Prison Theology Blog

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.”

From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

June 30th, 2020

As Jesus the Liberator enters our 25th year, we have been practicing the African parable of Sankofa – looking back to move forward.  Therefore, we have been putting our archives in order and have completed our 3rd book, which contains organizational history.

In September of 2018, we presented at the Prison Abolition Conference at Canisius College.  The abolition of prisons is similar to the current national discussions of abolition or defunding of the police.  It is not a scary or fearful idea.  It is a way of re-conceiving community and individual safety.  It is also a theological discussion of crime and punishment.  

Within our re-conception, we wrote in the abstract for the presentation that “we have emphasized personal narratives of liberation, Liberation Theology, African American Theology, Feminist/Womanist Theology, meditation techniques of the East and West, creative writing and restorative justice, among others.”

These knowledge streams help to form a Prison Theology and can also help to form a re-conception of policing in our nation.  In making this claim, we see a place for theology, the church and ritual in the healing of police/prison brutality and its underlying reality of racism.

June 25th, 2020

Before the American civil war, slaves were considered property (Dred Scott et. all).  In the 21st century, prison inmates are considered property of the state.  Law and order politicians are concerned about property rights of property owners.  Many law and order politicians speak about an ownership society. 

There can be no slavery or private property if everything is held in common, as mentioned within the Book of Acts 4:32.  No individual can own another individual, and so no individual is property. Christian consciousness, common and collective caretaking, and the spiritual dignity of each individual abolish slavery.  The abolition of slavery necessitates the abolition of the prison and police system as it is currently practiced and conceived followed by the reconstruction and restoration of a just way of being and sustaining peace.  

At Jesus the Liberator, we believe in the inherent spiritual freedom within each individual.  By facilitating that freedom within people considered property of the state, we are simultaneously helping to bring about a spiritual freedom within the property owners in society.

June 17th, 2020

We are witnessing quick and profound shifts in the long struggle for equality and justice, spearheaded by Black Lives Matter.  The voice of the street is informing cultural values and political and legal structures.  We are clearly seeing the connections between the military, police and prisons – all implements of a slaveholding societal overlord.  

One way in which Jesus the Liberator has addressed this is by creating a space within the minds of prison inmates for freedom of thought.  In a world of domination, we offered Christian servitude to the servants and said “no matter what you did, we love and support you and here are some books to think about it and here are people willing to respond to your inquiries.”  

Inquires led to study and writing of papers and a completion of a curriculum. That coursework was sometimes transferred to Empire State College to be accredited.  Some of our initial monetary support was from the New York State VESID grant, the Equal Opportunity Center (EOC) and the Department of Education.  And so, we gave support and education to many victims of the slaveholders, and we used institutions within the society of slaveholders to do so.  This helped to humanize these institutions and also prioritized a vulnerable population.  The key to this was the relationship between Christians willing to serve inmates and build a culture and concept collaboratively. 

We have been working to show that transformative consciousness begins from the grassroots and from those who have liberated themselves.  A Prison Theology originating with descendents of slaves is transforming individuals and slaveholding institutions within the society.   

From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

June 9, 2020

As Jesus the Liberator enters our 25th year, we have been practicing the African parable of Sankofa – looking back to move forward.  Therefore, we have been putting our archives in order and completing our 3rd book, which contains organizational history.

This summer will be our 5th anniversary at St. John’s Grace, our 5th “House of Witness.”    We hope that it will be a long-lasting relationship.   In the spirit of mutual redemption and collective support and consciousness, we would like to thank a few members of St. John’s Grace, another “cloud of witnesses”…

Rev. Judy Breny was the pastor that invited us to St. John’s Grace.  I have written about her previously but will briefly say that her vision of the Christian Church as witness and advocate of the “poor, oppressed and long-suffering” harmonized with our work.  David Mathewson, the long time parish administrator and music director, advocated for us and supported and made our transition seamless.  Kathy Stelter was a prudent gatekeeper and assessed, approved and handed us a key.   Tom Lochner was also a virtuous gatekeeper. Herb Hogue fixed any structural issues of the building space.  Lydell Gilbert was a warm soul who was always pleasant to be around and made us feel welcome and helped transform our rental space from a storage area into an office.  Dr. James Martin was on our board and expanded our consciousness of “Christian Humanism,” “ego-strength for inmates” and gave brilliant analysis of teaching methods that encouraged reading and writing, which enhanced our theological correspondence program.  John Schimminger and Stefana Paskoff worked on evaluations for our archiving, as did David Lillvis, who also introduced St. Anselms’s Proslogion, which harmonized with our pedagogy in that he wrote about a “faith seeking understanding.” Ann Dutton attended some of our talks and informed us of the goodness, potential, rituals and history of the Episcopalian tradition.  Robert Peterson assisted us in many direct and intangible ways.  Vanessa Pelligrenetti created a Rembrandt-esq cover drawing for our upcoming book.  Rev. Jon Lavelle, the current minister, inspired us by combining the pastoral and prophetic aspects of the Christian Church.  And Colleen Morrissey was a good friend and has helped us promote this work of mercy and justice by giving us space to write about it…

In keeping with the brevity of this column, I could not tell all the details and wonders of the above people or mention many others.

I will mention that Gabrie’l Atchison, who was the parish administrator at St. John’s Grace, became fundamental to our organization. 

June 4, 2020

As Jesus the Liberator enters our 25th year, we have been practicing the African parable of Sankofa – looking back to move forward.  Therefore, we have been putting our archives in order and completing our 3rd book, which contains organizational history.

Relative to the uprisings we are witnessing, Gabrie’l Atchison writes in our forthcoming book that “Mass incarceration has its origins in the unwillingness of a slaveholding class to let go of people they once held as property, and has swallowed up generations of African Americans disproportionately…”

The members of the police force that killed George Floyd are an extension of the authoritarian apparatus that manifests in prisons, police, court systems, parole, bail bonds, ICE (immigration customs enforcement), border patrol, facial recognition technology and surveillance, homeland security and a host of similar entities.  How can any moral person not resist this?  Does not morality imply a resistance to death?  

Part of our resistance is to support, advocate and give a space for people in prison. 

May 28, 2020

As Jesus the Liberator enters our 25th year, we have been practicing the African parable of Sankofa – looking back to move forward.  Therefore, we have been putting our archives in order and completing our 3rd book, which contains organizational history.

Within that 3rd book is a section entitled “The Cloud of Witnesses.”   This refers to the book of Hebrews 12:1.  Jesus the Liberator has been blessed by a multitude of witnesses – some within prison and some without.   I included two ministers of St. John’s Grace as witnesses…

“Rev. Judy Breny was a student of James Cone and Black Liberation Theology.  She had a vision of the church as a bridge between rich and poor neighborhoods and invited us to use the space as an office and new home.  Her sense of church and justice collaborated and supported our efforts.”

“Rev. Jon Lavelle was the minister of our host church who filled in when Judy stepped down.  His years of ecumenical and interfaith service in the Middle East gave him a unique voice and critique of the Christian Empire of America, which affirmed our libratory educational approach.” 

The 2 excerpts above are taken from our forthcoming publication, More to this Confession: Relational Prison Theology. 

May 19, 2020

As Jesus the Liberator enters our 25th year, we have been practicing the African parable of Sankofa – looking back to move forward.  Therefore, we have been putting our archives in order and completing our 3rd book, which contains organizational history.

Our foundation is built upon Judeo-Christian principles and consciousness and service to/for/with poor people, particularly those incarcerated.  We were founded by ministers and professors trained and educated in Western liberal arts traditions of broad and diverse theoretical perspectives and methodologies.  And so, our view of Jesus and the Christian tradition incorporates layers of knowledge.

What is the correlation between Buddhist meditation and cognitive behavioral theory (CBT) and how does that relate to Jesus claiming that the “Kingdom of God is within” and how can all of this benefit an inmate who uses her/his time for conscious evolution and spiritual growth?

Do Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious correlate with Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) and other 12 step programs that affect so many people incarcerated?

How does Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs correlate with Thomas Keating’s steps leading to “unitive” consciousness expressed in Centering Prayer benefit the inmate meditating?

These are some of the questions of Prison Theology.

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?

From the desk of Chris Barbera at Jesus the Liberator

March 31st, 2020

Naomi Klein recently spoke about “Coronavirus Capitalism.”  It is an extension of her idea of “Disaster Capitalism.” It is the vultures swooping in at time of greatest pain.  It is sadistic and greedy.  

Sadism and greed are two roots of incarceration.  They are also roots of slavery. Slavery was a capitalistic enterprise.  Foucault claimed that society is fixated upon “discipline and punishment,” which is another root/perceived remedy of incarceration.

Prison inmates are seen as a “root of all evil.”  Paul wrote that the “love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) He was certainly disciplined and punished and cast into prison.  The modern prison system is a multi-billion dollar industry that mostly warehouses poor people. 

Early Christian communities, like Christian communities in modern prisons, share a survival resiliency within a sadistic, punitive, greed driven empire.  The roots of much spirituality are within this struggle. At Jesus the Liberator, we would like to show how small forms of resiliency/survival inform and lead to a formation of faith.  This faith is the “still small voice within” and the redemptive seed of the larger society.

March 24, 2020

In our publication, Prison Theology, Lori Carter, an inmate at Fluvanna Correctional Facility in Virginia wrote an essay entitled “A Journey Through the Wilderness.”  She and many others refer to their time in prison as a “wilderness experience.” Similarly, Bo Lozoff wrote a book through the Prison Ashram project entitled “We’re All Doing Time.”  Doing time in the wilderness is a time of atonement, reflection, sacrifice and inner spiritual growth.

During this health pandemic and economic shutdown we are all doing time in the wilderness.  Like inmates, we are on some form of lockdown. Like inmates who have worked through “trials and tribulations” with resiliency and evolved consciousness, so too we all have a golden opportunity to reorient our world.  Many Inmates are the most patient people I have ever met. Since their fate and temporal conditions are very physically and tangibly sealed, they realize that the only reality that matters is spiritual.

It is my hope that we can apprehend this wisdom of prison inmates.  And when we apprehend it, we can integrate it into of life and world. 

March 17, 2020

The United States spends untold billions if not trillions of dollars on prisons, detention camps, border patrol, criminal courts, parole, surveillance and all manner of things related to the “prison-industrial complex.”  If we add to this the “military-industrial complex” and subsidies for fossil fuel companies and Wall Street bail-outs then the figure jumps to several trillions of dollars. Where are the people screaming “get big government off my back!?”

Now that we are in the middle of a health pandemic, wouldn’t it be wise to consider a transfer of wealth from the above mentioned “big government” entities to more relevant health and safety entities like the Center for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health, Medicaid and Medicare?

Rev. Fed Jensen, in our publication Prison Theology, wrote about the “Gerasene Demoniac.”  This is the story in Luke 8 about Jesus casting a man’s demons into a herd of swine that then drown.  Fred claims that since Jews did not eat swine, the swine herders were an imported Roman imperial economy.  Just as Jesus “overturned the money changers,” so too he casts demons into and destroys the imperial swine economy.  

Jesus the Liberator is not asking to destroy the demon economy of prisons, military, Wall Street speculative finance and fossil fuels.  We are simply asking a transfer of wealth and priority to health and education. Did Jesus use more time healing and teaching or did he make war and wealth?  Did the healing and teaching of Jesus lead him to prison?

March 10, 2020

On this past Sunday, I spoke with Bishop Sean about our evolving concept of Prison Theology.  His Lenten message is entitled “Deepening Commitment to Racial Justice.” The Episcopal Church has offered up “Resources for Racial Reconciliation and Justice” on its website.  Steve Hart, a member of St. John’s Grace, is a leading force in the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NYCAIC). Father Jon is involved with that effort, has visited prison inmates and is supportive of similar efforts. 

I list all of this to remind people that the larger church body, the local diocese and our particular parish all have a vested interest in racial justice and in addressing the injustice of prisons (which has a large racially discriminatory aspect).

Perhaps “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; to bind the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of prison to them that are bound.” (IS 61:1)

Please consider if you are called to these efforts within our “church” and “Our Church.”

From the Desk of Chris Barbera

March 3, 2020

Jesus the Liberator began forming as the 1994 United States Crime Bill was being passed.  One of our lineages and philosophical underpinnings is Liberation Theology. One of its main tenets states that Jesus showed a “preferential option for the poor.”  The crime bill was a legal and philosophical underpinning that greatly expanded and justified incarceration, the war on drugs and policies such as stop and frisk, all of which oppress the poor.  In other words, to support the crime bill and other such “tough on crime” policies is to give a “preferential option” for the suppression of the poor, which benefits the rich.

Pontius Pilate, as an administrator for the empire, was most likely “tough on crime.”  He used the full extent of the law to execute Jesus. In other words, “justice was served.”  Jesus’ compatriots’, Peter and Paul, who served time in prison, also received “justice.”

Did Pontius Pilate ever receive justice for exploiting the land, wealth and people of the foreign lands of the Eastern Mediterranean?   Did financers who crash markets and impoverish multitudes receive justice? What about the C.E.O.’s of fossil fuel industries that create massive environmental catastrophes that kill countless animals, plants, fauna and eco systems that support life? Is the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima a minor oversight or misdemeanor?  Or how about the war criminals that create endless “wars on terror?”

Jesus simultaneously overturned the moneychangers in the temple and “prayed for those who persecute.”  He addressed systemic oppressions and still prayed for the merciful softening of heart of the powerful ignorant. 

Jesus the Liberator addresses the disease of mass incarceration and still prays for the warden.  But mostly we have connected with inmates (the Christians in prison).

From the desk of Chris Barbera

February 25, 2020

Dr. James Mitchell was a contract psychologist for the C.I.A. who developed torture techniques to be implemented at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility following 9/11/2001.  He recently claimed it was his moral and patriot duty. This struck me as eerily similar to the echoes of testimonies from the Nuremburg trials following World War 2.

Many of us thought that we discredited the belief that torture produce truth.  Or that torture itself has any redeeming value. Sadly, in military-prison-industrial complex America, we still have much moral work to do.  

In our reading of gospel writings, it is clear that Jesus, whom Christians derive lineage, was tortured.  Many American patriot Christians support institutions of torture like the military and prison. Many of these people are well educated; “for the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:19)

New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage (2002)

February 17, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 10th day, the final day.  We spend the day meeting and speaking with legislators about many of the issues that I have written about in this column.  

Any changes in law start out as grassroots initiatives.  Spiritual practices such as fasting, prayer and pilgrimage unite with pragmatic efforts of networking regional communities into a statewide collective.  In addition to this is the uniting of faith communities with politically progressive ideas thereby spiritualizing democracy or democratizing spirituality.  Jesus was inherently progressive in that he wanted to profoundly alter the order and conception of the world – the “king of the Jews” was a poor homeless itinerant preacher who claimed “power” was not with the King/emperor of Rome.  He claimed that the blessed were those who were “poor”, “mourning”, “hungering”, “thirsting” and “persecuted.” Jesus led a pilgrimage of egalitarian poor people into Jerusalem. Similarly, we as ex-offenders and advocates led a pilgrimage into Albany.  

Personal faith and sacrifice fused into collective progressive advocacy of justice is an essence of pilgrimage.  History is made from these efforts even when political “leaders” claim credit.

“The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority,
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
It is because it lays claim to no merit That its merit never deserts it.” (Lao Tzo, Tao Te Ching 2:7)

February 11, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 9th day.  

We meet with Father Young.  He has initiated a way of “creating taxpayers” by using the threefold pillar of housing, education and vocational training.  He has helped to find housing and jobs for ex-offenders and addicts with this approach. We visited a hotel that was mainly staffed by ex-offenders.  If people are given dignity and vocations, without the stigma of judgment and excommunication from the social contract, then we heal both the individual and society.  If “saving people” is not a motivation for American Christians, then saving money surely must be. In other words, someone becomes a “productive citizen” rather than a ward or prisoner of the state, thereby saving taxpayers.  As one of the corporate C.E.O.’s once said, “the business of America is business.” Father Young and Father Baker have understood this and put a spiritual and compassionate spin on this uniquely capitalistic approach to reality. 

Afterwards, we strategize about the upcoming legislative visits.

February 5, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 8th day.  In the morning, we go St. Francis de Sales to speak about the pilgrimage to the congregation, which is filled with large numbers of Vietnamese and Sudanese people.  During the service, a Haitian baby is being baptized.

I am asked to give a speech about the pilgrimage in lieu of a priestly sermon.  I quote the old spiritual “My feets is tired but my soul is free.” This is an introductory way of evoking some of the marches in the south during the modern civil rights era; from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and James Meredith’s solitary satyagrahi (truth seeking) “March against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.  I also reference the “Longest Walk” of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which carried a sacred pipe from Alcatraz Island off the coast of San Francisco across the United States to Washington D.C. in 1978. A second walk occurred in 2008 to address climate change and native sovereignty. In 2016, runners from Standing Rock, North Dakota spread the message of the “water protectors” resisting “oil/fossil fuel protectors.”  The earth and people of the earth are incarcerated by oil, extractive, exploitative economies, militarism and social control.

Afterward, we go with some church people to witness at Coxsackie and Greene Correctional Facilities.

At the end of the day, we travel to Bruderhof, a German Anabaptist community just west of the Hudson River, south of Albany.  

January 29, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 7th day.  We wake to the sound of waterfalls in Ithaca.  It rains and continues all day. We pass thru Onondaga Territory, keepers of the fire for the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Longhouse, the native people of what is now called New York State, on the way to Rome to meet families of inmates.  Afterwards, we witness at Oneida and Mohawk Correctional facilities in the pouring rain. It is a cruel ironic reality that the names of patriarchal punishment centers are taken from a people who have lived for 1000 years in a peaceful democratic society.  This matrilineal, matriarchal society inspired the constitution of the United States. We sang and drummed in the rain and prayed for the spirits in the land to free the land and the people in bondage to the owners on the land; the prison industrial complex society.

Within the gospel accounts of Jesus, we read of the colonizing forces of Rome “lording over” the peoples of the Middle East.  The courts of Pontius Pilate maintained the laws and prisons and the centurion guard enforced the laws, occupied and colonized places like Nazareth and Bethlehem. 

At night, we receive warmth and hospitality from the Felician sisters and stay at their convent guest house.

January 22, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 6th day.   We pray and witness at Elmira Correctional Facility, then we go to South Port Correctional Facility.  South Port is an ultra modern facility of punishment. It is a technological wonder of super max oppression.  It is an example of one of the most important moral questions that need to be addressed –how to undo the conjoining of hateful, oppressive ideology and irresponsible, greed driven technology.   

We faithfully process in a single serpent line of nonviolence witnessing.  I am in front with the rattle, drums echo off the hills.   Inside this solitary confinement facility in these Finger Lakes, I pray for the men inside and wonder why such natural beauty need be despoiled with hateful oppression and punishment. We are stopped at a road block; we pass the first one and move on.  We are stopped at a second road block and I empty my shoe of dust, give my peace and walk away. We drive to Ithaca to give a news conference. We then travel to Cayuga Correctional Facility and walk up the hill to bear witness. We have a commitment back in Ithaca for a dinner and discussion and so we did not have time to witness at Pharsalia Correctional Facility.  This is the one facility of approximately 30 that we could not witness at and so we pray intentionally longer for the people there, but it remains in my mind the empty ghost of this pilgrimage.   

  At night we sleep at a large Quaker house next to a waterfall somewhere in Ithaca. 

January 14, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 5th day.  We awake in a wood cabin at a Franciscan center in the hills above the Finger Lakes, eat oatmeal and head to the Calvary Church in Auburn to hear speeches against the death penalty and old black women singing spirituals “ain’t no dog gonna hold me down…” And we process out onto the street to witness at the city jail and gather at Harriet Tubman Park to honor the memory and pray before heading out to Five Points Solitary Confinement Facility, which is a contaminated area because of the U.S. army dumping toxic waste there.  In other words, the largest, wealthiest, most destructive organization in the world is dumping toxic waste on inmates and low income housing, which also shares the road with Five Points Solitary.  The U.S. military and prison systems are enemies of poor people and inmates both here and abroad.  So when God blesses America, he is cursing the poor.  Jesus was a poor inmate.

We then head on to Willard Correctional Facility where I kneel down in front of a guard, simultaneously sincerely concerned for his soul while theatrically mocking the power structure.  I am a “fool for Christ.”  The fool mocks the king in the emperor’s court without losing his/her integrity, humor or insights into truth.

At night, we meet in a church or community space to listen to talks about the solitary confinement and the Rockefeller Drug laws.  Since then, the Rockefeller Drug laws have been greatly chipped away at and the “war on drugs” which was inspired by these laws has begun to be questioned and altered.  Solitary confinement is still persistent.  There is a HALT Solitary bill in New York that is waiting to be approved.

January 7, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 4th day.  We awake and do our morning devotions outside the prison walls south of Rochester.  At each prison we pray and leave a paper butterfly to mark our flight.  On the way to and fro, we drum, carry banners and process as if pilgrims in search of a golden chalice.  But the chalice is the liberation of Christ incarcerated early 21st century Empire State. 

In the afternoon, we go to the Quaker house in Rochester to hear from Cephes prison ministry. Personal confessions like unto St. Augustine emanate from witnesses of comrades in prison.  Off we go to St. Lucy’s in Syracuse, to hear and support a presentation of reintegration services.  I remember how Paul directed Philemon to accept Onesimus upon his release prison; reintegration services.  At night we sleep at a Franciscan center in the hills of the Finger Lakes. 

Up in the hills at night, I recall the speech by the stone I gave in Niagara Square, how we were anointed by “66.6% of African and Native blood and bones beneath the prisons poured out into the cup of Eucharist…”  Now we sleep in the mystic poverty of St. Francis.