December 6, 2008

Matthew 25:36 (?)

I learned some disturbing and unsettling news a few weeks back and have been processing it since and trying to determine how or if to write about it.

Two young men in Itipini, both of whom were regular “characters” in my daily work there, are in jail for murder. I don’t know all the details - and haven’t tried hard to find many out - but it sounds like the victim was someone I didn’t know and the crime happened several weeks prior to their arrest. One of the young men is Petros, a young man I have written about before on this blog.

There’re several levels of response to this, all occurring more or less simultaneously:

The first is revulsion, of course, the kind most “tough on crime” folk can never seem to get past: it’s a heinous crime and if they did it (and how easily that “if” can be neglected!) they deserve everything that is coming to them. Even though I didn’t know the victim, no one deserves to be murdered.

The second is the rather unsettling feeling that I know rather well two alleged murderers. Indeed, Petros came along on our choir trip to Grahamstown and I shared a room with him. He was perfectly pleasant the entire time and, as you might recall from the post about that trip, he neatly made his bed that morning and I didn’t. If my assessment of the timeline is correct, the trip came after the crime. I shared a room with a murderer!

The third is profound disappointment that these two young men should end up in such a situation. They had the potential for much more and a much different future.

The fourth is the thought of two people I have some degree of feeling for “rotting in jail.” That is not an idle thought around here. The papers call the Mthatha prison the worst in the country - "a prison hellhole" - and the stories I have heard certainly confirm that. No one should be in a situation like that.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the best response is and have been drawing a blank. Is any action necessary and, if so, what? I asked my friend Noxolo about this - my cultural sounding board - and she was pretty frustrated with the young men: “I have tried to help them before and none of them help us out. They only care about themselves. I am finished with them.”

The only possible action I can think is visiting them in prison but bringing absolutely nothing - no money, no food, nothing - except my presence. First of all, I’m not sure that’s the right response mainly because of the general revulsion. (But Jesus is pretty clear on the importance of prisoners.) The greater hurdle is the logistical - I don’t know when visiting hours are or what sort of rules there are - and I’ve been letting those obstacles deter me for the time being. I just can’t imagine how it would work for me to pay a Xhosa-language visit to a prison when I don’t have a lot of experience with prison visits in the first place or what it would mean to them. I’ve visited patients in the hospital before and it’s just been kind of awkward and I’ve attracted even more stares than normal. (But if awkwardness and stares were my criteria for action, I’d never do anything around here!)

The upshot is that right now my indecision and doubts are sufficient hurdles to action. But I am working on breaking them down. Is that the right way to go? I’m not sure.


Michelle said...

I think that, doubts and indecision aside, there are some valid cultural concerns that would give me pause, namely that of what is culturally and even legally permitted in such a situation. Are non-family members permitted to visit? Extended family?

I think something else to consider is the process by which you would have to actually visit. If it's a linguistic barrier, are you able to overcome that with your own Xhosa, and/or are you able to find someone to go with you?

This must be such an uncomfortable position to be in, and I certainly empathize. I don't know how far away this prison is from you, but I wonder, if you are able to overcome your own doubts and the language barrier, whether a very brief visit would be in order (however you wish to define brief): Go in, tell them you'll be glad to help in any way you're able, ask if there are any messages you can bring to others, or anything you can bring them (if this is permitted), and then out.

Anonymous said...

Do what is hardest on your ego.

The easiest path is that which Noxolo chose-- to completely sever ties with the individuals involved.

As someone seeking to answer a higher calling, perhaps it's within your strength to recognize that the saint and the sinner are both within our own hearts. Though the crime is heinous, its the result of uncontrolled expression of feelings that you too have felt. Only in the renunciation of your own anger and negativity will your presence be a redemptive one. Non-coincidentally, its also only in the complete shedding of your own negativity that you become qualified to cast a stone in their direction.