Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, First Nations People, Iraq, Islam, Viet Nam
This week I participated in a conference here in Northwest Ontario on “Systemic Racism in the Justice System” sponsored by Aboriginal leaders and members of the justice system, lawyers, jailers, members of the community of human services and rehabilitation specialists.
As I sit at one of the 20 round tables in the well heated Best Western Hotel in Kenora, the resort capital of this region, I listen to the world views of two communities backed by hundreds and thousands of years of conviction within their hearts and minds stretch towards one another.
Our gathering is equally divided between educated white servants of the law from as far away as Toronto, and Aboriginal elders, chiefs, healers and employees of native offices all seeking a common ground. Aboriginal people speak in phrases that illuminate pain, pockets of a victimized culture which is overcoming at the cost of great personal and communal suffering. This is a people who communicate, teach and pass on their own law through stories, and make their decisions by means of consensus. Stories told in this gathering are greeted by polite silence from us, the white participants, who have not yet been wisened in the ways of truth telling through story. The courtroom and law may be similarly jarring and remote to Aboriginal peoples who speak from the heart.
I am swept into centuries past when elders, healers, warriors, male and female gathered around the sacred fire to deliberate momentous matters of community life, treaties, inappropriate behaviour and safety. The stories are prefaced by an acknowledgement of respect for the Creator, other elders and the grand circle of life in the universe that surrounds all of us. I know it will take me a generation to understand the nuances of phrases and the implications of each story teller’s words which point to deeper things. Custom, law, and spirit are interconnected in this webbed story of survival, celebration and hope, sometimes ponderous, sometimes humorous.
When technicians of the justice system are given their moments at the microphone I listen for personal stories, hints of hope and error. Finally a judge from a distant Aboriginal community admits to the gathered assembly of two peoples that his legal training prepared him little for the decisions he administers clothed in the power of the court. By now I know that both sides are reaching for a common understanding of the simple phrase, “the rule of law”. I hear others describe experiments in the court and rehabilitation that sometimes show signs of hope. I hear my white colleagues clawing to find formulas for justice that respects continuity for their law reaching back almost three thousand years to the world of Iraq.
In those forgotten days Hammurabi codified the law that first taught us, “An eye for an eye”. In those days it was reform legislation because it was better, more just and wiser than plundering and killing an entire village or people, something previously accepted to be a just recompense to an infraction. Now Hammurabi’s successors are being nudged to reform again. Armed with and sustained by their commitment to objective facts rather than gossip, rumour, or a political culture that employs a heavy hand, they stretch their minds as they learn to listen with their hearts.
As I watch and listen I remind myself that this elegant tradition of rigorous objective and adversarial legal culture and fact finding in the service of justice has laid the foundation for human and civil rights. I have been protected by this system of legal priests and their auxiliaries of my civilization, because they have created the space I needed to work out a critique of violence, state supported and private.
What is more difficult for me to hold and admit, though I must, is that this rational system that has protected so many in other contexts, rests upon an underbelly of violence. Across the Americas the primary engagement of Aboriginal people with white colonial and legal civilization has been the experience of physical violence, deceit and treachery used against their communities. And it is not yet over.
I do not doubt that many practitioners of the law, want to do right. I listen as they describe circles of latitude for punishment of offenders. Occasionally the story tellers, and drummers/singers who open each session come forward like messengers from another world to awaken the professional servants of the criminal justice system. Another story from the heart reminds me that I am a child of enlightened reason, and that my thought process is different from the multilateral thinking that incorporates justice as part of the whole universe of spirit and life.
“Working Together For a Change” shouts out at me from the T-Shirt handed out by the organizers. Its multiple meanings appeal to me. For those who have eyes to see, it allows the reader/hearer to grow as far as she or he can at this time in the circle of life. For those of us working together for the first time, that is already a change. For others of us the word, change, hints at the great mountain before us that we are all invited to climb the mountain of overcoming racism. Despite our feelings of entrapment in the legal system, the journey requires us to climb that mountain together. It’s a way that may occasionally be helped by the law, but only if it incorporates the deeper stuff of spirituality, confession, discipline, hope, truth telling and probably civil disobedience so that a genuine rule of law might someday prevail.
My mind wanders from the proceedings to the Middle East and beyond, maybe because the conference reminds me of rumours of a clash of civilizations. Who decided that civilizations have to clash? The conference is taking place at the same time as NATO requests more soldiers for Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and their Al Queda allies.
The climb of this mountain where story tellers and lawyers work together has much to do with foreign policy. Maybe the language, clash of civilizations, is a gift from God to remind us that wisdom comes from unfamiliar places. I think of village jurgas (councils of elders) across that region of war in Pakistan and Afghanistan who resist the foreign troops. In my mind I see the circle of elders, some heavily bearded, meeting today like us in Kenora to explore their way to justice and peace as they have for centuries.
Once upon a time a great nonviolent army arose from these Pashtoon villages and, guided by their village jurgas, organized themselves as a nonviolent peace army in the independence struggle to insist that British colonialist go home. They were put down and disrespected but their efforts contributed immeasurably to the structure for peace and democracy that followed, although those who came after, often forgot their gifts and sacrifices for the common good. The commonality of Aboriginal elders here and Pashtoon jurgas in Pakistan and Afghanistan is that they have both suffered from legal systems that were put in place and sustained by state sponsored violence.
Had I summoned the courage to share my story at the conference it would have arisen out of the gift that activism brings to my journey up the mountain of hope towards overcoming racism. Our western justice system built on foundations of colonial violence, does occasionally respond to extrajudicial actions when they come from people whose life stories point to healing. We should not be surprised when we see more strident active expressions of civil disobedience across this continent. These experiments in truth do not arise from a disrespect for the ways of the heart or the laws of the mind. They arise when hearts and minds are rivetted together by a vision for the rule of law that has space for the wisdom of the ages.
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