Former Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections Dan Heyns once referred to the people housed in our state prison system as “the worst of the worst!” I chided him on that, and he later recanted, in a private email to me.
I wish Dan Heyns had been with me Saturday. A group of guys in the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, all part of a positive and exciting project called Chance for Life, were concluding a month-long emphasis on peace. And we’re not just talking world peace here. The focus of their Peace Initiative got right down to personal peace, peace between each other, and peace between inmates and staff.
It was a day of guest speeches and special recognition. I was honored to deliver the keynote speech. But that’s not the reason for my desire to have Heyns there. Before my speech, as the program got underway, one of the presiding inmates read this statement about respecting diversity: The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. It means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognizing our individual differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social-economic status, age, physical ability, religious and political beliefs, or other ideologies.
Then, as I sat there waiting to be introduced, more than 150 men representing many of these differences recited a peace pledge. Each man had been carrying this little card all month. As they recited the words they inserted their own name. They promised to seek peace in their own lives, to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner, to respect the opinions of all others, to actively work at ending violence.
The worst of the worst? I don’t think so.
My thoughts couldn’t leave that pledge during the long drive home. I was the high and mighty speaker, focusing on the St. Francis Peace Prayer, but could I have signed that pledge?
I could just hear myself:
I can live by that pledge---
Except when I discuss politics---then it’s my way or the highway when it comes to topics like presidential candidates, immigration, and guns;
Except when I talk about church---then it’s my way or the highway when it comes to topics like gay marriage or style of music;
Except when I’m driving, as I stomp on the accelerator refusing to let some nut job cut in front of me.
Do you see what I’m getting at, here? Politics at the highest level has never been so stinky. Road rage is at an all-time high. We use documents like the U.S. Constitution and the Holy Bible to justify intolerance. Bullying, at lowest grade levels, is a problem in our schools. I think we can learn from the 150 guys I met with Saturday.
Those guys get it, and they not only get it, they’re determined to keep this Peace Initiative going beyond the month of August. They’re committed to ending violence, respecting diversity and celebrating human development.
Said the Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
I’m thinking that some people behind bars, incorrectly labeled the “worst of the worst,” have a pretty good head start over many of us on the outside when it comes to efforts toward peace.