Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
April 18, 2017
For the past several years, I’ve been writing a book on Christian prison literature, or rather, on one particular kind of Christian literature, namely works which enunciate the convictions of Christians who were incarcerated for opposing the laws, policies, mores and/or ideals of their society, and which narrate their experience of trying to live in accordance with their “counter-cultural” convictions during their period of incarceration. I am investigating the various ways in which Christians who have been incarcerated for their religious convictions manage to maintain those convictions in the face of the relentless and often brutal efforts of the state to silence them or force them to recant, and exploring the spiritual resources they draw upon to endure repression and the rhetorical strategies they use to continue promoting the very convictions for which they were imprisoned. The figures whose prison writings I am studying are Vibia Perpetua (ca. 180–203), Anicius Boethius (ca. 475–ca. 526), Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580–662), Thomas More (1478–1535), Michael Sattler (ca. 1490–1527), John Bunyan (1628–1688) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968). As I studied this literature, I began to wonder whether readers with first-hand experience of living a religious life behind bars, as I have not, might see things in it that would escape my notice. I resolved to find out.
I arranged with the Washington State Department of Corrections to teach classes on Christian prison literature at two minimum-security prisons, one a facility for woman and the other a facility for men. I underwent the required training for persons who volunteer to work in correctional facilities, developed the curriculum, and secured approval from the Institutional Review Board at Seattle Pacific University, where I teach theology. I conducted the classes much as I would a short credit-bearing college course—with two exceptions. First, there were no graded assignments by the participants. Second, I took copious notes on the students’ observations on the reading assignments. The two works we studied were The Passion of St. Perpetua and Felicity and “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Each class was to have four three-hour sessions, held once a week for a month. The chaplains of the two facilities recruited participants on my behalf, the only expectations on prospective class members being a willingness to do the assigned reading for each session and at least a general sympathy with “religion” or “spirituality,” however they might define that. That they were not themselves “prisoners of conscience” did not matter for my purposes, as long as they could self-identify as persons who were trying, for religious reasons and through religious practices, to rehabilitate themselves from the patterns of antisocial behavior that had led to their arrest. To protect the students’ confidentiality, I assigned each student the name of the patron saint of the occupation that he or she had held before incarceration or hoped to hold after release; those pseudonyms are used below.
For the purposes of this blog, I will omit a detailed discussion of the curriculum, instructional resources, and record-keeping procedures I developed for the course, though persons interested in these matters are welcome to contact me for details. Rather, I shall simply enumerate ten things I learned from my experience. Items 1–7, shown below, are things I learned about the spiritual, moral and/or intellectual lives of the participants. Items 8–10, which I shall inventory in next week’s post, are things I learned from the participants about the challenges and rewards of practicing religious faith while in lockup.
1. The participants displayed a high level of intellectual curiosity and penetrating insight into works we studied. Few had college degrees in hand, though several were taking distance learning courses from regional community colleges (which is not easy for them, given the very limited internet access they are allowed), and several expressed the intention of going to college or vocational-technical school upon release. But all came to class well prepared, having read the assignments and having made assiduous use of my study guides. Several combed the prison libraries for information about Perpetua, and two of the inmates in the men’s prison had a working knowledge of church history that would put many of my seminarians to shame. Many participants chose to read most or all of King’s Why We Can’t Wait, of which his famous Letter is but one chapter. One student actually complained that I had not assigned the whole book, insisting that a proper understanding of the Letter requires familiarity with the social, political and religious issues described in the other chapters—a point with which I could scarcely disagree!
2. Most of the participants identified closely with both Perpetua and King at an emotional level. The female inmates found the scenes in which Perpetua quarrels with her father and agonizes over her newborn baby particularly gripping. Several have children of their own, and one gave birth during her incarceration. Moreover, many of the women have strained relationships with their families of origin, and several expressed understandable outrage that Perpetua’s husband is nowhere to be seen in the narrative. But the story of King’s Birmingham campaign proved every bit as powerful for these women. For example, Dorothy quoted his comment, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,”(1) and then observed, “That’s how it is for us, too! Our families and friends may want to understand us, but even when they call and visit us frequently, they’re not with us enough to understand what we’re going through and what we’re doing to make positive changes in ourselves.” The male inmates were also impressed by the complex family dynamics at play in the story of Perpetua, with several noting the pain she must have felt at having to surrender her child to the care of her mother, and expressing doubt that they could have done the same. Tellingly, none of the men commented on Perpetua’s tortured relationship with her father or on her husband’s inexplicable absence from the narrative, but they found her feisty demeanor toward the authorities and her physical courage in the face of death deeply admirable.
3. The participants in both classes were deeply impressed by the religious certainty of Perpetua and King. Several were particularly fascinated by Perpetua’s visions—not so much by their ideational content as by the fact that they provided divine confirmation for her decision to make the supreme sacrifice, and gave her peace with that decision through her final days. Said Brigid, “When I read Perpetua’s text, I saw how she grew more secure in her faith, how at peace she was after her second vision with the fact that her martyrdom was inevitable. At the end, there was no fear in her, just faith and the certainty of victory. I myself grew up in a Catholic household. As I got older, the structure and rigidness of my family’s religion began to grate on me. I continued to pray, but I didn’t live the life I should have. Once I got here, I realized I couldn’t do my time unless I learned to give myself every day to God. Every day is a challenge. It’s not easy. But I know God has a plan, and if I stay faithful, everything will be as it’s supposed to be.” Giles quoted Perpetua’s statement, “And I awoke [from my vision]; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.”(2) Then he remarked: “I could relate to that. When I got into drugs, I distanced myself from the church—and then I lost the battle. I learned that I needed Christ every day. Every day still is a battle with the devil—but now, at the end of every day, I feel I’ve won the battle.”
4. The participants were also deeply inspired by the moral courage of Perpetua and King. This point was made with particular force in an extended discussion in the women’s class of how recent state budget cuts had affected programming and morale in their facility, and of how many guards and prisoners have been skeptical of the inmate self-help and self-advocacy program to which all the women in my class belong. Dymphna exclaimed: “When we read stories of people like Perpetua and King, who affirm that people have intrinsic worth, even if they have made mistakes, it changes us. We can’t unread these works. We can’t unring the bell. We can’t act like we haven’t read this stuff. I’ve learned from King that if I really am who I say I am, I have to get to my feet sometimes, even if that means opposing the administration.” And Damian remarked: “King and Perpetua took their faith to the bitter end. I’ll probably never be in the position of dying for my faith, but I’m trying to live by it. I work in the kitchen here at the camp, and people sometimes ask me to help them steal food. I tell them, ‘Sorry, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m a Christian, and I can’t help you with that.’” The participants recognized that having deep religious and moral convictions can be both an asset and a liability, both in prison and out. Convictions make you stronger, but you a pay a high price when your convictions clash with the rules of the authorities and the conventions of society.
5. The participants were struck by the different rhetorical strategies used by Perpetua and King. On the whole, the women seemed to prefer King’s approach, finding Perpetua brassy, unnecessarily confrontational, and maybe, as Antonia suggested, “a little spoiled.” In contrast, they admired King’s courteous and dignified tone, his forceful reasoning, and his obvious erudition. During our discussion of King, Dorothy observed: “I was struck by the tone of his Letter. He was clearly cussing out the clergy that had criticized the freedom movement’s timing, but he did so in a polite, precise, passionate, and profound manner. I was also struck by his use of the Bible and of many notable philosophers in support of his position.” Monica immediately followed up on Dorothy’s observation by noting its application to prison life: “What caught my attention was the diplomacy in it. His response to his critics was so educated that they couldn’t ignore it. And it’s like that in here, too. Sometimes the guards here try to bait you into things. But when you respond in a polite, educated way, it makes them think twice. It earns their respect.” The men, too, acknowledged King’s learnedness and eloquence, but several were bothered by the content of his message. Said Florian: “Perpetua lived and died for the gospel of Christ and the kingdom of God, but King lived and died for the gospel of freedom and civil rights.” Others, however, rejected this sharp dichotomy. Justin remarked, “I think this Letter is completely and utterly Christian. The gospel of Christ is the gospel of freedom. King was a Christian preaching to other Christians—Christians who were not acting like Christians, Christian leaders who were not backing his play, Christians who were doing nothing about racial injustice.”
6. The participants were very adept at seeing parallels between the religious and political issues manifest in the texts and those at play in contemporary American culture. Dymphna likened The Passion of Perpetua to the reality television show, Jersey Shore: “The Romans used bread and circuses to keep the people pacified, and so do we.” Antonia said she saw “a parallel between what happened in The Passion of Perpetua and what happens in the Hunger Games Trilogy: both texts are all about control and entertainment.” On another occasion Antonia expanded on King’s remark that “we have blemished and scarred [the Body of Christ] through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”(3) She observed: “So many people out there in the world have segregated themselves from convicts, from people who have violated social mores. But it’s just because they have not wanted to get involved with people who have problems, to get their own hands dirty. So people with problems suffer from ‘social neglect,’ and then grow up in ways that lead them to prison. It’s a vicious cycle. Being neglected causes people to commit crimes, but being warehoused in prison for their crimes turns out to be just another form of the social neglect that got them there in the first place.”
7. Conversely, several participants emphasized that their experience in prison enabled them to read the two course texts with deeper insight than they might otherwise have had. Toward the end of the final session, when I asked each participant to identify one take-away from the course, Dymphna replied: “I’ve learned that I can’t support injustice anywhere. If I had read these texts before I was locked up, I wouldn’t have gotten it. I would have felt troubled and guilty, but that’s about all. Now I’ve learned that I can’t sit still again. I have to do something.” And a few moments later, Lucy added: “I have a deeper understanding. I’m from a younger generation. I knew about the racism that existed before the civil rights movement, but I didn’t have first-hand experience of it, and I would never have understood what it was like if I hadn’t read Why We Can’t Wait. But if I had read this book before I was in prison, it would have seemed like an abstraction to me. Being in here has affected the way I have read the texts for this course, but reading the texts for this course has clarified the way I want to live my life in here.” And Paul observed: “I’ve never been incarcerated before. It’s been a humbling experience for me to be told where to eat, when to eat, what to wear. I have way more empathy for what Perpetua and King went through than I would have before. I would have taken their writings with a ho-hum attitude, not realizing that they relate to me.”
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 96.
(2) The Passion of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, §10. Translated by Walter H. Shewring (London: Sheed and Ward, 1931) and modernized by Paul Halsall (1996). Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.ford-ham.edu/halsall/source/perpetua.asp
(3) King, Why We Can’t Wait, 104.