From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

November 24, 2020

At the recent Episcopalian Western New York Regional Conference Service of Reconciliation, the Commission to Dismantle Racism and Discrimination presented South African preacher Rev. Lester Mackenzie.  In his sermon, he explained that in South Africa, many people use the Zulu word “sawubona” when greeting one another.  “Sawubona,” he explained, means “I see you.”  To see another is a validation of their spirit, their inherent worth, and dignity.

An aspect of Prison Theology is to create an emotional and spiritual lifeline with those in prison, so that they are validated, supported, and edified intellectually.  In reflecting upon Rev. Mackenzie’s sermon, I feel it is within the conceptual framework of Prison Theology to integrate the Zulu word “sawubona” into our work.  

An African word/concept/validation like “sawubona” is a performative, a word which both describes and performs the act of “seeing and validating.”  Speaking a word of validation is an act of seeing “God within” – “And the word was made flesh.”  

Since many people in prison are African American, an African word like “sawubona” would be a lifeline to the Mother Continent.   

November 18, 2020

Should Christians be proud?  Does “pride cometh before the fall?”  Should Christians support the Proud Boys?  

Should Christians be humble?  Will “the meek inherit the earth?”    

With the national election over, many proud, white, God fearing Christians are packing their guns and protesting the results – onward Christian soldier.  Were the crusades of the European Middle Ages an expression of Christianity?  When former President H. George Bush called the “wars on terror” a “crusade,” was he harkening back to a former crusade?  Was he attempting to “keep the barbarians at the gate?”

All of this language, ideology and religious imagery are used when addressing criminology, prisons and inmates.  Prisoners are often called “uncivilized,” “criminals,” and “sinners.”  Those outside of prison are often called “civilized,” “law abiding,” and “righteous.”  Meanwhile, law abiding “Christians” are burning crosses and roaming the land heavily armed. 

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November 10, 2020

In our book, Dreamers, Romans and Prisons: Meditations on Crime, Illness, Healing and Liberation, I begin by writing that “The United States of America incarcerates and medicates people at a greater rate than any nation on earth.  This is the first response to real or perceived crimes and illness.”  

The state of Oregon just voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of most drugs.  This will keep many people out of jail.   When addiction is addressed from a perspective of health rather than crime, it prioritizes healing over punishment.  We believe that this is more in line with spiritual approaches to problems and Christian ethics specifically.  Did Christ heal or punish? 

When Canada legalized marijuana, they also released people in prison who were condemned because of possession of marijuana.  Will the United States or individual states of the union follow the lead of Canada or Oregon?  We believe that humane approaches to crime and illness are a spiritual practice.  This is a social or societal aspect of Prison Theology. 

November 3, 2020

As of this writing, today is Election Day.  Prison inmates are denied the right to vote.  Suppression of voting is how the powerful maintain control.  Willie Lynch was a slave-owner who wrote a letter to other slave-owners describing how to “maintain slaves forever.”  The word “lynching” most likely comes from his name.  He described methods such as “family separation.”  Prison has destroyed families and communities and has kept people poor and struggling thereby making it easier for the rich to control them.  Many states still have laws to deny the right to vote to ex-offenders.  If someone has served their time, then why are they still suppressed?  Even laws that allow ex-offenders to vote sometimes require people to pay debts before they vote.  How does owing money suspend a basic right?  Are not most college graduates and many “God fearing suburbanites” in debt?  

People in the military who are trained to kill and perhaps have killed can vote; the same with police.  Bankers who create no goods or services but often enrich Pontius Pilate at the expense of Jesus inmate can vote.  Neither Jesus nor Barabbas nor Paul would be able to vote in most of America.  

October 28, 2020

The energy that comes to me from a reading of the biblical Book of Isaiah is one of righteous anger.  It is a call to action.  Why do the rich punish and torture so many poor people with prison?  The energetic script of Isaiah is a good model for the external aspect of Prison Theology. It can be studied by prisoner rights advocates and prison abolitionists. 

The energy that comes to me from a reading of Thich Nat Han, late 20th and early 21st century Buddhist spiritual teacher, is one of tranquil wisdom.  The prisoner and the prison guard are both suffering and worthy of forgiveness.   The peace of Buddhist compassion is a good model for the internal aspect of Prison Theology.  Inmates who attain peace by transcending the oppression of prison can become models for the power of meditation.

Elizabeth Haysom, a woman who wrote for us while incarcerated in Virginia, helped to show us how to synthesize external and internal, Judeo-Christian and Buddhist spiritual approaches.  Her example and writings is a core to Prison Theology.

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