognition of a reality we didn’t think possible ought also to be the recognition of a reality that has long existed but which, due to the conniving hand that writes history, we have hardly known. That reality is a dark one: colonial exploitation which has evolved into contemporary postcolonial and economic oppression all in the name of foreign trade, humanitarian ‘aid’, and U.N. protocol—‘laws’ which, in seeking to uphold justice, actually inhibit it. Because while the law intends to make justice possible, justice cannot be contained by man-made structures and codes. Justice is not a containable entity but an ever-unraveling event whose unfolding we are ever-welcomed to struggle for and celebrate. It is for this reason that our work with the newly-homeless population of Haiti ought not look like the law, whose impotence allows for those working in the name of justice and charity to leave victims dying on stretchers because of safety protocol. Justice driven by love knows no bounds, and will likely seem reckless and dangerous to the rest of the world—but boundless love and justice are exactly what is needed in a crisis as dire as this one.

Along with that, it is crucial that the mending of wounds—both literal and figurative—in Haiti be not divorced from the sort of creative action and work that enables Haitians to emerge from the devastation newly-empowered to live in a way that makes human flourishing more possible in the long-term. The fostering of such livelihood can and must be nurtured at the local and individual level, but it is crucial first that those who have played a role in squelching the potential of such flourishing in Haiti come to the table with confession on their lips—confession to their complicity with a dark history of colonial rule and covert economic oppression. As for those leaders within Haiti who are partly to blame (God knows the web of responsibility is multi-faceted and extends beyond any single party), perhaps a confession from outside of their borders will create the space necessary for them to echo with the same in the name of a more honest future.

But the call to confession also resonates among those of us who are not politicians or foreign trade analysts or historians. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not asked better questions of our elected leaders and lauded business people. We have not asked how our acquisition of goods and wealth affects unseen others. We have not loved with our whole hearts those who live under the thumb of the principalities and powers, the spirits of darkness who are made flesh in history in the form of governments and economic institutions. We are complicit because we have not answered the cry of suffering with anything other than our indifference. May we take the time to tremble before—to lament—the devastating suffering in Haiti. For it is in trembling and lament that we are enabled to sympathize, to suffer with, more purely and wholly. Out of such sympathy and compassion, it is crucial that time and money, knowledge and resources are poured toward those in need.

But the task does not end there. If the world community’s current acts of mending in the country of Haiti are to have a lasting effect, more of us must confess, must witness to, our complicity in a history which has led to the devastatingly immediate collapse of an entire country—not just homes and national infrastructure, but human lives—in the hope that such a confession will act as a redeeming light in an especially dark moment. For the person of faith knows that the suffering of death is not the final word. But another, better word can only ever be encountered if we first open ourselves to the shaping, the purging, the redeeming night of suffering, out of which life inevitably comes. Likewise, the person of faith knows that injustice is not the final word. But another, better word can only ever be encountered if we first acknowledge and confess our justice-inhibiting actions before those we have wronged, while taking steps to work with those who now suffer in such a way that when humanitarian aid workers leave, the country no longer looks like it has for centuries, but instead is equipped to flourish and thrive uninhibited by the invisible hand of economic oppression.

Thanks be to God, such confession and witness makes possible—after the necessary time of grieving and trembling—an even greater confession and witness, namely that of restoration and resurrection, even out of the midst of a tragedy as grave as the one which continues to unfold this very hour in the country of Haiti.