One of the unexpected gifts of the pandemic has been a “full house” for adult education this past year. We just concluded four months of adult ed sessions about the legal system, policing and prison in this country. It was moving, powerful, even life-changing, to learn from people in the criminal legal system, to try and understand alternatives to prison, to wonder what our roles might be in bringing change to a broken system that seems to morph and grow even as people try to change it.
We are following up with this “Letters from Prison” series in worship. On a beautiful day when we see the vibrance of the blue sky, and hear the hum or maybe roar of cicadas, smell and feel the accumulating heat of the sun, focusing on prison may seem like a downer. But I take Black theologian Willie James Jennings seriously when he says that we are missing the message if we gloss over prison in the bible. When prison is not part of our own lives and those we love, it is easy to filter it out of our reading. But prison and exile are a constant refrain in the bible. Even more constant is the refrain that God desires freedom for prisoners. From Psalm 146 today – You set the prisoners free. From Luke 4 – The Spirit of YHWH has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.
In Exodus, when the children of Israel are enslaved in Egypt, God hears the people’s cries and remembers the covenant. God leads them to freedom. Later on the people are taken captive to Babylon and are in exile. They dream of returning to the home and land they love. Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Paul, Silas, all in jail or dungeon or captivity. Prison and freedom are at the center of the biblical story. The promise of salvation and liberation is not abstract, it is very concrete.
And still, in my cushy life, prison feels like a foreign land. Several years ago I tried watching “Orange is the new black” about a women’s prison but stopped when it got too intense for me. My own touch points with the criminal legal system are few. Some six years ago I was part of a week long “pipeline to prison” learning experience sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee which took place in a number of cities in PA. We visited jails and prisons, met with returning citizens and wardens. And I did get arrested, twice, two summers ago for “incommoding” in the US Capitol with a lot of other people from the Poor People’s Campaign but handcuffs weren’t even involved. Perhaps the closest connection I currently have to prison is that I write letters to a relative in a minimum-security prison who is in for some white collar crime I don’t understand.
I wonder what your experiences are with the criminal legal system? Perhaps you or friends or relatives have gone through the system or maybe you know people in right now? Arrest, detention, jail, prison, parole, probation – with or without ankle bracelets… The criminal legal system in this country is deep and wide. Just like the US is outsized in its use of “natural resources,” the United States houses about 22% of the worlds prisoners (though we only have 4.5 percent of the worlds people.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_incarceration_rate
The system is so big and so hungry that it would be unusual if I am the only one who has a relative in prison. Think for a moment about people in your family, friends, in your neighborhood who might be caught up in the system… Hold them in your heart as we talk about prison today and in the coming weeks. Remember that people in prison are also made in the image of God.
To be imprisoned is not just a contemporary problem in the United States though we do seem to be perfecting the dehumanization of people. As we heard in the confession, it is not just “bad” people that end up in prison. Being caught up in the legal system is part of the story of Christianity, part of the history of Mennonites, it continues to be the experience of Christians and people of conscience around the world. Today and the next few Sundays we will hear the words of those who have experienced being in prison, who are in prison.
We already heard one voice from prison in the service today. Annalein of Freiburg was a martyr who wrote from prison. We know little about her but her prison testimony was set to music in the Ausbund, the 16th century German, Anabaptist hymnal. An adaptation of her letter from prison, along with a new tune, is in Voices Together. This is the hymn we sang after the confession. The second verse says:
Unto you I raise my weary soul.
In trials I am in your care.
In sorrow, torture, fear and want
still I’m assured that you are there.
The Apostle Paul spent plenty of time in jails; he wrote Philippians and Philemon from prison. Ephesians and Colossians, also attributed to Paul, are said to be written from prison. There is a whole different kind of power to these words from Philippians when we remember that Paul was “in chains” when he wrote. His optimism and call to live with joy take on new meaning when we think of his context. Judy will be the voice of Paul today.
I’m glad to announce to you, sister, brothers and siblings, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Good News. Consequently it has become clear throughout the Praetorium and everywhere else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of our sisters, brothers and siblings in Christ have been encouraged to speak the word of God more fearlessly.
It’s true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others do so with the right intention. These latter act out of love, aware that I am here in defense of the Good News. The others, who proclaim Christ for selfish or jealous motives, don’t care if they make my chains heavier to bear.
All that matters is that in any and every way, whether from specious or genuine motives, Christ is being proclaimed. That is what brings me joy. Indeed I will continue to rejoice in the conviction that this will result in my salvation, thanks to your prayers and the support I receive from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. I firmly trust and anticipate that I will never be put to shame for my hope; I have full confidence that, now as always, Christ will be exalted through me, whether I live or die.
For to me, ‘life’ means Christ; hence dying is only so much gain. If on the other hand, I am to continue living on earth, that means productive toil for me — and I honestly don’t know which I prefer. I am strongly attracted to both: I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ, for that is the far better thing; yet it is more urgent that I remain alive for your sakes. This fills me with confidence that I will stay with you and persevere with you all, for the sake of your joy and your progress in the faith. My being with you once again should make you even prouder of me in Christ. (Phil 1: 12-26)
Paul’s positivity is puzzling. How does he maintain such an attitude when he is locked up? Paul is imprisoned not for a violent crime but for something more akin to civil disobedience, for getting on the nerves of the authorities. Somehow Paul stays centered enough in jail that his writing conveys truth, challenges, and inspires change in people’s hearts and lives – almost two thousand years later.
The Rev Dr Martin Luther King was locked up when he wrote his prophetic letter from a Birmingham jail. No matter how many times or with different, creative methods he and other civil rights activists exposed the cruelty and injustice of the systems in this country, their message was still lost on white moderates. From his jail cell in Birmingham, Dr King writes to his fellow clergy to explain why his ministry lands him in jail. (Eric)
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail – https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)
Paul, Dr King, and others who commit civil disobedience, recognize, and capitalize on, the irony of the power they have when they speak from a jail cell. Their voices have a poignancy from prison that is not heard if they speak from the safety of the sidewalk or a pulpit (though those places are still not safe for people of color in this country. Kristin Sampson’s co-worker, Frank, was killed on the sidewalk this past Monday night. Rev Clementa Pinkney was shot and killed as he led bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston six years ago this month.)
We preserve the letters from prison that inspire, but the reality of prison life is full of indignities and misery that no one desires, no matter how strong their faith. Martha Hennessy is a Catholic Worker who is one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 who got into a nuclear weapons facility in 2018, and poured blood on weapons of war. They were all arrested and spent time in prison. Cheryl will read excerpts from one of Martha’s letters from prison, dated March 2021.
This week marks my tenth at the Danbury Federal Prison Camp for women in Western Connecticut, where I’ve been sentenced for my part in the King’s Bay Plowshares disarmament action.
Three months ago, more than half the women contracted COVID. The Segregated Housing Unit was turned into quarantine space. The regular two bed cubicles now hold one inmate each. We all wear masks all the time (or are supposed to). Frequent hand washing and six feet social distancing are encouraged. “Main line”—the name of the line for dinner—has yellow-taped Xs where we are stand. We take our meals in Styrofoam clamshells back to our cubicles to eat alone. I often stand to eat with my food nesting at waist height on the metal locker in my cubicle.
I expect to serve my time until May 16th, when I could be released due to my age, 65, when I will have served two thirds of my sentence. Many women here have five-to-ten-year sentences, most as a result of the “war on drugs” harsh guidelines. Most of them have young children whom they’ve left with grandparents, or if they are lucky, spouses.
The physical plant is maintained with prison labor. Construction, landscape and electrical crews are sent out daily. Constant repairs and maintenance are required, and federal contracts seem to encourage shoddy workmanship. One of three shower rooms are functioning to serve the forty women here. It holds five stalls. We share four phones, using disinfectants between calls if we choose to.
The amount of water, electricity and plastics consumed by the prison is staggering. Doors and windows leak cold air. Two-foot icicles form on the eaves of the building. We seem to fill a dumpster nearly every day or every other day. Some inmates run all four showers simultaneously while using just one “to keep the water hot,” they say. At least a third of the food served is thrown into the trash.
All in all, this prison industry is a sketchy business from every perspective—socially, economically, ecologically and morally. It’s just another fossil fuel dependent enterprise that produces little benefit in the long run, and could be easily retooled to save money, energy and lives in a much more positive way. Reform is desperately needed, along with a big dose of common sense and a measure of basic humanity. But the same could be said for life on the outside too. (excerpts from https://kingsbayplowshares7.org/2021/03/martha-hennessy-summary-of-first-ten-weeks-in-prison/)
Martha Hennessy was released May 26, 2021 from Danbury prison, after 5 1/2 months confinement. As Martha waited for her release she wrote this testimony about her “crime”:
As a corporal work of mercy, we carried the body of Christ with us and in us to both sites of criminal sin represented in the military base and the courtroom that defends the war crimes.
Any act for nuclear abolition that is peaceful is an act for the kingdom of God, and standing against the kingdoms of empire.
We are attempting to show that we stand with the friends of God and with the prophets. The disregard for God, humanity and the rule of law as it relates to nuclear weapons — this is what we desire to end.
When I poured blood on the threshold and door of the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic Administrative Building, we declared we will not spill the blood of countless innocents to support the personal gain of a few. We understand that we are all part of one another in the Mystical Body of Christ. Harm to even one person is harm to all of humanity.
It is hard to fathom a faith this deep, that lives out dedication to humanity with such deliberate risks that it results in being locked up. This is the faith and commitment of prophets, this is a faith of hope and love that is so connected with the Holy, and with humanity, that it leads to prison.
Prison is an awful place, it is to be avoided. We are told that it is full of criminals and evil people. Yet people of faith, whether they have faith when they go in or miraculously discover faith while incarcerated, help us see that those who are in prison are created in the image of God just like those on the outside. Or perhaps those on the inside are even closer to the image of God since Jesus himself was a prisoner.
Of course not all people in prison are prophets – using their situation to amplify their message and shame the system. Most people are in jail and prison, or out on parole or probation because they are accused of causing great harm. They are locked up whether the great harm is true or not, whether they are guilty or not. They are stuck in the system for many, many years. And yet sometimes they too can sound like St Paul.
I close with this poem from a book called The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young voices from prison.
“Don’t listen to them” by Talib
In this world where negativity plays a role in your life
Keep your focus on the things that’s good
When someone approaches you with words that are not nice.
If you have an ambition to go after a goal
That you think you can achieve
Set your goal and you must believe
Keep your mind positive because you are what you think
And know that you can leave a legacy
That can stain like a pen when it releases ink
They say a positive mind is contagious
So spread the disease
You can become whatever you want to be
All you have to do is believe (p.73)
Young Talib instructs us to set our sights on the goals and believe. Let’s keep listening to the voices that yearn for freedom, that speak truth from prison. Let’s keep living into truth and freedom, until everyone is free. With Talib, I believe we can.