Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
May 2, 2017
This is the second of a two-part blog post on what I learned from teaching Christian prison literature to inmates of two Washington State correctional facilities, inmates who self-identified as “religious” or “spiritual,” though not all as explicitly or conventionally “Christian.” For a brief account of what prompted me to teach these classes and, how I organized and conducted the classes, and seven things I learned about the intellectual, spiritual and moral lives of the participants themselves, please see my previous post. Today I want to mention three additional things I learned from teaching these classes. These findings, items 8-10 in my overall list of ten, pertain to the challenges and rewards of practicing religious faith while in lockup. These are the sort of thing I originally hoped to learn from teaching the classes, and they apply, mutatis mutandis, both to “felons” (i.e., those like my incarcerated students who had committed crimes such manslaughter, assault, robbery, grand theft, mail fraud or drug peddling) and to “prisoners of conscience” (i.e., those whose “crime” was bearing witness to Christ in the face of state opposition, but who had neither used nor advocated the use of violence in the furtherance of their cause, nor had injured the person or property of other citizens).
8. The participants emphasized that entering prison is entering unfamiliar and hostile territory, a place where you feel disoriented and powerless, and where your survival may depend on finding other inmates who share your sorrows and struggles, your convictions and dreams. Dymphna put it this way: “A big part of prison is trauma of the unknown. When she was arrested, Perpetua didn’t know what would happen to her or her kid. She was tormented with fear. When my friends have trailer visits, they “go home” for a few days. The people with whom they have relationships are with them physically. But when I got here, it sucked. I didn’t have people to visit me, and I didn’t know if I’d ever have friends or family. I thought it was unjust. I wanted God to save me from this. And He did! God used prison to teach me how to connect with people—especially with the people in this room. When I’m with these women, I know that I’m home. Our friendships aren’t just for selfish benefit or gain: they’re for the love of God. Perpetua’s fear of not knowing the future disappeared: she knew that everything would be okay.” This and similar comments taught me to pay closer attention to the ways in which the authors of Christian prison literature describe their efforts to exert whatever control they can over their circumstances, to forge what relationships they can with other inmates, and to assert their dignity as human beings—even at great personal risk—in their interactions with the prison authorities.
9. The participants emphasized the strong reactions, both positive and negative, which inmates who publicly profess and diligently practice their religious faith and moral convictions often get from prison officials and from other inmates. Paul remarked, “People seemed to admire Perpetua. She spoke with confidence. She walked with confidence. She let her light shine. That’s what we have to do in here. We have to let our light shine for others. We have to keep our spirits up, greet people in a friendly way, set a good example, and not act like we’re ashamed of being here.” I asked Paul if it was ever a burden as a professing Christian to have to set a good example to fellow inmates. “No,” he exclaimed, “it’s not a burden. It’s an honor.” Such insights alerted me to the destabilizing effects that Christian prisoners of conscience can have upon the social dynamics of a carceral community. Some of their fellow inmates may admire them for resolutely clinging to their religious and political convictions in the face of the state’s efforts to induce them to apostasize. Some, indeed, may even be converted by such heroic witness. Other inmates may, despite their own crimes, feel such allegiance to the mores of their native society (or may cherish such a pathetic desire to curry favor with the prison authorities, who are the appointed guardians of those mores), that they will react with contempt or fury toward prisoners of conscience, regarding them as treasonous dissidents. Still other inmates may regard Christian inmates (whether prisoners of conscience or not) as self-righteous prigs or even, as Justin put it, as “creeps and weirdos.” Until teaching my classes, I had tended to see imprisonment as the punishment meted out to dissident Christians for the unpopular witness they had borne to their fellow citizens. I have now come to see that Christian prisoners of conscience regard their imprisonment itself as a form of Christian witness, perhaps most immediately to guards and fellow inmates, but perhaps also to those on the outside who know of their sufferings.
10. The participants emphasized the empowerment and sense of inner freedom which the diligent practice of religious faith provides them. Several reported that the experience of incarceration had forced them to face the various kinds of spiritual bondage in which they had long been held, and had provided an unexpected opportunity to experience the liberating power of divine grace. Honoria, one of the quieter members of the women’s class, plucked up her courage at one point and made a speech that had us all in tears: “Before I got the sentence, I was already in prison. I didn’t know how to live. I did drugs. I hated myself. I disappointed my family and myself. I couldn’t do anything right. But since coming here, I feel that God has been with me. For the first time in my life, I’ve been sober. I’ve been in touch with God. I’ve dealt with my issues. My faith gets stronger every day. I see positive changes in myself. Now I feel free. I’m not in prison.” And Florian, who was so suspicious of King’s Letter because it seemed to him to confuse the gospel of Christ with the cause of civil rights (see item 6 in Part I), had this to say: “Unless the freedom of Christ dwells within us, we will not be free. We can be out of prison but in bondage to sin, and we can be in prison yet free in Christ.” None of the Christian prisoners of conscience whose writings I have been studying names bondage to sin as the cause of their imprisonment: rather, it is their devoted service to Christ which has gotten them into trouble with the authorities. In that sense, the distinction we have repeatedly drawn between felons and prisoners of conscience is especially sharp at this point. Nevertheless, these comments give voice to a point that is repeatedly made in Christian prison literature, namely, that freedom is not being able to do whatever you happen to want, but truly wanting to do what you know you ought to do, and doing it with resoluteness of will and joyfulness of heart, regardless of the adverse consequences that doing it might have to your temporal interests. For the participants in my classes, as for the authors of the literature I have been studying, such freedom is found preeminently though the assiduous practice of the presence of God, whose companionship, as King reminds us, “does not stop at the door of a jail cell.”(1)
(1) King, Why We Can’t Wait, 84.