Prison Theology Blog

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.    

The New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage (2002)

December 31, 2019

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 3rd day.  We awake in a church east of Buffalo I can’t recall and witness at Orleans Correctional Facility and then travel on and cross the tracks beating a lonely drum and witness at Albion Correctional Facility. We then travel to Batavia to witness at the immigration jail, which had become full following the xenophobia after September 11, 2001 and remains full following the racist, xenophobic policies of the present administration.  We recall the hospitality of Abraham entertaining angels and multitudes who are “strangers in a strange land” because of climate catastrophe, mass incarceration and imperial militarism. After prayers and witnessing, we take refuge at the Zen center in the rural woods south of Rochester. Over a lunch of vegetables, we speak of meditation in prison. I recall Bo Lozoff’s work to create ashrams in prison and how this inspired our efforts to create seminaries in prison.  Whether we are in or out of prison, we are “all doing time.” Time spent in prayer, study and meditation is scared time. Consumption, war and punishment are obscene time. Service puts sacred time in motion, and so we walk to the medieval imprisonment castle that is Attica Correctional Facility. The name evokes the dread of crucifixion.

At night, we convene at a church south of Rochester I can’t recall to receive hospitality.  We have a public forum where we hear the words of the “forgotten victims of Attica;” the survivors of the murdered prison guards at Attica during the uprising in 1971.  That uprising was a lightning rod for social change and for seeing the humanity of inmates (Jesus was an inmate). The State saw it as a threat to its power and violently suppressed it with indiscriminate murder, killing random people, both inmates and prison guards.  No one is safe from Pontius Pilate/State Governors/President Trump. Jesus healed the centurion guard and Jesus the Liberator participated in the healing of Attica prison guard families. In other words, the inmate rehabilitates the guard. The guard lays down his gun (down by the riverside) and frees the inmate.  The inmate heals the incarcerated nation. This is a vision of Jesus the Liberator.

December 24, 2019

Last week I introduced some of the background and reasoning for the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage.  Studying humanitarian and peacemaking efforts is a better use of history than studying the timelines of war and empire; or so some of us believe.   Pilgrimage is an ancient and intentional spiritual search. 

On the first day of the pilgrimage, a core of pilgrims witnessed at Lakeview prison facility in the southern tier of Western New York State.  We then made our way to St. Hyacinths Church to hear the words of David Kaczynski, the brother of “Unabomber”, Ted Kaczynski. Hyacinth is a flower and is tied to a mythology of death/rebirth and love.  David spoke of the moral necessity of turning his brother, who was responsible for the killing of people in Oklahoma City, in to the FBI. A sense of duty to the peace of the world outweighed his familial bonds.  He was assured that his revelation of Ted as the Unabomber would remain anonymous. That he felt betrayed by the FBI adds to the questioning of integrity of law enforcement. Also, some claimed that Ted’s resisting the dehumanizing influence of modern technology, albeit in violent form, was not adequately debated.

This story pertains to the pilgrimage in that the act of David’s conscience does not justify the betrayal and abuse of law enforcement.  Questions of moral peaceful necessity, fairness of law enforcement and dehumanizing aspects of technology were all brought into the fore.  The intersection of law and technology adversely affects poor people, who are singled out with surveillance and facial recognition technology and the super-max technological nightmare of incarceration.

Did Jesus ever say anything about betrayal, the abuse of rich people in power or the dehumanization of poor people?  Jesus the Liberator believes that he did and does.

December 13, 2019

During the New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage in 2002, I met and became aware of many people and issues that affect prison inmates and prison policy.  During the following weeks, I will highlight some of these, particularly in terms of theological outlook.

This prison pilgrimage began in Western New York in the spring –“For as the earth brings forth her bud, and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to bring forth fruit; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)The intention was to witness at each of the New York State prisons.  At that time there were about 70 throughout the state. The plan was to divide the pilgrimage into 3 years. The first year would focus on the facilities between Lake Erie in the west and the state capital Albany in the east. The following year would focus on the facilities north of the cities along the thru-way (Albany, Utica, and Syracuse), that is, the great region of northern New York State including the Adirondacks.   The third year would focus upon the facilities south of Albany, along the Hudson, to New York City. Like many great visions, manifesting a part is itself a great victory. We only managed the first year.

In organizing, we set up a network of regional organizers, who planned the logistics, gatherings, themes and speaking arrangements for each set of facilities in their region.  We would drive to within a mile of each facility and then prayerfully or joyfully progress to the facility to witness. We averaged about 3 facilities a day over 10 days. In between each witness or after they were all done, we would receive hospitality from a local faith community.  During that hospitality, there would be a discussion about issues affecting inmates or progressive changes to prison policy. In so doing, we energized and empowered each local community to address mass incarceration and become organizers. We also developed a faith informed dialogue about “crime and punishment.”  

To act and to dialogue and to infuse the creative impetus into social justice while physically walking and spiritually witnessing must bear fruit, for it was an act of faith – “To preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:18). 

Individual stories from this pilgrimage will follow in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, feel free to dialogue with us at St. John’s Grace.

From the desk of Chris Barbera

December 4, 2019

One of the inspirations for my work with prison inmates has been the writings and witness of Bo Lozoff.  He, along with Ram Das, created the Prison Ashram Project.  The Prison Ashram Project was created to integrate meditation and spiritual techniques into prison.  They wanted to reconceive prison as a spiritual community, an ashram.  In no way did they glamorize the suffering.  They understood the importance of a person applying their time to spirituality, regardless of the circumstances they found themselves.  Bo Lozoff’s book is entitled We’re All Doing Time.  A person in prison who uses their time to meditate and attain spiritual knowledge and peace is acting like a yogi.

                Jesus the Liberator Seminary of Religious Justice has worked to create “seminaries “in prison.  A seminary is a school of theology.  The inmates are students.  The inmates are also the teachers.  This is the evolution of “prison theology.”   Inmates, like devotees in ashrams, who use their time to resolve past hurts and grow in faith and knowledge, are helping to build communities of faith within captivity.  To reconceive places of punishment as a place of trial and growth and to use enforced time as time of study is a way to overcome suffering.  This is one of the insights of

November 26, 2019       

Last week I wrote about individuals and faith communities bearing true not “false witness.”  In social ethics, witnesses essentially advocate for “the least of these.” If a society only bears witness to the majority and turns away from the minority, then oppression and inequality will soon follow.  Conversely, if a society holds up the minority equally with the majority, then equality and peace will follow. And if, as Jesus seemed to indicate, we hold the minority above the majority, we will have the kingdom of God.  The “sermon on the mound” within in the gospels (Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6) conditions blessings upon the “minor key”; those who mourn, are poor, oppressed and falsely accused. In effect, the underside of history and society are the progenitors of blessing and consciousness.  Is it any wonder that the great empire of the past accused and killed this migrant, peasant Jesus?

Building a 21st century consciousness upon this insight has led us to prison and to develop in conjunction with the “least of these” a   Rather than just seeing Christians within the Roman Empire, we see poor people of color within America. These are the Christians in the modern context.  And many of these people are seeing Christianity through the lens of non-European Christianity or even through the lens of non-Christian consciousness. Can Christians see others as Christians without the cultural or societal filters?

Christ was arrested (perhaps stopped and frisked), beaten in jail (like documented brutality at the Erie County Holding center and other local facilities) and held without or could not afford bail.  He received the death penalty.

November 20, 2019

People of faith are called to bear witness.  One of the great commandants from Mount Sinai that Moses gave to the people was to “not bear false witness.” (Exodus 20:16)  And so, if a person believes “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20) but advocates for the imprisonment of poor people without property like “migrants”, “vagrants” or homeless people, then that is a false witness.  And so, a faith community which is called to bear collective witness (which is the necessary witness within democracy and community) but praises the military which creates homelessness and poverty, along with climate change, then it is bearing false witness.

Dietrich Bonheoffer was called to bear witness when he saw poor and powerless people (Jews, “gypsies”, the “handicapped”, workers, homosexuals etc.)rounded up and put cages and camps and killed.  His individual witness enlarged a collective witness; a confessing church. A confession is a witness, like Augustine’s Confession as Christian testimony. It is a way to make faith public. The Confessing Church was a public witness against murderous oppression.

In the United States, poor people (including children) are put into prison and their spirit is killed and their community is killed and often times, they are killed either intentionally or not.  Some churches have organized into “sanctuary churches” to house poor homeless people and immigrant/migrants. Others, like St. John’s Grace, have hosted poor communities, like 12 step programs or organizations like ours who support and advocate for poor communities.  These are examples of collective support networks and public faith statements; bearing witness.

A person in prison bears witness to their faith in the face of violent suppression and resistance.   This is a witness to the resiliency and survival of the human/divine spirit. The articulation of it is a form of “Prison Theology.”  It is also a form of intelligence.

November 13, 2019   

Elijah Green, a former professor, minister and board member of Jesus the Liberator claimed that “Caesar is always on the throne.”  Caesar writes the laws. Caesar owns the capital.

“Steal a little and they throw you in jail

Steal a lot and they make you king”

Sweetheart Like You by Bob Dylan

The current president of the United States infamously claimed that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and get away with it.  Caesar is above the law and many people want to be Caesar.   But Jesus claimed that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) This embeds itself in the highest law “to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:19) And so, according to Christian ethics and laws, sacrificial, universal love is greater than worldly power and the laws of Caesar.  But many Christians want it all – the law of Caesar and the law of Christ, the jailer and the healer, and so want to live outside of all law.

“But to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

Absolutely Sweet Marie by Bob Dylan

Prison Theology is grounded in the lived experience of people in captivity.  They have been condemned by the laws of Caesar but root themselves in the laws of Christ.  They have begun to account for their crimes, both temporal and spiritual. And it is the accounting and atonement process that is revelatory of spiritual/Christian ethics.  This insight goes a long way in our understanding of morality and law.

November 8, 2019

Last week in this column I made a distinction between “imperial Christianity” and the origins of Christianity.  We know that the Roman Empire persecuted Christians and then absorbed them and made it the official religion of empire and subsequently of Europe and European colonies.  The servant became master; Constantine’s paradigm.  In other words, the inmate became the warden.  The one without worldly power became the power of the world.  Jesus bowed down to Satan in the desert temptation. Perhaps this contributed to Prince Myshkin’s breakdown and demise in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot.

But things in this world are also more nuanced and subtle and evolve over time.  No human or human institution is pure.  There is goodness to be found in the church amidst all the inherent contradictions.  Within the church is the intention of compassion and community rooted in ritual – very human needs.  One way to keep these things authentic is to constantly question and challenge and evolve our consciousness.  This is often done in collective action and relationship.

Prison Theology works to support and connect the authentic expressions of Christianity that are found within the people and institutions of the Church and the Prison.  Within the massive apparatus of oppression know as prison can be found genuine and powerful expressions and existences of spirituality; chaplains worshiping with and consoling inmates and inmates studying Greek and Hebrew Scriptures in prison cells praying for deliverance.  Similar expressions can be found within the massive apparatus of the church.  Connecting these communities reveals the universality of the human experience.  It also helps to authenticate the mission of the original church.  This connection is one of mutuality. 

When the state of a relationship is universal and mutual, we evolve and heal.  The church can help to reform and/or abolish prisons while reclaiming their calling while simultaneously receiving the wisdom born out of suffering that emanates from prison inmates.  Prison inmates can find an outlet for their expression and be healed in validation while being held in the communion of community.

October 30, 2019

The ongoing theme of this column is the explication of Prison Theology.  We are “building a bridge of understanding through theological education of prisoners and the community” (From our mission statement).  We understand the importance of tapping the untapped potential of the mind of an inmate. We do this by providing support, educational resources and an emotional, intellectual outlet through writing.  The power of these writings informs our consciousness and ethic and hopefully, the larger Christian/church world outside of prison. We perceive that Christianity is a criminalized religion in its origins and therefore criminals are potentially the most authentic teachers.  This also helps to humble and humanize the imperial nature of the Christianity of empire. 

In the culture of the empire, bigger is better.  For example, many people believe that the larger the church and the more congregants within, the better.  Bigger and better is often equated with righteousness. A mansion is a sign of success while a beggar is a failure.  Jesus was a failure yet American Christians worship success. Inmates are failures to societal laws, which are born out of cultural values.  How do we equate what was with what is? Can the origins and present incarnations be resolved?  

One way resolution can occur is through the process of radical empathy.  Jesus implored people to “lose their life for my sake in order to find it” (Matthew 16:25).  If the life you are losing is the one that supports Christian empire, climate change and incarceration nation, then you become a criminal. To live outside the law and norms of society, you become a Christian.  To become a Christian is to become a criminal. This is why the French philosopher Sartre claimed that the criminal poet Jean Genet was a saint. How can a criminal become a saint?

Not all criminals are saints.  However, the basic understanding of harm reduction holds true.  If someone harms another, then restoration and healing need to occur.  American prisons have long since abandoned restoration and healing. Prison Theology focuses upon the process and capacities of healing through education.  This process is one we are facilitating within the captivity of prison. The individual saintly/sinner reality is seen within the context of prison and also separated from that context.  “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)

These are some of the questions we ask.  We critique and we serve. We are empathetic and intellectually curious.  We restore rather than punish. We hold inmates accountable to their inner spirit.  In doing so, we see transformation. The transformation of the incarcerated can help transform the society which incarcerates. 

October 9, 2019

part one. Vinoba Bhave was a criminal.  He was also the apostolic heir of Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of satyagrahi (individual truth force), a more “pure” form of Gandhi.  This “purity” found fruition in, among other places, prison. It was there that he learned language, studied and taught various scriptures of the world.  He is an example of universal consciousness in captivity. This is the kind of person and thought we introduce to inmates at Jesus the Liberator.

Why would a Christian organization look into thought streams and spiritualities of other cultures?  India, after all, is in Asia and the great cathedrals, literatures and denominations of Christianity are traditionally in Europe.  Yes, but Jesus was from Asia. He was a Palestinian in captivity of the Roman (European) Empire. One of our publications, Dreamers, Romans and Prisons: Meditations on Crime, Illness, Healing and Liberation, alludes to the connection, in form and spirit, between Rome and America.

Jesus, Jesus the Liberator and Vinoba Bhave are all in captivity to the dominant prison empire, be it Rome, America or British colonial rule.  The individual insights and soul force of inmates, because of their unique position, can help to “undo the heavy burden and let the oppressed go free.”

part two. We have many papers from people in prison.  The volume of writing and technical analysis of scripture from some, lead us to say that prison, for a “chosen few”, is a  place of study and learning, a seminary, which can instruct the outside world on new insights into ethics and metaphysics. This is not to say that we support prison, it is a place of dread and punishment.  But we can connect to the inner light and resilient spirit within some. The words of the resilient advance our consciousness. Advances in consciousness create a society and world more humane, empathetic and sensitive to the soul’s trials and tribulations.  A “remnant” is promised for each generation. 

The Russian author Dostoevsky claimed that we can know a society by how it treats its prisoners.  America’s prisoners, like migrants and immigrants on the border, are caged and abused. The primary Christian ethic of service is to “do for the least of these.”

The German theologian Karl Barth gave sermons in a prison in Basel.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, another German theologian, gave his life for the liberation of his people, perishing in a concentration camp.  His Letters from Prison survive as does his historical witness. 

How will American Christians bear witness in the 21st century?  

October 2, 2019

Many people in prison relate to their time there as one of exile.  Jeremiah lamenting for a deserted city and the psalmist wistfully recalling an unattainable former happiness hold deep emotional bonds for inmates.   African-American blues vibrate deep chords of sorrow for a memory withheld – the loss of an African homeland. African-Americans in prison bear the double lamentation of incarceration.  Sorrow upon sorrow is a Good Friday story of the “Cross and the Lynching Tree” (James Cone). The double negative release of lamentations bears a powerful libratory essence of the songs of freedom.

“We’re going to be Iron like a Lion in Zion” Bob Marley

Prison Theology attempts to contextualize and address this sorrow, injustice, joy and liberation.  This theology attempts to amplify the personal testimonies of inmates and build upon it with methodologies and pedagogies of liberation.

Thought streams of insight and theory rooted into emotional longing help not only the inmate, but the bondage of a society that sadistically and systematically punishes and incarcerates as a first response.  

September 26, 2019

Prison Theology encourages people in prison to, among other things, look at biblical figures that were in prison.   The dialectic of power between people and oligarchic structures leads many to prison. Poor Jeremiah, weeping lamentations from a prison cell, Poor Jeremiah with his ladder and bread, will “prison reform” save your people?   

The power of psalms to articulate sorrow and joy resonates with many in prison.  It allows one to relate to tangible emotions within oneself within the context of prison and allows one to relate to a world outside of captivity. 

Paul wrote several letters from a prison cell.  Timothy, whom Paul wrote to, must have known Paul and was, therefore, a co-conspirator to Paul’s crimes.  

These are a few examples of prison theology.  Relating the biblical stories to one’s own life circumstances and making meaning from them is a way of doing prison theology.

Why would the bible include so many examples of prison inmates?  Why would a person of faith adhere to the moral authority of the condemned?  Why would the Oligarchy ask the state to create prisons at taxpayer expense and then use inmates as a source of labor?  Can it be that the jailer is a criminal and that Jeremiah in prison is innocent? These are questions the prison theology looks into.

September 12, 2019

Jesus Christ was a criminal.  He was arrested at Gethsemane and spent his last night on earth in the county jail.  Christians worship a criminal. The United States incarcerates more people than any nation on earth both in terms of numbers and percentage of the societal population.  Americans generally do not worship criminals.  

Americans worship mythologized criminals.  There is a great amount of literature and movies that portray criminals as folk heroes.  Americans love the criminal/outsider while promoting law and order and the rule of law.

Christians love the rule of law.  “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” (Romans 7:7)  The law overcomes sin. Christ is the law of love.

The law of love frees the criminal.  The law of society condemns the criminal.  Who is a criminal?

Crime, law and love are some of the questions we address at Jesus the Liberator, an educational nonprofit which is housed at St. John’s Grace.  These questions are being addressed by criminals. Jesus Christ was a criminal. Dr. King was a criminal. The need to say “Black Lives Matter” exists because some people are seen as not quite as law abiding as white America; they are more criminal than white America.  Immigrants are seen as criminal. Jesus Christ was a criminal and a refugee seeking asylum.   

Socrates was a criminal.  The founding pillars of Western culture – Socrates and Jesus – were criminals.  Jesus the Liberator works with criminals. Out theological ontology, our ground of being, is rooted in criminals and our context is prison.  We are devolving a prison theology. Prison Theology is a way a relating with and encouraging American inmates to articulate a vision of God from within captivity and amplifying their voices through the publication of their works.  If you would like to find salvation from sin through the law, then check with the criminal Paul and then come talk to us at Jesus the Liberator.