Last week, there were international celebrations commemorating the 75th birthday of the brilliant Jamaican and Caribbean singer, poet and lyricist Robert Nesta Marley, OM.
Marley’s “Redemption Song” is an anthem for many, invoking the twin demons of slavery and colonialism, and the struggle to transcend both, including through the emancipation of colonized minds and thinking.
In his deeply spiritual, sonorous and psalm-like lamentation, Marley invites his listeners to unshackle themselves from myriad mental slaveries including those induced and enforced by various fundamentalisms and tropes, which demean and dehumanize others.
“Old pirates, yes, they rob I,
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my ‘and was made strong
By the ‘and of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
None but our self can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill de book…”
The major inspiration for the meditation cum freedom song came from a November 1937 speech in Nova Scotia, Canada, titled, “The Work That Has Been Done” by the activist, publisher Pan-Africanist thinker and Marley’s fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey, ONH (1887-1940).
Garvey charged: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind… The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”
The theme of emancipating oneself from “mental slavery” has been employed by many movements for social justice in the region and globally, including for economic and racial justice.
Today, a movement that has been gathering pace for decades, is gaining further momentum and will continue to grow at home and abroad. This movement is the reform of the criminal justice system, inclusive of decriminalizing the possession of or legalization of small amounts of marijuana.
This movement also includes a reform of sentencing guidelines; a greater and better use of parole for offenders; newer approaches to corrections and rehabilitation; restorative justice programs; mediation as an alternative to criminal trials and incarceration; novel conflict resolution strategies and a host of social intervention and alternative programs for juveniles and first-time offenders.
What is fascinating is that proponents of reform run the gamut from conservative thinkers and activists to liberal thinkers and activists. Proponents include: clerics, law enforcement and corrections officials, political leaders, business people and past offenders.
These advocates for reform and change often sing a common refrain of redemption songs and songs of freedom to help liberate and to restore the lives of the scores of individuals in a society affected by crime and the criminal justice system.
The advocates include victims, offenders and those who run the system, including police officers, court and corrections officials, political leaders, social welfare and rehabilitation workers and others.
The common refrain is often expressed in a series of shared questions which include: “What does the state of our criminal justice system tell us about who we are as a society or country?… How can we be more humane and just?… How might criminal justice reform actually reduce offending and crime?”
Movements to reform criminal justice and penal systems have existed for centuries and grew as countries instituted new laws and prison systems intended for punishment and eventually a combination of punishment and rehabilitation.
The movement for rehabilitation continued to grow in some jurisdictions, while many that had the patina of reform and rehabilitation were mired in a punitive mindset.
The more progressive penal and criminal justice systems emerged in Scandinavia and other European countries, while quite a number of Asian and African systems remain fiercely retributive despite many reform efforts.
The United States of America has a patchwork of state systems overlaid by a federal system. There have been many reforms. Yet, the country’s criminal justice systems remain wedded to entrenched structural racism and class bias and a punitive mindset often undergirded by religious fundamentalism and the history of slavery.
The global movement to end capital punishment in many ways mirrored the fits and starts and the complexities and difficulties of criminal justice reform, with those states maintaining the death penalty more likely to maintain harsher criminal justice and penal systems.
Many in the religious community are among the leading proponents for criminal justice reform including the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States.
A leading voice in this movement is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which continues to do extensive work to promote reform.
In “Background on Criminal Justice Reform”, the bishops of the USCCB have outlined their theological and spiritual approach to redemption, reform and restoration.
“During this Jubilee Year of Mercy , Pope Francis has called us ‘to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one another’ (2016 World Day of Peace Message).
“A Catholic approach to criminal and restorative justice then recognizes that the dignity of the human person applies to both victims of crime and those who have committed harm. Justice includes more than punishment. It must include mercy and restoration.
“A simplistic punitive approach to justice can leave victims of crime with feelings of neglect, abandonment and anger making reconciliation and healing difficult. A restorative justice approach is more comprehensive and addresses the needs of victims, the community and those responsible for causing harm through healing, education, rehabilitation and community support.”
The background notes continue: “People ought to be held accountable for their actions but justice and restoration must be the object of punishment which must have a reformative purpose.
“In the 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, ‘In this life, however, penalties are not sought for their own sake, because this is not the era of retribution; rather, they are meant to be corrective by being conducive either to the reform of the sinner or the good of society, which becomes more peaceful through the punishment of sinners’ (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 68 A.1).
“Rehabilitation and restoration also include the spiritual dimension of healing and hope. Those who are impacted by crime or commit crime need the healing power that comes from being reconciled with their neighbor and community, as well as with God.
“For restorative justice to be effective, it must also address the systemic and structural barriers to healing such as racial and economic disparity, cycles of crime and incarceration and the breakdown of the family.”
The desire and movement for criminal justice reform and restorative justice are gathering pace in The Bahamas and include the calls by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis for the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana and the proposed expungement of criminal records for some first-time and youth offenders permissible by law.
Next week: Redemption and freedom songs in The Bahamas.