Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

March 31, 2016

Several years ago I had occasion to teach classes on Christian prison literature at two Washington State correctional facilities. Doing so was part of my research for a book I am writing on Christian prisoners of conscience, including Vibia Perpetua, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas More and Martin Luther King, Jr. I began to wonder if persons who were actually incarcerated would see things in these writings that I might miss. I suppose my hunch was something like the conscience-searing experience of “white privilege,” except that this had less to do (at least directly) with race or class than with my social location as someone happily ensconced in an ivory tower rather than rotting away in a concrete dungeon. So I made contact with the Washington State Department of Corrections, undertook the required volunteer training, and, with the kind assistance of two prison chaplains, recruited participants for my classes. Of course, my students were not themselves “prisoners of conscience,” as American jurisprudence (supposedly) does not incarcerate people for their religious convictions or religiously-grounded political views. But I was able to arrange classes for inmates who had been convicted of felonies such as manslaughter, armed robbery and drug-pushing, but who were now trying to live a “religious” life while behind bars. One class was held at a women’s prison, the other at a men’s facility.

I can’t say that I learned much from my students about “Christian prison literature,” or at least about the religious content or literary form of the two works I studied with them, The Passion of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In that sense, at least, my students won’t get many footnotes in my monograph. But I did come to learn a very great deal about my students themselves, about the trials and tribulations of trying to live a life of faith while in “the joint,” and, perhaps most significantly, about myself. Very soon into the first class, I began to realize that my own Christian walk was rendered much easier — and perhaps severely vitiated – both by white privilege and by my professorial status, and I wondered if I could stay true to my religious convictions and practices if I were subjected, not only to the usual privations and humiliations of prison life, but also to the special pressures brought upon Christian inmates by guards and other inmates.

These unnerving thoughts all came to head at the conclusion of the fourth and final session of the class at the women’s facility. The students had been discussing Perpetua’s comment, “My prison suddenly became a palace, so that I didn’t want to be anywhere else” (Passio Perpetuae ¶3.9), and had concluded that thanks to their growing faith and their profound sense of friendship and solidarity with each other, they had discovered a sense of moral and spiritual freedom during their imprisonment which they had never known before. It was unspeakably moving. When class was over, we exited the classroom. The women turned to the left, and walked down a corridor back to their cells, while I turned to the right and exited the prison yard through the remote-controlled steel doors. As I walked to my car, I thought of Jesus’ parable of the judgment of the nations (Mt 25:31-46). By the laws of our land, I was a “sheep,” going away, if not to eternal life, at least back to suburbia, and my students were “goats,” returning to the temporal punishment which had been meted out to them. But I suddenly had very grave doubts about whether the secular authorities had divided up that little flock of scholars in the same way as our Lord would have done.

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*Please note that this was actually written for another blog, “Wake Up, Lazarus.” Click here to read original post.

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