Do you see me? Or are you just looking?

We are drawing to the end of Prisons Week (Nov 20th-26th) – something organised to promote prayer for all those involved in the nation’s prisons. The theme of the week this year is “Do you see me? Or are you just looking?”. This draws attention to the fact that prisoners are constantly watched and under surveillance, they are rarely seen. It is indeed very difficult to “see” someone in prison. There is a real security rigmarole involved in visiting and visiting rights are severely limited (part of the punishment). But the most fundamental obstacle preventing the prisoner being seen is that in being locked up they are locked out of society.

Guard Tower and Prison Walls

Guard Tower & Walls of Robben Island
which locked Nelson Mandela out for
18 years but which didn’t prevent him
from being brother through
walls of prejudice and hatred.

(photoby Joe Barbosa)

I have often invited prayer for prisoners (there are currently 87,652 men and women in UK prisons – a rise of 2424 from 12 months ago). I am usually met with the hostility of a few who insist we should be only praying for the victims of crime. They follow the sight line of the secular media: the prisoner should not be seen and his or her cry should not be echoed in our prayer.

This week, someone was telling me of her pre-ordination placement experience in a “category A” women’s prison. She recalls her feelings of consternation after her first Communion in the chapel with a congregation of about eight when she was introduced to her table companions – including a much villified serial killer. This group of women have been seen by God. They have heard good news and a certain freedom even though they now they must be locked out of a society that wishes for them only to have bad news for a harsh and punishing sentence.

This is profoundly challenging because we share the same bread, and we drink from the same cup. We have been called companions (companions are friends who particularly share bread) and brothers and sisters. It is usually hard to imagine sitting at a table with people who aren’t our friends but God’s choice challenges these preconceptions. Instead we are challenged to see and recognise brothers, sisters and companions on the far side of dividing walls.

>Sexuality and lust

> “This is my body which is given for you.” Any Christian worshipper will recognise these words of Jesus by which he declares his love for the world because they are central to the Christian gathering. We meet round the table and celebrate that Jesus gave his body for us. The words are repeated by lovers who give themselves to one another. They could be words used in the marriage service – that would hot things up well wouldn’t it? Tim Radcliffe – in What is the Point of Being a Christian? – underlines the importance of the body in love and sexuality, and in so doing manages to distinguish between love and lust, and between erotic and pornographic art. (Rodin’s kiss is lovely. It’s erotic and it’s good because both partners are lost in their mutual self-giving).

We give ourselves in love. With lust we make of the other an object of desire for our own pleasure. Often the focus of desire is one part of the body, so the object of our desire is dismembered before our very eyes. Interestingly Jesus says “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) presumably to help us to understand that if we dismember others we ought to dismember ourselves. Radcliffe refers to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who wouldn’t let Alice eat the mutton to which she had been introduced. “It isn’t etiquette to eat anyone you’ve been introduced to.” she says.
The cure for lust is not chopping off our hand or plucking out our eye – and it’s good that very few have tested that theory – the first step, according to radcliife’s wise words “is not to abolish desire, but to restore it, liberate it, discover that it is for a person and not an object.”