Rarely do I encounter the truly aggravating religious in my day-to-day life. It is rare that the dogmatic and unpleasant (not always synonymous) intrude into everyday experience, especially not in the blunt manner forced upon me today. A home school tour visited. A tour like this is always something of a Russian roulette, with the majority pleasant blanks. Today was a bullet. The problem was not the children. They were eager, well-behaved, generally intelligent or at least inquisitive and far more patient than I would have been at a similar age. This, perhaps, is the benefit of home schooling, but it wouldn’t take long to rummage up an equal number of publicly educated children with the same characteristics.
The problem was the parents. One spent the whole time arguing with a volunteer about how useless rehabilitation of any sort was, using cooked up numbers and a complete misunderstanding of sociological information about crime to justify Biblical-style punishments. (One of the children knew the standard number of lashes given by the Romans, because they whipped Jesus). I was faced with a woman who repeatedly told me how crucial religion is for prisoners, but not because it brings, say, peace of mind or guidance to a troubled soul. No, the solution was much simpler: if criminals were religious, they wouldn’t be criminals. To her, and these are nearly exact words, “Paul Bernardo would never have murdered if he was a Christian.”
Arrogance, ignorance and absolute self-certainty; these are the characteristics of a zealous fool. Let us leave aside the total lack of knowledge about the basic facts concerning one of Canada’s most notorious serial murderers. Instead, what to make of the assumption that Christians, of her sect only, do not commit murders? Presumably, any Christian that does commit a murder, then, must not have been a real Christian, just as those Communists who followed Stalin, or Trotsky, could never be true Communists. What an endlessly shifting, endlessly flexible, piece of ideological self-justification. This was married to an unremitting lack of sympathy, which could have been more aggravating or surprising if it weren’t so very common. Many people have no sympathy or even empathy with prisoners, but most people also lack the total moral certainty to resist having it pointed out that they would whine if they were ever made prisoners and denied the benefits they wish to strip from prisoners. This is a basic inability to understand that they, too, have the potential to be criminal, and very well may have already violated the law numerous times, but this attitude can be broken through, modified. Not in this woman’s case: whatever interpretation of Christianity she practiced had long ago washed doubt from her mind. What was surprising is how willing to call for torture or corporal punishment a follower of a man tortured to death can be.
Even though Al-Queda or the Taliban are often accused, inaccurately, of wanting to turn the clock back to the 7th century, the views of this Christian woman were only progressive in that she had a decidedly middle 19th century understanding of how law, justice and prisons should work. When the Upper Canada Provincial Penitentiary finally recruited its first two permanent chaplains, one Catholic and one Protestant, their views as Christian men of the highest calibre would have meshed nicely with this modern woman of God. The new Catholic chaplain, Angus MacDonnell was notoriously hardheaded and constantly at odds with the penitentiary establishment. He refused, to his credit, to be sworn in, opposing the desire of the warden and inspectors to have a “subservient or ‘Erastian’ chaplaincy” (Oliver 216) that would serve the needs of security by reporting on the prisoners, recording and sharing their confessions, “a daily journal…open for the perusal of the Inspectors” (9 Regulations 1856) and constantly endeavoring to “to convince the prisoners of the justice of their sentences, and enjoin them strict obedience to the rules of the Institution”; they were not allowed sympathy, nor even the right, by the 1851 or 1856 statute, to “interfere to procure the release of any Convict, nor shall they give him or her any hope or promise of aid,” write for the prisoners or with “no intelligence whatever other than what spiritual duties require.”. On the other hand, MacDonnell eagerly attempted to segregate Catholic and Protestant prisoners and called for ‘sectarian officers’: the inspectors, Nelson and Dickson, at the very least, affirmed that the penitentiary would be “run ‘on broad Christian principles’” and thus would not discriminate on the basis of faith.
Not the MacDonnell was really that opposed to the methods by which the prison was run. He opposed executive pardons, for instance, and was a stern and unremitting supporter of the disciplinary system set up at the Penitentiary. He opposed schools because “the condition of the convicts… is better, and the means of acquiring knowledge greater,” than the general citizens, a complaint often heard today (but fundamentally flawed: MacDonnell would never have supported welfare, for instance, and this form of negative solidarity, in which everyone must be brought down or prisoners treated worse while nothing is done, for say, the elderly or unemployed, is surprisingly typical). MacDonnell also believed that the convicts, confined to 2’ by 7’ cells, worked twelve-hour days and fed meatless soup, oatmeal and bread for food, were “better fed and better clothed” than free citizens, and he supported harsh punishments like the cats and rawhide whip because “if not morally reformed, the very dread of it will become a salutary check upon their evil propensities.” He believed the rising crime and murder rate in the Canadas was caused largely by the lack of severe discipline in prisons, because prisoners could no longer be whipped for talking, whistling or singing, for instance. MacDonnell was grossly out of step with even the penitentiary philosophy of the 1850’s (!) and denounced the “maudlin sentimentalities” of reformers and the “insane clamour” of an “ignorant press” that must have exaggerated how bad conditions were. (Oliver 222) (quotes here from Peter Oliver’s Terror to Evil-Doers: Prisons and Punishments in Nineteenth-Century Ontario)
The chaplaincy in Canadian institutions is not run like this anymore, and MacDonnell would loath the focus on rehabilitation and the removal of coercive punishments in federal penitentiaries. But the eagerness of this Christian woman to return to the model that was never good enough for Angus MacDonnell, chaplain in the 1850’s at what is now Kingston Penitentiary, should be cause for alarm. This is very close to the ideology of the current Conservative government in Canada, focussed on punishment and ‘Law and Order’ and hatred of rehabilitation and run by Evangelicals and those supported by or sympathetic to Evangelicals. The most surprising outcome of this visit, though, was to discover that one of the volunteers both is a Christian, a Baptist specifically, and that he is the polar opposite of these homeschooling Christians; he even called them, at one point, ‘peckerheads.’ This volunteer goes to a church because he likes the pastor, but unfortunately hates the stuffy, status-obsessed and snobby congregation, overcome by petty morality and the outward appearance of religiosity. Because he arrives late, snacks before entering and seems genuinely interested in religion, he has become the enemy. Worse still, he dared once to tell a particularly stuck-up woman that she was “a mistake” on God’s part; he couldn’t believe the Lord would choose such a thoroughly un-Christian messenger. Suffice it to say, he has not made friends.
But this volunteer is also a reminder of why the unremitting anti-clericalism of some atheists turns me off, however much I sympathise and agree with their broad points. This event, spread over thirty minutes, was a very personal reminder that “the Church, after all, [is] more than a building, and more than the sermons and instructions of its ministers” (416) as E. P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class. It should always be remembered that “no ideology is wholly absorbed by its adherents: it breaks down in practice in a thousand ways under the criticism of impulse and of experience.” (431) Out of impulse, experience and ideology can be birthed petty despots as well as rebels.