From the desk of Chris Barbera

May 12th, 2020

Jesus the Liberator has a large archive of writings from prison inmates.  In addition, we have a small library of literature that addresses incarceration.  It is our hope that this base of knowledge and literature will assist people in their research of “prison theology.”  Part of our library and one of the most prominent voices to come out of prison is Nelson Mandela.   After reading a multitude of his letters from prison I have come to a few brief observations.  

I place the letters into 2 broad categories – words of support to family, friends and comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle and letters to prison and governmental authorities.  The first category shows his depth of feeling and love.  The second category shows his nonviolent diplomacy and fearless persistence of justice.   Taken together, they show a complete picture of a man embracing people and entities (“powers and principalities”) that both support and oppose him.  In both cases, he was reaching out towards and giving to others.  There is never a sense of desperation or powerlessness or pleading.  He only asked for what were by rights his.  But mostly he gave from an abundance of love, which could only be strong and clear.  He gave wisdom, support and legal insights.  He was simultaneously a father figure and “jail house lawyer.”  His letters should be studied for their insights into human relations and for demanding rights with love, diplomacy and clarity.

May 6th, 2020

We must have a love of others in our patience, even if from a distance.   While serving a 27 year prison sentence, Nelson Mandela wrote: “I am influenced more than ever before by the conviction that social equity is the only basis of human happiness (1).   It is profound that while in the most unequal of circumstances, Mandela tied his happiness into equality.  

During our time of quarantine, we cannot lose sight of our ideals for an egalitarian society.  The poorest and most vulnerable always have hardship.  During a crisis, this is compounded.  A person of faith is called to provide for “the least of these.”  Even if we are not directly serving this population, we need to be vigilant and to work towards a more equitable system and way of being once we pass through the worst of this crisis.

People that have experienced hardship can help us navigate this process.  Nelson Mandela’s 27 years of incarceration, his time in quarantine, helped to form a spiritual framework for addressing a post apartheid world.  Prison inmates, who experience isolation and quarantine, can help us navigate feelings of existential loneliness, if we suspend our judgment and ask them.

(1) – Sahm Venter, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela Liveright Publishing Corporation 2018 pg. 187

April 29, 2020

Nelson Mandela was physically separated from the people and the nation he loved for 27 years in prison.  During that time, he wrote many letters to loved ones and anti-apartheid organizers.  In other words, during isolation, he offered guidance, consolation and wisdom.  We can and must wait out this health pandemic.   It would be selfish to do otherwise.  Selfishness and instant gratification, unfortunately, are part of the America way.  The punk rock band The Dead Kennedys articulated this with the title of one of their compilation albums, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.

Overcoming a culture of destructive tendencies (suicidal tendencies) takes effort and patience.  We can learn a great deal from prison inmates like Nelson Mandela.  Among his many enlightening letters to his wife, Winnie, is this excerpt: “I am convinced that floods of personal disaster can never drown a determined revolutionary nor can the cumulus of misery that accompanies tragedy suffocate him.” (1)  

Jesus was a determined revolutionary.  Paul was too and like Nelson Mandela, wrote many letters of consolation and guidance while physically separated.  In the face of tragedy, we can and must maintain our love, values and determination. 

 (1) – Sahm Venter, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela Liveright Publishing Corporation 2018 pg. 182

April 20th, 2020

We can and must wait out this health pandemic.  Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter, spent 27 years locked down in prison.  In 1969, while he was in prison, his oldest son Thembi died in a car accident.   He had to grieve while incarcerated.  In response to a letter of support from a friend, Irene Buthelezi, he wrote that “you have to be behind bars for at least 7 years to appreciate fully just how precious human kindness can be.” (1)  In other words, he offered wisdom and endurance of spirit in his time of grief and incarceration.  This is a testament to the liberating spirit of freedom.  Paul claimed that “love bears all things.” (1 Cor 13:7)  Love is the core of freedom.  Freedom overcomes the limitations of“apartheid, incarcerated society.”  It also puts personal grief into perspective while love heals grief.  

Earlier that same year, 1969, his wife Winnie was arrested and spent 14 months in prison for anti-apartheid related work/protest (being forced to carry “papers”).  This is eerily similar to voter suppression laws in present day United States.   Nelson Mandela offered insights to Winnie while incarcerated, concerning her arrest and values – “Permanent values in social life & thought cannot be created by people who are indifferent or hostile to the true aspirations of a nation.” (2) To which I say “stand up and resist the fascist/authoritarian instincts of this administration.  Do not let them use disaster (coronavirus capitalism) to consolidate political and economic power.”  Remember, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”

Jesus the Liberator’s ontology – our theological ground of being – is built upon the wisdom of prison inmates.  Can inmates like Paul and Mandela be more loving and wiser than presidents? 

(1) – Sahm Venter, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela Liveright Publishing Corporation 2018 pg. 122

(2) – IBID pg. 98

April 15th, 2020

During this health pandemic shutdown, I am learning more and more about patience as a virtue.   I am reminded and inspired by prison inmates who endured great hardships and oppressions.  Robert Seth Hayes, who passed away last year, was a revered member of the freedom fighting Black Panther Party, a seed of many social justice movements including Black Lives Matter.  He spent over 40 years locked down inside.  After serving the time that the judicial system allotted him, the parole board continued to give him 2 extra years every time he went before them to be approved for release.  This amounted to about 20 extra years, almost half of his time spent inside.   In addition, the law that was used to arrest him was changed, so legally he was serving on outdated laws.  Although he appealed this, he was denied.  Through all this and the many hardships associated with prison, punishment and separation, he endured; with the patience of Job.

Thankfully, he was released and able to live out his days outside of prison – another inspiration for freedom.  Last summer, I borrowed a friend’s car and traveled with him and another person to attend a wedding of a mutually beloved friend.  We got flat tire and had to wait for AAA.  I was anxious and he calmly and gently spoke and I was reminded that he and we have endured much worse.

At times of great peril, I reflect on the virtue of patience.  I remember generations of people who endured hardships.  I remember that “love is long suffering.”  I remember the witness of people like Robert Seth Hayes.  I pray for people suffering and for health care workers as I wait out the pandemic; in patient vigilance and tribulation. 

April 6th, 2020

Because of the health pandemic, we have been asked to practice social distancing.  Many of us understand that we can be physically distant but emotional present.  This is the experience of the relationship between people physically distant in prison with people outside who are emotionally connected with them and present to them.   At Jesus the Liberator, we call it a life-line.  It is an attunement to people and a deep listening to their spirit, needs, thoughts and visions.  Validation of a person dignifies and gives peace.  Listening is an act of love.  By practicing this with others, we enlarge our own humanity.  Prison, poverty, war and health crises are times of great suffering.  But within this suffering are great acts of compassion.  This is why people like Mother Teresa, who gave mercy to the dying, could emanate such peacefulness and focus.  It is the focusing upon the inherent goodness within moments of suffering which brings solutions to the problem.  The goodness is the balm that heals.  This spirit exists in between people separated.  Are we socially distant from our creator?  Are we emotionally present to the creator within the physically distant incarcerated soul?  Are we emotionally present to the incarcerated soul within us?  Was the creator incarcerated in human flesh?