Living Social Justice

A blog about responding to poverty and injustice, everyday and in all sorts of ways

Archive for the month “December, 2011”

Breaking chains

By Deborah Cuthbert

One of my favourite musicals is Les Misérables.  Jean Valjean, an ex-prisoner, faces rejection by society until he is taken in by Bishop Myriel.  During the night, however, he ransacks Myriel’s house and flees, but is caught and brought back.  Instead of condemning him, Myriel gives Valjean two silver candlesticks which he said Valjean “forgot” and tells him to “go and make an honest man of himself.”  As Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean makes good on this “promise” and prospers as a factory owner, upstanding citizen and mayor.  However, he is doggedly pursued by policeman Javert, who wants to unmask his true identity.  What a picture of the journey an ex-offender makes back into society– where he or she faces too many Javerts and too few Myriels!

While for some, an offender’s time in prison results in an individual turning from crime, this is not the norm.  An estimated 85% of the 6 000 people released monthly from prison in South Africa go on to reoffend.  The offender spends days of little activity in close proximity to seasoned criminals and prison gangs.  They also lose contact with law-abiding support structures such as employment, friends and family.  When they leave prison, their needs are great.  It’s not just about ensuring that they have accommodation, food and work – they need a lot of support and guidance.

What can individual Christians do?

There are a number of NGO’s and ministries involved in working with offenders, such as NICRO, Young in Prison, Prison Care and Support Network, Realistic, Prison Fellowship International, Andrew Murray Centre and Hillsong.  I will concentrate on some of the things done by Hope Prison Ministry, with whom Common Good partners.  Last year, I had my first opportunity to visit Pollsmoor Prison and sit in on a Hope course.  I had always been intimidated by the thought of going into prisons and speaking to prisoners, but found that I actually enjoy going and speaking to them.

What can I do?

A lot!  How about:

Praying  for those involved in working with ex-offenders; for the ex-offenders themselves and their families and victims?

Donating non-perishable items to the Hidden Treasures shop in Plumstead or volunteering a few hours a week there (they’re at 142 Main Road – tel 071 861 2283)?

Joining prayer walks at Pollsmoor on the first Thursday evening of every month? Email to sign up for the next one – you’ll need to send through your full name and ID number.

Working with the prisoners themselves?  Hope Prison Ministry runs Bible studies, skills and arts programmes and restorative justice courses (which aim at enabling the perpetrator to seek forgiveness from the victim and/or his or her family).

Thank you to the following people for their input into this article:

Vanessa Padayachee (NICRO)

Adrian Strydom (Hope Prison Ministry)

About the author: Deborah Cuthbert is a relief librarian at the University of Cape Town.  She has just completed an honours degree in criminal justice.

Into the Stable this Christmas

Deborah Hancox reflects on what we can learn from the wise men’s Christmas journey. 

One of the iconic images of Christmas is that of the three wise men, or the three kings as they are sometimes known. They are only mentioned once in the bible, in Matthew 2:1-12. But they have captured the imagination of Christendom, and a mythology has built up around them. It is assumed that there were three, as they gave three types of gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Different traditions have given them different names. Ours usually calls them Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Matthew tells us they were from the East. Tradition says they were from Arabia, Persia and India. One of them is always depicted as a Black man.

The wise men were doubtlessly wealthy and from the elite in their respective countries. Who else would have had the luxury to study the stars, discern what they meant and then spend time and money following one of them on a quest to find a new-born king. That is probably why, on arrival in Bethlehem, they had the confidence to visit the local king, Herod, and consult him about where the new king might be.

As they continued following the star, they arrived at a stable where they found a young couple (probably still teenagers) with their new born baby. Realizing that in this place, normally reserved for animals, they had found the king they were seeking, they knelt down and worshiped the baby Jesus. Maybe they also spent time talking to this young couple, from a different culture and class to their own. Listening to their story. Perhaps some anxious words from Joseph about … what now? Maybe Mary opening up about the real identity of her baby. No doubt the wise men were moved by the difficult circumstances of the young parents, the vulnerability of the little baby, and felt that they were in that place at that moment to respond in whatever way they could. So they gave Mary and Joseph valuable gifts that would have provided what they needed to escape the massacre on young boys that Herod would soon release.

I have never really identified with the three wise men, but as I think about them now, as I allow the familiar story of that first Christmas to play out again in my mind, I am challenged that perhaps I am more like them than I think. In a country where approximately 57% of the people live below the poverty line* (and many more struggle just above it), the fact that I have a car, a spacious house, a couple of university degrees, enjoy travelling overseas from time to time, puts me up there with the rich in our country. The question is, as I go about my daily life – seeking a good, long life of purpose and meaning, am I open to being led into unusual places, ‘stables with babies’? Do I stop and listen to those who are different to me, and hear the God stories unfolding in their lives? Do I see Jesus Christ present amongst the vulnerable people of our city and country? Do I to bow down before him and let my resources – time, treasures and talents – be used for God’s Kingdom purposes as he defends and helps the orphan, the widow, the exile and the poor? I feel freshly challenged.

So this Christmas, as we are reminded of the wise men –a picture on a Christmas card, in a nativity play, whilst singing a familiar Christmas carol – let us, like them, be filled with awe before Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And let us give all that we are and all that we have to him for his Kingdom purposes in 2012.

*Statistic taken from the Southern African Regional Poverty Network website (

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