Prison Theology Blog

From the desk of Chris Barbera of Jesus the Liberator

February 16, 2021

Absalom Jones is listed in the Episcopal calendar of saints.  He founded the 1st black Episcopalian congregation.  With Richard Allen, he founded the Free African Society, a mutual aid society for free Africans and their descendents.  Black Lives Matter is their descendents.  People in prison are as well though not yet free.  

Republican Christian Fascists believe that violent white supremacist insurrection is ok.  They believe that Black Lives don’t Matter.   Therefore, the life message of Absalom Jones takes on a greater significance.  

The consciousness of Prison Theology is part of the freedom struggle of Black Liberation and the liberation from all forms of prison, enslavement, and oppression, both individually and socially.  We are a kind of mutual aid society in that we are in solidarity with people in prison (with its similarities to chattel slavery) and provide free educational resources and co-operatively develop a theology together.  We also provide other mutual aid such as emotional support, networking, letters to parole and other services. 

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February 9, 2021

Our 2nd publication is entitled Dreamers, Romans and Prisons: Meditations on Crime, Illness, Healing and Liberation.  Within it, we write about how “America incarcerates and medicates people at a greater rate than any nation on earth.”   We believe that many health conditions (physical and mental) can be addressed in more humane ways and we give examples and testimonies of this.

In our book, Linda Abrams writes about “jailer and healer” paradigms.  She gives an example from the global south, from Peru, of this.  There, the plant based psychedelic medicine used by shamans and indigenous nations, ayahuasca, is a protected cultural legacy.  In the United States it is a schedule 1 drug (a highly criminalized designation).

New laws in Oregon that decriminalizes possession of all drugs in small amounts have been put in place.  This will reduce dependence upon the cruelty of prison and help develop new ways to address addiction, partly by treating it as a health rather than crime issue.   The legalization of marijuana in many states and perception of it as a plant-based medicine (like ayahuasca) is also reducing prison cruelty and financial and human-potential waste.  All these efforts will help us shift paradigms from the “jailer to a healer” culture that Prison Theology speaks about. 

February 2, 2021

“Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.”  (Ps 30:5)  Lori Carter took these words to turn her “mess into a message,” as she wrote in our 1st publication.  She endured the nighttime of prison, and before that, a host of afflictions that do not afflict or affect rich white male people in this country.  Many people not afflicted like Lori have and have been fed authoritarian and racist belief systems and seem to be more likely to embrace an imperial, hierarchical, capitalist Christianity.

When released from the nighttime of weeping she experienced in prison, she embraced the joy of the morning found in her liberation.  We mailed her dozens of copies of the publication she contributed to.  She took those books and visited many churches throughout Virginia, where she lived, and spoke to them about Prison Theology.  This is an example of praxis – of creating theory based on righteous action and of taking that theory and theology and offering it and yourself up as a message and messenger.  

Lori is one of the multitudes of witnesses that contribute to the moral regeneration of the world.

January 26, 2021

“Farwell, comrade,” said Rodion within himself, “the paths of Zion pass through prisons without number, like those of the proletariat…”  These words come from the novel, Midnight in the Century by Russian Soviet author Victor Serge.  

Prison Theology recognizes prison literature from various time periods, cultures, modalities of understanding, scriptures, and epistemologies.   Russian literature has produced profound insights into the inhumanity of prisons and the human condition. 

What does this Victor Serge quote contribute?  How does the biblical vision of Zion correspond with the proletariat, the workers who usher in an age of egalitarian society?  Is the Book of Acts a Christian expression of a spiritual egalitarian society also envisioned by Marx, a Jewish man?  Was the founding of Israel in 1948 precipitated by socialist agrarian co-ops, also known as a Kibbutz?  Are people working to establish egalitarian spiritual societies criminalized and cast into prison?  Does America incarcerate the poor?  Was Jesus poor? 

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From the desk of Chris Barbera of Jesus the Liberator

January 19, 2021

“And when the psychosis passed I found myself in a cell in Upstate Correctional Facility and I felt so utterly empty, alone and scarred…”  These are the words of Jelani Zulante, who contributed to our 2nd publication.  This is how I and many feel after 4 years of intense Christian Republican fascism.  The words of inmates, those who are witness to continuous horror, act as a lamentation.  Lamentations, like those of Jeremiah, articulate the unthinkable and unutterable.  Because they do, it gives us emotional clarity and cathartic release.  Jelani Zulante and Jeremiah are within the umbrella of Prison Theology.  

Prison Theology addresses the horrors of incarceration and the incarcerated nation.  Those incarcerated feel and experience what poor people have always felt, albeit more directly oppressively.  Jesus was poor before he was incarcerated.  

January 12, 2021

Breathe in and breathe out.   Outside are the white supremacists that lord it over you and have the power to kill you.   This is the experience of many in prison.  Now, white middle-class society can see and feel this. 

In our second publication, Jelani Zulante wrote that “the nightmare began once the dream ended and I returned to my physical body only to discover how badly damaged and abused I was.”  This is an apt description of America in the wake Republican fascism and white supremacy violence.  

The artist Childish Gambino has a song and video entitled “This is America” in which he murders and dances and sings the refrain “this is America.”   

The wisdom of pain and deep breath is now ours.  Those who have endured it can be our guides.  This is what Black Liberation Theology speaks about and this is what Prison Theology speaks about. 

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From the desk of Chris Barbera of Jesus the Liberator

January 5, 2021

Is Pontius Pilate less of a criminal than Jesus Christ?  Is the outgoing president a criminal?  Within society, the criminalization of poor people is easy.   Jesus was poor, Pilate was rich.  Trump can lie, cheat and attempt to steal an election, sexually abuse and manipulate women, support policies that destroy eco-systems and cultures, and exacerbate wealth inequity and the suffering caused by that.  He can incite violence and suppress freedom.  He can also cheat the system to extract wealth and then evict people who may become homeless and susceptible to drugs, sex work, and homelessness, all of which is criminalized.  The victims of policies for the rich are criminalized.  The effects are criminalized rather than the cause.  A rotten tree produces bitter fruit and then expels the fruit rather than uprooting the tree.

Rich criminals should receive restorative justice in this kind of way: completely dismantle the Trump organization, sell all the assets and then give the wealth to poor black communities as an act of reparations.  Transfer all land titles to native communities that traditionally and historically have lived on that land.  Exempt Trump and associates from any job or position of influence but provide a living wage or universal basic income.  When all of this is done, let go of spite or vengeance.

Prison Theology works to create thought streams for a just and mercifully accountable world. 

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From the desk of Chris Barbera of Jesus the Liberator Seminary

December 28, 2020

I have written about churches and prisons as primary institutions within the development of the concept of Prison Theology.   A common thread with many people within these 2 institutions is a religious zeal.  When devotion (bhakti), is focused upon something greater than you, a person enlarges their sense of self.  Oftentimes that something is a divinity.  The divine is larger than the self and therefore can liberate a person from the confines of self.  Jesus “incarnated” into the flesh.  That is, he voluntarily imprisoned himself within “this mortal coil.”  This idea of incarnation and imprisonment relates to both church goers and inmates.  This is a key to Prison Theology. 

December 23, 2020

For better or worse, American culture is married to religious liberty.  Some Christians believe that medical procedures and social laws infringe upon Jesus worship.  A virus does not abide to Jesus worship.  Nor does a virus make distinctions to what Paul calls “Jew or Gentile, slave or free.” 

A virus spreads from person to person.  Distancing from a person, therefore, would reduce the spread of a virus.  Society, therefore, makes health ordinances to distance people.   Prisons and religious congregations are 2 places where people congregate.  These 2 places have been required to distance people and reduce their congregating.

Is a Jesus worshiper’s or prisoner’s rights infringed upon if society requires that their living situation and behaviors must change for their own health and the health of others?  A person may have a right to get sick or die, but does a person have a right to pass on sickness and death?  A person can die but can a person kill? If a Jesus worshipper with a virus wants to praise God but not protect the health of their neighbor, then perhaps they should “go to the Dead Sea to bury the dead.”   Prisoners do not have this liberty. 

For better or worse, prisons and churches are primary and fundamental institutions within Prison Theology.  

December 16, 2020

Pontius Pilate ordered the execution of Jesus while pardoning Barabbas.  The outgoing federal administration is on a seemingly sadistic quest to kill as many poor people as possible with the federal death penalty while pardoning rich and politically powerful white-collar criminals.

Receiving a letter/poem from a man on death row was a deciding moment in our efforts to focus more on education with people in prison.  That was about 20 years ago, in the early 2000’s.  I have understood that as life within death, and that is one way to understand Prison Theology.

The yearning for life and freedom, especially within captivity, is a theme within Prison Theology.  It is also a theme within Black Liberation Thought and Biblical Storytelling.  This synthesis is a key to the narrative threads within liberatory education within the prison cell world of America.  Within all of it is love and service. 

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December 9, 2020

Christian evangelicals by and large support “Christian nationalistic” policies such as the death penalty.  With the recent increased use of the federal death penalty, “good Christians” can now consider ethical questions such as: “Should the one killing see the one killed?” “Should other people be able to observe the killing?” “Should killing be done with one or several chemicals, a firing squad, gas chamber, electrocution, or by hanging?” “What is the most merciful way to kill?” “Will the image of Christ on the cross reduce killing?” Will more killing reduce killing?” 

Jesus Christ was killed, not the one who killed.  This means that the message of Christianity should not endorse killing while simultaneously engendering more empathy for the victims who are killed.  If the embodied emblematic symbol of love is sacrificed for the pain of the world by being killed, then shouldn’t Christians want to reduce violence?  Is violence reduced by killing?  Can the death penalty kill its way into love?

Prison Theology does not believe in or support the death penalty.  We push back against the death machine culture of prison/death.

December 4, 2020

3.5 miles from the Candles Holocaust Museum and 9.9 miles from the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary – of –the – Woods, along the Wabash River in Indiana, is the Terre Haute Execution Chamber, where U.S. federal executions occur.  Since 1988, when the Supreme Court restored the federal death penalty, all executions have been here.  

The Supreme Court struck down the law in 1972.  Before that, that last execution was in 1963.  Since the Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1988, there have been only 3 people executed.  Therefore, continuing general trends against capital punishment both within the court system and in the court of public opinion, the last half century has seen the elimination of federal executions and with the restoration of the law, a reluctance to use it. 

This changed in 2019, when William Barr became Attorney General.  Following the dictates of his (and current) president, enforcement of the death penalty was reinstated.  The following year, 2020, as of this writing, 8 people have been executed and 5 more are scheduled to be, the last one on the anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday, January 15th.  The federal government is simultaneously pushing for a variety of methods for the administration of the death penalty, such a 1 or 3 chemical lethal injections, electrocution and the firing squad.  In half a year, we have more than doubled the federal executions of half a century.  In a final act of Christian Evangelical supported cruelty, the outgoing administration will add to its legacy of state sponsored death.  

Prison Theology pushes back against the death machine.  We have created and sustained a libratory education process with individual souls within the death camps of America.  Prison Theology is a Theology of Hope.   

*Note – Statistics from deathpenaltyinfo.org and public records

Photo by Chris Barbera

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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From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

October 22, 2020

We have scattered our seeds to the wind.  We have cultivated some of the garden.  But one of the values of our work is that a spiritual practice is set in motion.  We are working with the inner development of people and shifts of paradigms in society (theology), things not so easily quantifiable.  In other words, Jesus overturned the moneychangers in the temple, but we still have Christian capitalism.  

Prison Theology wants to undo incarcerated culture with the incarnation of Christ within inmates.  Pontius Pilate offers prison reform but will not give the keys to the prison up, and so will never receive the keys to the kingdom.  Middle class society must choose between Christ and Barabbas – between Prison Theology and prison reform.  Prison Theology does support prison reform.  Prison Theology believes in any advancement of conscience and social structures, both of which move towards “doing less harm.”  But the goal is to move towards a society that brings the peaceful will of God that is “on earth as it is in heaven.”  In heaven, I imagine no prisons. 

October 14, 2020

Prison Theology is not a dogma.  We do not have creeds articulated.  We have a conceptual framework.

Jesus the Liberator is not a church.  We do not have (exclusive) membership rolls.  We extend and support.

What is the value of openness when the walls of churches and prisons are closed?  Should not “Christian formation and sacraments” be required to maintain “order and cohesion?”

What if seeds of consciousness are planted without concern for cultivation?  Is not the planting of seeds the first act of the garden?

Prison Theology is concerned primarily with planting the seed of that idea within “Christians in churches” and “inmates in prison.”  Inmates in prison are the Christian Church within Prison Theology.

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From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

October 6, 2020

The president caught the virus.  At a press conference, about 10 doctors appeared to give an update.  He has the best health care in the nation (or world).  It fair to assume that the rich and powerful, like him, have about 10 doctors attending to 1 person. 

When I was setting up a program in prison for volunteers visiting inmates, I had to get a tuberculosis test.   The Erie County Medical Center (ECMC), in collaboration with the University of Buffalo Medical School, “exported” these test to a few health centers around the city, primarily in poorer neighborhoods.  So, I went to the Jesse Nash Center on William Street, near Jefferson, in a largely African American neighborhood.  When I entered, dozens of people were waiting for care.  While getting tested, I found out that there were no doctors on sight and only 2 nurses.  They mostly tested for tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases (STD’S), and Hepatitis.  Similarly, there were few medical staff people in the prison facilities I visited.

The (materially) rich and (earthly, crudely) powerful have a 10 to 1 ratio of doctors to patients.  The poor have perhaps 1 doctor for 100 people if they are lucky.  What is the morality of such a dichotomy?  Prison Theology, in line with the teaching of Jesus, would claim that this inequality is immoral.

September 29, 2020

I have seen and felt a new reality – life is suffering and forgiveness.  Since all people are imperfect and broken, all are thereby capable or deserving of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a salve and solution to suffering.  Forgiveness is a freeing energetic force.

Anger is a powerful emotion.  It is a primary experience and emotion opposite to forgiveness.  It serves some purpose but is mostly deadly.  It is the base of the judicial system and of retribution.  It leads to punishment which leads to more violence.

Forgiveness is seen by some as weak and retribution as strong.  In an unchecked patriarchal cultural, strength is a monumental virtue.  Police and military (centurion guards) exhibit strength.  Law and order are virtues of the patriarchy.  

Forgiveness frees us of the patriarchal toxins.  Forgiveness does not condone violence or wrongdoing.  It gives us a new perspective, from a space of freedom, in which to engage the world.  Freedom, a foundational component of love, is a universal aspiration.  Forgiveness, and not anger, is a direct step towards love, which is a foundational component of freedom. 

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September 23, 2020

I have written this weekly short column for one year.  One intention was to elaborate, over time, the many concepts, visions, feelings, methods and influences of Prison Theology.  Another intention was to do that in a short space that could be read quickly and mulled over – like a parable or hieroglyphic.  

Time is limited.  Time is precious.  Can we communicate parts of our authentic self to others in a passing verbal exchange?  Is this why Jesus spoke in parables?  Can an hour long visit to a prison inmate produce a bond or shift within us that will remain for a life time?  Do we have the patience and focus to listen deeply to what is said, and hold it without judgment?  Would that be an act of Christian love?

September 17, 2020

This past Saturday, Contemplative Outreach, an organized group of people who practice a Christian form of Centering Prayer, had a book donation for the community in front of St. John’s Grace.  It was a day of great generosity and dialogue.  Many conversations about prayer and meditation took place on the stones in front of the door of the English Gothic church under the statue of John high above.

The books that were not distributed to the community were donated to Jesus the Liberator and will be distributed to prison inmates.  Christian prayer and studiousness and generosity and service to the “least of these” in prison all came together with the full support of the community of St. John’s Grace.

St. John’s Grace has a tradition of healing and prayer.  This is why Contemplative Outreach, led by Keith Kristich and Jesus the Liberator feel at home here.  One of the visions of Jesus the Liberator is to see prisons as potential places of study, prayer and devotion – a seminary with prison – and to see inmates as a source of spiritual power.  The books donated from Contemplative Outreach and the continual support of St. John’s Grace help us to bring that vision into fruition.

From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

September 9, 2020

Within our new book, More to this Confession: Relational Prison Theology, we present some anonymous voices from prison inmates.   As a way of “mining the data of words” and exegesis, I want to give insight into the mind and experience of inmates who write short cryptic words either separate from or within a larger work.  This is a way of doing Prison Theology, that is, contextualizing the spiritual insight within captivity.

For example, someone wrote “People died while I was in jail.”  Can we feel or understand the pain of not even having the choice to say our final peace or blessings – or to receive final peace and blessings?  There is a general unresolved feeling in this.  Existential crises are never shared or carried communally.  The weight of existence is on the individual, like cursed Job.  

In addition, someone wrote about “The variegated, diverse and mundane in prison.”  Prison is a hegemony of punishment but the people inside are unique.  There is boredom and variety.  In this way, we can relate because some life experiences are universal, which helps us to humanize others.

Hearing words of inmates and feeling the emotional power of them is a core of Prison Theology.

Amplifying those words and giving insight and context is another core component.  Connecting those words to a community of faith is an act of love and a “building up of the kingdom.”

Christendom was built upon the words of inmates.  The “kingdom” of the earth mocked the “kingdom” of God and so Jesus “flipped the script.”

Image by Berenice Calderon from Pixabay

September 2, 2020

Within our new book, More to this Confession: Relational Prison Theology, we present some anonymous voices from prison inmates.  Many of these voices in written form are not epigrammatic, but rather short, emotionally potent flashes of insight fraught with pain.  They are sometimes a thought not fully formed but budding with latent liberation and potentiality.  They describe a reality in a few words.

At this moment in time, Kenosha, WI is the new flashpoint and epicenter for racial justice.  Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot 7 times in the back.  An underage white male took it upon himself to strap on an automatic, military style rifle and go defend Kenosha, a city not his own, presumptively defending white Christian Western civilization.  He killed 2 people.  

Within white Christian America, we are seeing that black lives are less important than property.  Laws are written to defend property.  Slaves in America were considered property.  Prison inmates are considered property of the state.  Taken in this context, the following words from a section in our book entitled “Notes from a trial, notes from a journal,” are illuminating.  

“Is the protocol rational, visible, and moral?”

“If the facts align, morality is irrelevant”

“Morality is protection of assets and property”

“This trial is about property”

“Brutal wearing down on technicalities”

August 26, 2020

In our new book, More to this Confession: Relational Prison Theology, I write that “We are creating a template for voices of the ‘mystics and prophets and criminals.’  We are creating an epistemology (theory of knowing) based on the fringe of society, those outside the law or those subjected to or under the law (which in the prison context is one and the same).”

For example, inmates write:

“Resist the death of prison” 

Jehovah-Jireh,

Jehovah-Rapha,

Jehovah-Nissi,

Jehovah-Rohi,

Jehovah-Shalom,

Jehovah-Tisdkenu,

Great God Jehovah

“Embrace eternal life now”

  “Resist the death in prison”

This sequence illustrates that inmates have some knowledge of the diverse attributes of these names of God and the mystic connection to the articulation of the names of God as a means of resistance and “salvation” from the death of prison.  It also shows that “death” (spiritual) is of and in prison.

From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

August 19, 2020

Prison Theology takes into account the power of words and the emotion and thought behind them.  When people in prison do not construct a reasoned and researched theological position, we do not judge them or discredit their insight.  Neither do we discredit or judge the parables of Jesus or the short insights into wisdom of the Book of Proverbs

In our new book, More to this Confession: Relational Prison Theology, I give examples of insights and parables in our introduction.  I write about the depth of feeling and the intuitive aspect of knowledge.  For example, an anonymous inmate wrote this succession of words:

“Yearning”

“Explosive anger”

“Attica and 3rd world poverty”

“Collective act”

Taken together, these words poetically sum up a historical moment and worldview of liberation coming from the grassroots.  These words could have been spoken by a prophet.  Do churches or universities exhibit this depth of power?

August 11, 2020

“The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither reveals nor conceals but signifies.”  Heraclitus 

What does Prison Theology signify?  That life exists within captivity and oppression and suffering?  That the life born of that possesses a depth of love and resilience not felt in polite society?  That the seeds of transforming the world are deep underneath and unseen?  It is this and more.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, the city of Heraclitus, as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” (1:1) He was signifying the unifying power of Christ Jesus to a diverse, cultural, and urbane city.  Paul, a Jew, became a Christian.  He would become neither Jew nor Gentile.  As a prisoner he would become free.

Prisoners in 21st century America are signifying that if freedom can occur in captivity, then it can occur outside captivity.

August 5, 2020

Q Anon is a conspiracy movement that protests unseen “powers and principalities” while supporting a primary power and principality – Trump.  Martin Luther protested the “powers and principalities” of the Catholic Church while encouraging German peasants to support the German nobility.  John Calvin advocated for a Christian government.  If people believe they are moral, then oftentimes they want that morality to attain power.  

Some primary aspects of religious or pseudo-religious organizations are shared experiences, values and vision.  These distinguish a community from the rest of the world.  A special designation of “chosen or special or superior” may poison that community.  It would then degenerate into a cult or what Dr. Martin Luther King called many modern religious structures – a “glorified social club.”

At Jesus the Liberator, we believe that humility, sacrifice and service are core values of the Christian life and message.  We conceive of power as emanating from the liberation from suffering.  Within that is wisdom.  It preserves us from the hubris of empire.  It also squarely aligns us with the proper aspect of protest within the Christian example. We are separate only because moral society deems us “criminal” which means “immoral.”  But Jesus was considered the same.

July 29, 2020

One aspect of our nonprofit model has been to form and sustain spiritual community.  We have done this by creating a “life-line” with people incarcerated and by working with prison chaplains.  That connection is maintained by people on the outside.  The community is based in the “word.”  The word is the meaningful dialogue between “us and them.”  It is also the dialogue between “self and God” where people listen and speak to the “still small voice within.”  People often hear the “still small voice within” by reading.  There is a dialogue between the author and the reader.  The dialogue is expressed through reading and writing.  

One of the foundations of education is literacy.  We encourage people to read and then provide them the books free of charge.  We emotionally support them and give feedback and insights.  We do not judge but we enhance and guide and facilitate.  

Jesus claimed that “freely you have been given, freely you shall give.”  Within a society motivated by the accumulation of wealth and goods, we labor for free and distribute books for free.  Many of our books have been freely donated.  Below is an excerpt from our recent publication that testifies to one of our witnesses.

“Rev. Dr. Douglas Gilbert was a Presbyterian minister and medical doctor who greatly influenced our thinking about the interrelation between body and mind and spirituality and addiction (Meister Eckhart and brain chemistry for example).  When he passed on, he bequeathed his great theological library to us which over time (especially within this house) we have shared freely with hundreds of prison inmates.”

From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

July 22, 2020

There used to be a Walden Avenue bus that would follow that road all the way from downtown Buffalo, NY to the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, NY.   The Buffalo Correctional Facility and Wende Correctional Facility were all on the same line.  It was a direct, energy efficient and easy way to visit people.   Like many such services (we paid a fare), it was cancelled.  

Those 3 prisons were near each other, in a rural area by Ellicott creek.  As I took the bus out there to visit one particular poor, black woman who was being punished for her drug addiction, I read St. Teresa of Avila’s The Foundations.   I reflected upon how the great Teresa organized her monastic order and contrasted that with how America organized prisons.  I reflected upon the intention of the monastic order as a “house of God,” a kind of “Bethlehem.”  Like the 19th century poet Rimbaud re-conceiving factories as mosques, I re-conceived prisons as monasteries.   Imagination is necessary for inner freedom and the re-conceiving of the world.

From this seed of conception, I began to develop, with others, a center of spiritual learning within captivity – a seminary within prison.  From this, a prison theology began to evolve.

I do not know what became of the woman I visited.   She is one of the multitudes of voices that have been integrated into our spiritual vision.

Photo by Leo Cardelli on Pexels.com

July 14, 2020

Would Jesus Christ or New Testament writer Paul work to defund the police?  Of course they would.  Although diplomatic overtures were made to authorities, most of the people who accompanied these men were victims of the police.  The Centurion guard that Jesus makes peace with was both an expression of his universal love and also a pragmatic gesture of self preservation for him and his movement and people.  Paul wrote the Book of Romans as an insight into spiritual reality (Jesus) and worldly (Roman) law.  Romans represent the body, Christ represent the soul.  But one cannot “serve two masters.”  

Can Christians engage in the tribulations of a culture?  The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others would say that they (we) must.  There is a link between Christ and culture.  The culture of America is rooted in a slave owning class of aristocrats.  They needed and used the police and military apparatus to maintain and perpetuate their power.  Jesus Christ, in the American culture, would most definitely proclaim “defund the police!” 

The police and military apparatus “live by the sword.”  Rather than asking them to “die by the sword,” it is spiritually necessary and reasonable to rather “defund the police!”  

Is it within the nature of Prison Theology to reduce the violence of the centurion guards within prison cell America and on the streets?  Of course!  A direct and nonviolent way is to “defund the police!”

July 9, 2020

Our third book, available online or in print form, is centered on one of our principle ideas and practices – that knowledge, faith, meaning, and identity are contained within each person; “The kingdom of God is within.”  We facilitate a process of revelation and connect that to larger themes of theological insight.

Part of our methodology/pedagogy is described in this excerpt from More to this Confession: Relational Prison Theology:

“We maintain a kind of Socratic Method of seeing ideas and answers within others and drawing them out in dialogue and relation. Memory and subjective vision are a core of a confession or autobiography. Words such as “hermetic, atomistic and autodidactic” apply.  Because solitude is a condition of prison, we draw out the good essence of a bad situation.  

Each autobiography is then supported and enhanced.  Every person is accepted, and each autobiography is valid.  This makes the approach relative and relational. Perhaps it makes it somewhat “postmodern” in that each point of reference is individual. This is our fundamentally democratic approach to education. The collecting of a multiplicity of voices makes it a democratic experience. 

The ethics of a confession is that in articulation, one is bearing the weight of the past (a sin or crime) and bringing it out into a light which heals. In so doing, the dead survives the dead in their time. Positively told, by “taking the light from under the bushel” and showing the world, one brings a truth into existence.”