We can learn much from the fasting and hunger strikes of people incarcerated. We can learn much from the systematic practice of fasting ascribed by Islamic Ramadan. One is motivated by acts of survival and resistance and one is motivated by the ritualistic tradition of deepening faith and awareness. Both affect society by individual sacrifice. One is extreme and one is tempered.
The concept of Prison Theology weaves and incorporates similar and disparate ideas and practices that challenge the fundamental hegemony of punishment. Can we fast from the tendencies to judge and punish? Can we fast from unquestioningly and automatically funding the police, military, and prisons as the first response to social and individual threat and harm? Can we relearn that fasting transforms our punitive carnal behaviors into restorative, merciful and faithful action?
April 27, 2021
“I am George Floyd with the beard and the dreadlocks, forget the dreads, just the locks” I am George Floyd, 2020, Lil B
“Cops on my tail so I bail ‘til I dodge ‘em, they finally pull me over and I laugh, ‘Remember Rodney King?’” Soulja, 1991, 2Pac Shakur
“Build your penitentiary, we build your schools, brainwash education to make us the fools, hatred your reward for our love, telling us of your God above.” Crazy Baldheads, 1976, Bob Marley
Each generation of black men speak out (sing out) against police violence, poverty, and prisons. A young black woman, Darnella Frazier, filmed the killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, thereby providing the crucial evidence that has impacted a worldwide movement for racial justice. A young black woman, Amanda Gorman, recited “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 Presidential inauguration.
These are examples of black arts, testimonies and documents that create a kind of “theology” of the people. Each of these is an inspiration for Prison Theology.
As of this writing, I am awaiting the decision of the trial of the killer of George Floyd. I am thinking through the thought of Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis as it relates to the hegemony of police, race and capital as it is manifested by the American Pontius Pilate Centurion Guard Prison-Industrial Complex. The echoes of pain and history, contemporary circumstance, progressive thought, spiritual essence, prayer life and sacrificial, compassionate action on behalf of primarily poor and oppressed people are key tenets of Prison Theology.
This trial is technically about one man. The Roman Centurion guards who killed Christ were not named, so I will not name the American Centurion guard who killed George Floyd. The trial of Jesus was about more than one man, so too is the present moment. Race, police violence and militarized society protecting capital are some of what is on trial.
April 13, 2021
I read that the state of Maryland just passed a police reform bill. In addition to limiting the use of force and no knock warrants by police, it also repeals the “bill of rights for police officers.” I knew that the centurion guard could legally arrest and kill people, so why did they need extra rights? Do other professions have a special bill of rights? Does the police bill of rights overrule the United States Bill of Rights that protects black people killed by police? Why are the centurion guard more honored than the 12 disciples?
Prison Theology, following a major tenet of Liberation Theology, gives “preferential option to the poor.”’ We love all but “prefer” or give attention to inmates before guards. Both Jesus and Barabbas were arrested by the centurion guard, presumably under the auspices of “law and order” and protected by a “bill of rights.” What other secrets, protections and rights hide behind the “thin blue line” of police?
In the first chapter of our first book, I gave examples of letters to prison inmates as a template for how to create a teaching method. We found that if inmates use their time in a purposeful way, they can discover truths about themselves and existence.
To Lori I wrote, “I was reading how the man of authority, King Nebuchadnezzar, fell prostrate before Daniel, the prophet, and said to him “Your God must be the God of gods, the master of kings and the Revealer of Mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery.” (Dn 2:47-48) Both you and Daniel share the experience of captivity and the capacity of penetrating the mysteries, with humility. The titles of your papers reveal a direction of thought – “Purpose” and “Unlocking the Mysteries.”I read and listened to what Lori wrote, put it into the context of captivity, and offered it back to her. Scriptural and education traditions seen through the experience and thought of 21st century American prison inmates, is a key to Prison Theology.
March 30, 2021
In our 2nd publication, Jelani Zulante wrote from solitary confinement that “I am beginning to realize that if I continue to reconstruct these mental delusions then I’d be writing for days, because I went places and did things and spent so much money and talked with loved ones long past and talked with God and communicated with people via mental telepathy. I looked death in the eye and laughed on several different occasions. And when the psychosis passed I found myself in a cell in Upstate Correctional Facility and I felt so utterly empty, alone and scarred and I, I wanted my psychosis back. I really wanted it back…”
Solitary confinement will legally end in its most extreme forms in New York State soon. Spiritual witnesses like Jelani survived to tell the story of solitary confinement in the raw, emotional, experiential language of vision and delusion that is common with Judeo-Christian prophets like Jeremiah’s ladder and bread unto heaven from prison or Ezekiel’s spinning wheels. What did the future convict on the run, Jesus, see in those days of fasting in the desert when the delusion of devils and hunger played upon his mind?
Dr. Gabrie’l Atchison spoke from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on the first Sunday of spring in the year of our Lord 2021 about contextual theology, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Hagar the slave woman, the alabaster jar of precious oil, Our Mother’s Garden, and Womanist theology.
I thought about Prison Theology. The inner being of each person in prison is an alabaster jar of precious oil, offered up in devotion to the personal deity, though a slave, Christ on the cross of a lynching tree of mass incarceration. The relational spirituality of Womanist/Feminist theology is a methodological connection between Philemon and Onesimus.
March 17, 2021
Thoughts on Mariposa and the Saint, a one act monologue play recently shown via Episcopalian justice circles and outreach initiatives.
Is Mariposa the Saint? High atop the Sierra Nevadas, before the white man made prisons and reservations, this woman’s mother’s people lived and now this mother lived surviving a cruel world when she pulled a knife on a man. In prison, the memories and breathe of freedom mix with walls enclosing. She smiles, Sara, the solitary voice become Mariposa now inside, the still small voice, outside. The depravity of American cruelty is a faceless, nameless pawn, not quite a banality of evil nor a commoditization; something akin to the great white whale, “the atheistic absence of all color”, though they are God fearing Christians.
Please end solitary confinement dear Jesus.
March 9, 2021
There is a term “public-private partnership” which essentially translates into public lands and entities becoming more private. Buffalo’s canal side waterfront is an example of this, where land and wealth flow into private hands. This is more explicit in western states and territories. Ecological preservation is commoditized, privatized and monetized.
Prisons are a “public-private partnership.” State and federal prisons are built on public land; the public, through land and taxes, own prisons. Public taxes then maintain prisons and pay staff. Private entities use prison labor. The public, therefore, funds private entities. Prisons are commoditized, privatized and monetized.
The commoditization, privatization and monetization of land and people is par for the course in Christian America.
March 2, 2021
What does one think or feel in solitude? How does one think or feel with little or no relation and connection with others? Without relationship can one evolve?
Prison Theology has looked at the tragic situation of people in prison and tried to bring this essence into life outside of prison. It has tried to offer the best insights of hermitical saints who voluntarily live in solitude into the solitude of prison. Can Anthony of Egypt, Trappists or Yogis in isolated Himalayan mountains osmosis into the solitude of solitary confinement 21st century prison-industrial late stage capitalist America?
In our 2nd publication, Jelani Zulante wrote of his experience in isolation, which he entitled “I Call This Authentic Non-Reality.” He writes “I dreamed a dream for two months. However, the nightmare began once the dream ended and I returned to my physical body only to discover how badly damaged and abused I was.”
Can hermitical saints in prison separate the dream from the nightmare?
February 23, 2021
Some look at faith communities and churches through the lens of the “emerging church.”
In thinking about the annual reports for our organization, I have put together observations about the economics of the “emergent church” as it relates to our efforts.
We have always been a small organization. We are volunteered led; we pay no salaries. This keeps us in solidarity with poor people. It also creates no hierarchies.
Our rent has never been paid to a private owner or business, but to faith communities who host us and use that money to support charitable efforts. We become part of that community. At our host, St. John’s Grace, we continue to contribute to the weekly newsletter, and have supported and co-created community groups and relationships with an emphasis on prison issues. We again supported Contemplative Outreach, a group focused upon developing and popularizing Christian prayer and meditation with the hopes to bring peaceful consciousness, by initially paying their rent, and sharing office space. By helping to give them an opening at St. John’s, they were able to work with 12 step programs and individuals and offer a Saturday morning meditation with others.
We have always extensively used the United State Postal Service. We support entities of good governance like the post office, in our efforts to address the prison-industrial complex, an example of malicious governance.
When specific types of books or educational materials have been requested from inmates, we have used local independent bookstores and business.
We believe these efforts align us with “localized Christian independence/interdependence” and keep us minimal and humble and intuitively open to new “emergent movements.”
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.