Refuge, Reconcilation, and Recidivism

Everything I know about criminal justice and prison / incarceration reform could be written on the head of a pin, with ample room left over to inscribe Tolkien’s complete Lord of the Rings cycle. So the following comments should not be interpreted as any kind of implicit claim to expertise about court procedure, sentencing guidelines, parole criteria, or any related issues.  But in my lifetime, I have learned a thing or two, not about prisons and incarceration, but about Spirit … provided you do not question me too closely about precisely what I mean by the word “Spirit,” a term I will leave discreetly undefined, other than to say I do not mean any monotheistic God, but that Jung’s synchronicity might be closer to the mark. Anyway, perhaps the most salient thing I have learned in my 68 years, even ‘way back when I did equate “Spirit” with “God,” is that Spirit is sneaky, marvelously, incorrigibly sneaky. Not in a duplicitous or malicious, least of all, mendacious way, but subtle, stealthy – and above all unexpected, even un-expect-able. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going … “. One of the places where, for me, the wind of Spirit blows most strongly is a sacred Hawaiian village named Pu’uhonua o Honaunau – in Hawaiian “the Refuge of Honaunau”.

Diane and I first visited Pu’uhohua o Honaunau a couple years after we were married, when we were driving south down the west coast of the Big Island from Kona / Kailua to Kealakakua and toward the Ka’u Desert and South Point, at the southernmost “point” of the Big Island. If the Big Island were a clock face, Kona / Kailua would be between 9 and 10 o’clock, and Pu’uhonua o Honaunau would be at perhaps 8 o’clock. It was – still is – a National Park, and looked interesting, partly because it was a several-hundred-year-old “old Hawaiian” village, but also because I had heard anecdotes about tourists violating the curse of the pu’uhonua (“refuge”, a generic noun), whereby people who take “souvenirs” from the village – shells, rocks, driftwood, etc. – incurred runs of bad luck that persisted until the purloined items were returned to the village, most often by being mailed back to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, care of the National Park Service, usually accompanied by an appropriately contrite letter of apology. Whereupon the string of bad luck ceased. Did I believe these stories? Not at the time, and not all the time even now … but … well … now mostly yes … and remember, I say that as the Skeptic-In-Residence:   “ … you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going”.

When I first set foot inside the precincts of the pu’uhonua¸ I was struck by a feeling, sheerly visceral, that to this day I find difficult to describe. Remember in what follow that, upon entering, I knew nothing of the pu’uhonua in any discursive, rational sense. But what I felt was – not fear, not intimidation, not “creeped out” in the Salem’s Lot sense, perhaps least of all threatened … none of that – but … Have you ever read Rudolf Otto’s classic The Idea of the Holy? If you have, you have encountered Otto’s no-less-classic description of the experience of the Holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – literally “the Mystery that induces trembling (tremendum) and irresistible attraction (fascinans)”. In fact, like Otto’s generic description of the Holy, my description of the Holy – in Otto’s sense of the “numinous” – must be couched in terms of feeling / affect, not lexical rigor. I felt the Holy, the numinous at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau.  We wandered along the beach, observing and respecting the various rules of the place posted by the National Park Service on signs along the way, not even attempting to find a way inside the kapu (forbidden / taboo in Hawaiian) space of the inner sanctum.  As we were leaving, I picked up a Park Service brochure and read it on the way back to our hotel – and discovered the reason for my feelings and why they were more than justified.

Scattered across the Hawaiian Islands, there are several dozen pu’uhonua – refuges – like Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. They were refuges in the sense that, if you committed a crime, you could escape the secular consequences if you could somehow walk, swim, or otherwise travel to a pu’uhonua and basically throw yourself on the mercy of the priest(s) of the refuge. As long as you were inside that sacred enclosure, the law could not touch you. Then the work began of your making restitution, and of re-integrating you into the society from which your crime had alienated you. This is where my knowledge of old Hawaiian ritual, custom, and religion gets diaphanously, unreliably thin. But, generically speaking, the priest(s) would require that, as the offender, you perform certain tasks, participate in certain rituals – rather like the great labors of Hercules in Greek mythology – that, once completed, would culminate in the slate being wiped clean and your readmission into society as a member in good standing. My understanding is that the labors could require anywhere from a few days to several years to accomplish, depending on the severity of the original offense. But regardless of the time required, this was not seen, described, or depicted as punishment, as recrimination, as retaliation, as retribution, as “You done somethin’ bad to us, so we’re gonna do somethin’ bad to you”. This is where the analogy with Hercules breaks down. The goddess Hera’s purpose was to punish and to torment Hercules. The purpose of the labors imposed on the offender, on the contrary, is restitution and re-integration … in other words, healing of all parties to the offense, the offender no less than the offended.

I will leave to others far better versed than I in the technicalities of prison / criminal justice reform how best to apply some cognate of the pu’uhonua paradigm to issues of the administration of justice, venturing only the commonplace – and common-sense — observation that a system which relies upon mass incarceration to “reform” criminal behavior, and that, instead, transforms prisons into graduate schools of recidivism and criminal technique can hardly afford to condescend and thumb its collective nose at the example the old Hawaiians provide in their cities of refuge. Maybe the old Hawaiians did not do any better than we. But they could hardly do any worse. Instead, I will apply the lesson of Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, not to penology, but to theology. In the history of Christianity, the two are intimately connected. (The first penitentiaries were, as the noun implies, originally religious communities of sorts:  places where convicted criminals were sent to sit in silence and solitude, contemplating their crimes until they experienced some species of Divine visitation that would eventuate in illumination and repentance.) Both disciplines – penology and theology – were predicated on the principle that injury demands retribution – injury to society, and injury to God, each of which is inseparable from the other. That is the essence of Cur Deus Homo, St. Anselm’s 11th-century CE account of how and from what Christ’s death saves us.  Human sin has offended God, much as, e.g., a commoner sleeping with a royal daughter offends the lord of the manor. The lord of the manor – God – demands compensation through the mechanism of retributive justice, i.e., usually the death of the offending commoner, and will not rest until the offender has been pursued, apprehended, and executed. Jesus takes our place, says Anselm, and willingly accepts the punishment rightfully due us as sinners. (Think of any Billy Graham sermon. I should probably note here, in all fairness, that the Anselmian concept of salvation through vicarious retributive justice is no longer the only conceptualization of salvation, except in very conservative evangelical Christian sects. In fact, it was not even the only such conception in the centuries after Anselm, e.g. Peter Abelard.) There is a lot to criticize in Anselm’s account, of course. But for now, I want to concentrate on the idea of pursuit.

So God, as the offended Liege Lord, pursues the sinner. Likewise, in old Hawaii, law enforcement from the offended village pursued the criminal – for reasons St. Anselm would have understood — across land and over ocean, to the pu’uhonua. But within the sacred boundaries of the pu’uhonua, a new paradigm takes over, superseding the paradigm of punishment and retribution. The pursuit ends there. At that point, a paradigm of healing and reconciliation, under the auspices of the gods, supersedes the “civil” paradigm (for so we would call it) of recrimination and retribution. (Of course, in the New Testament, St. Paul also emphasizes reconciliation – but for Paul, reconciliation with God is only possible on the prior basis of the Sacrifice of Christ, for “without the shedding of blood there is no atonement for sin”.) The key principle here is recognition of and respect for boundaries – in the Hawaiian case, the physical boundaries of the pu’uhonua as the physical referent of the moral boundaries of the offender, understood as the willingness of the offender to seek reconciliation. (Absent that willingness, the offender would not have undertaken the arduous journey to the sanctuary in the first place – which, in a way, is the first labor all offenders undertake.) Pursuit ends where the willingness of the offender to submit to the work of reconciliation and restitution begins.  Of course, in the Christian paradigm, reconciliation and restitution are highly desirable, also, but they have no efficacy apart from the violent Sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 9:12-13). So in the end, in the Christian understanding, we return full-circle to the paradigm of sin, recrimination, and punishment – which is inseparable from the archetype of Pursuit by God. The Pursuit never ends apart from (in some sense or other) sacrifice. From that there is no shelter, no refuge, no pu’uhonua.

I know very well what it is to be pursued, especially as what many would consider a “lapsed Christian”. Being pursued, in fact, is a motif that runs through my experience of Christianity and the Christian God. The only shelter, the only sanctuary, I ever found, I found rather late in life in my marriage, in particular, my marriage into a large and lavishly welcoming / generous extended family of Japanese Buddhists. My wife, and, through her, in-law family, is my pu’uhonua, my refuge. My experience of refuge with them has, over the years, completely top-to-bottom revised and renovated my most fundamental conception of religion and spirituality – very much including Christian spirituality. That is obviously far too long a story to tell here. I have written of it over my years here, here, and here as – the irony is exquisite! – Skeptic-In-Residence for Beguine and them Be-Zine. Suffice to say that it has been a story written in terms of personal moral and spiritual boundaries (re-)established and – this time around – recognized and respected. I no longer feel pursued by God or by God’s agents, like an escaped slave under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This relief from Pursuit and the finding of refuge had mundane but important practical effects, too, like – this is just one example – the mitigation, almost an eradication, of a life-long propensity for panic attacks. (Another story too long to tell here.) It also showed me the dark side of such universally beloved – though no longer by me – works of Christian literature as Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”, which now, in my mind, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a county sheriff setting his hounds on the trail in pursuit of an escaped slave as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. So in an uncanny kind of way, I can understand, on a gut level, how important Pu’uhonua o Honaunau was, many hundreds of years ago, to indigenous Hawaiians who ran afoul of taboos and laws. Being a 21st-century man, my experience is different, of course. Yet on some “archetypal” level the same.

As I said, Spirit is sneaky.

© James R. Cowles

Image credits

Pu’uhonua o Honaunau sacred enclosure … RonPaul86 … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Pu’uhonua o Honaunau … Photographer unknown … CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
With rainbow … Photography by Fenichel Copyright © 1994-2016 Michael Fenichel. All Rights Reserved.
Prisoners … Equal Justice Initiative … Public domain
“Back of the bus … ” … Popular Resistance … Public domain
“Pu’uhonua o Honaunau” sign at entrance … Flickr, Ken Lund … CC by SA 2.0



I am a freelance writer, poet, content editor, and blogger. I also manage "The BeZine" and its associated activities and The Poet by Day, an info hub for writers meant to encourage good but lesser-known poets, women and minority poets, outsider artists, and artists just finding their voices in maturity. The Poet by Day is dedicated to supporting freedom of artistic expression and human rights. Email for permissions, commissions, or assignments.

One thought on “Refuge, Reconcilation, and Recidivism

  1. Every time I read this, I think of the old Brady Bunch episode where they steal an ancient necklace and are then cursed. 🙂

    But I am greatly moved by the idea of a sanctuary/restoration city. Somehow, we talk about having sanctuary cities but we never apply them to the people within our own borders.

    This is so important: Pursuit ends where the willingness of the offender to submit to the work of reconciliation and restitution begins.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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