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Healing wisdom

02 June 2009

John Armson on what communities can do

The Ethic of Traditional Communities and the Spirit of Healing Justice: Studies from Hollow Water, the Iona community and Plum Village
Jarem Sawatsky

Jessica Kingsley Publishers £19.99 (978-1-84310-687-6)
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

DON’T be put off by the fact that this is a piece of academic research. It deals with an important subject, and is well worth the read. The “amateur” reader, however, might do well to start with the three middle, “practical” chapters on the Iona, a Buddhist, and an Aboriginal community — in that order. The earlier and later chapters introduce and then summarise these three (and are rather repetitive).

The author, a Canadian academic, is clearly persuaded by the convictions and lifestyles of his three subjects. He is sceptical about our usual “Western” approach to justice (as basically retributive) and urges instead a restorative approach — that is, one that, instead of punishing, aims to heal people and relationships.

Within the scale of size of the relatively small communities he takes as his examples, and given their traditional structures and spirituality, his case is pretty persuasive. How their good experiences would translate into a larger society — say, a culturally diverse, stranger-populated British city — is unclear.

The naturally sceptical reader should not be put off by his jargon: there is report of ancient wisdom here. For instance, “All of life is ceremony” is one quote (from Hollow Water) that seemed to me worth pondering: that and similar wisdom has emerged from a society riddled with alcoholism and sexual abuse. Then “The gospel commands us to seek peace founded on justice and costly reconciliation” comes from the Iona Community’s valuable work to promote social integration. And, out of the terrible conflict of the Vietnam War comes this: “The practice of mindfulness is not an escape into the self, the spirit world or some form of emptiness. It is the practice of being here for the benefit of the whole world.”

So none of this is airy-fairy, but rooted wisdom. The kind we need.

Canon Armson is a former Precentor of Rochester Cathedral.

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