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August 30, 2010

Where you stand determines what you see. But seeing can have one of two effects. It can lead you to put yourself outside and above the reality you observe. You can make yourself its judge. Or, your new vision can lead you to compassion, a solidarity with others.

The transformation that 28 months in a U.S. penitentiary worked in the heart of media mogul Conrad Black ought to speak deeply to us. Seeing what the prison system did to the men around him, Black has become an advocate for prison reform.

It need not have happened. Black could have separated himself from “the riff-raff” in his midst, judging them harshly while basking in his own self-assured innocence. He could have been like the Pharisee looking down on the tax collector in Jesus’ parable and declared, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18.11).

Black’s epistle on leaving prison, published in the July 31 National Post, revealed a different spirit. “Overwhelmingly enthused to leave,” he nevertheless declared himself “grateful for many of the relationships I had formed, enlightened by my observation of American justice on the other side of the wall.”

“It had been an interesting experience, from which I had developed a much greater practical knowledge than I had ever had before of the realities of street-level American race relations; of the pathology of incorrigible criminals; and of the wasted opportunities for the reintegration of many of these people into society.”

Black spoke of the prison population as “an ostracized, voiceless legion of the walking dead.” These are the men with whom he broke bread for more than two years, men for whom he has developed a great compassion. Coming to know them as people with pasts much different than his own who nevertheless have the same spark of divinity in their souls, his heart was changed.

Many other people of wealth and celebrity have spent time behind bars without denouncing the injustice of the penal system. What has made Black’s response so different? A reasonable speculation would be that, in hearing the stories of the inmates’ lives and comparing it with his own wealth and comfort, he concluded, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Black has given no indication that he sees this in such explicitly Christian terms. But this response is the deepest Christian response to the realities of sin and evil in society — gratitude and solidarity.

It is uncommon for a heart and mind to be so thoroughly changed. Mostly, people cling to accepted beliefs, their preconceptions unchallenged. But when someone does undergo conversion, a softening of the heart, it is a thing of beauty. It is a light to the nations, a light that ought not to be ignored.