On a side road at the south end of the town of Hobbema, about eighty kilometers south of Edmonton, stands a most unusual cluster of buildings.
Looking through the entrance gate, one sees about ten small houses grouped around a circle, painted bright yellow with blue trimmings, with a tall, slender cylindrical meeting room at the far end. Other buildings at the entrance include an enormous circular hall, and in the administrative area, a completely circular meeting room, mostly occupied by a large round table, that would do credit to King Arthur himself.
Name of this ever so circular location? The Pe Sakastew Healing Lodge—a minimum security prison run by Correctional Services of Canada, designed particularly to accommodate First Nations offenders. The reason for all this circularity? It is a principle of organization engrained in the aboriginal culture, just as it was also with that of King Arthur.
What a contrast to the structure of public spaces in our Western culture! There, the basic shape is that of the pyramid, symbol of domination rather than equality. Parliament, with a throne at one end, for the monarch or his or her representative to deliver a ‘Throne Speech’. Space on each side below this for representatives of government and opposition. At the bottom, a ‘bar’, to keep the less privileged away from what is going on.
In our law courts, the judge sits on high, with court clerks below, counsel for prosecution and defence below that, and the accused in the middle. The jury off to one side, and there is another ‘bar’ across the court room to keep witnesses, victims and ordinary folk in their proper places. In the economic sphere, Presidents and CEOs are at the top of the industrial pyramid, then management, then foremen, down to the humble and underpaid workers. Armies have their pyramids also, from Field Marshal, through Generals and various grades of officers, down to NCOs and privates. Even the church has its Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, Clergy and Laity—and church doors sometimes look like that same ‘bar’ that keeps outsiders away from the Sacred Mysteries.
“You know how the rulers of this world lord it over them,” says Jesus to his ambitious disciples, “but it shall not be so with you.” The pyramid, symbol of Egypt’s Pharaoh and Israel’s slavery, contrasts with the circle—where all are on a level, and can sit in an arrangement of equality and work problems out together. In one case, the picture is of master and slave. In the other, of members of a family, settling their differences rationally around the kitchen table.
A big move is afoot in the area of justice—away from the pyramid model, and towards a model of reconciliation between victim and offender, supervised by the State. In this move, the ‘sentencing circle’ plays an important part.
Do we really need the First Nations to point out to us anew, the effectiveness of the structures of organization that Jesus gave to his disciples so many years ago? Could our own church structures, and church architecture, profit from making more use of the Round Table?