Many years before I set foot in a prison, I passed an afternoon in conversation with the writer, provocateur, and Baptist minister Will Campbell at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. A friend to Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Kris Kristofferson, Will was that rare white Southerner whose witness throughout the civil rights era was famously—or notoriously— exemplary. At the risk of life and limb, he ushered the Little Rock Nine past an angry white mob in 1957, he counselled and supported Freedom Riders in the sixties, and he ministered to imprisoned Klansmen in the seventies. He was in his eighties when we met, and while his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times when he died in 2013, he did not conduct himself in the manner of a legendary historical figure. He looked after and loved the distinctly unfamous marginalized, estranged, and incarcerated people of middle Tennessee while steadfastly refusing to credit any hierarchy or system that would place any person even a little bit higher (or a little bit lower) than anyone else. As a relentlessly witty and intensely articulate opponent of every ideology that degrades the human form and an aggressive ambassador of reconciliation, it was as if he’d never met a snob he wasn’t hell-bent on talking out of—or delivering from—their own snobbery.
I begin with Will because of one exchange, one question within an exchange actually, that has followed me, haunted me, and remained essential to me in my six years as an alleged teacher of individuals within the Tennessee Department of Correction. Will was recounting a recent trip to visit a seventy-three-year-old, incarcerated friend in Kentucky. In an hours-long drive with a small group, his party arrived at checkpoint and prepared to go through security. A young male guard pointed out that one member of their party was wearing shoes that failed to meet regulatory standards for inmate visitation. Will wondered aloud if it might be possible to make an exception when the guard started yelling: “One more word out of you and none of you see anyone here today!”
“What do you do?” Will asked me, having laid out the situation, fixing both eyes on mine in an unexpectedly plaintive stare. He could tell I was thinking about the visit, the drive, and how they might get in, but he had a larger and more immediate vision in mind. “What do you do with him?”
It had not occurred to me to extend any degree of concern to the angry young man. In my mind, I was in fact ready to pounce on him personally, but Will was inviting me to something, taking my measure at least a little, and schooling me in a longer struggle of which he was a veteran. They were sent to the parking lot, where Will broke down in tears, and after a trip into a nearby town to buy some shoes, they were allowed in. But a lifetime of persistent work in and around prison culture had not rendered Will Campbell any more capable of shrugging off the outburst of one prison guard. Weeks later, he was still mourning it and wondering how he might have more righteously engaged one sad soul enmeshed, like we all are, in an endlessly adversarial culture. I’d read him and admired him from afar, but it was in this moment that I felt called, challenged, and invited into a long wondering over the suffering of our world gone wrong. The invitation to a vocation of extended wonder— of trying to imagine together with others better ways of responding to the fear that gives way to anger—was in the room. It was also peculiarly clear to me that the call to long wondering is also a call to what Dorothy Day termed a long loneliness.
One way of characterizing the sensibility Will was handing over to me is as a kind of pinch, an ethical pinch urging me to look harder and more humbly at people I’m tempted to dismiss when I believe they’ve wronged me, to not reduce a person to the madness of a moment, as if it’s the whole of who they are, as if they are nothing but the outburst or the dark decision they’ve made and the effect their action has had on me. As much as I want to cut an aggressor down to size, nobody’s ultimately just an asshole, an idiot, a murderer, or an addict. We rightly associate this prohibition on reducing and degrading people with Jesus’s teaching, but I would extend the pinch of magnanimity to his famous prayer on behalf of the people who jeered at him, revelling in his public execution: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Something that isn’t them has hold of them, we might say. The image of God, Martin Luther King Jr. taught, is never completely gone from a person no matter how destructive or perverse their actions are, whether administered on the ground or from on high. A serious commitment to these truisms had a civil-rights-era icon weeping over a bullying young person in a prison parking lot. But, as I understand it, the pinch also originates a little further along, chronologically speaking, in the New Testament.
We wrestle not against flesh and blood, the apostle Paul instructs. We struggle instead against the mechanism, the principalities and powers in which people of flesh and blood are caught up and used up, often pitted against each other, and directed to act against their own thriving. Will Campbell once put the matter alarmingly and directly: “Principalities can best be understood in modern language as institutions. All are blasphemy because they usurp the authority of the one true God.” A young man reduced to accosting an elderly man who hopes to visit another elderly man is a human being who’s been worked over by idolatrous processes, enslaved by patterns degrading of the human form and therefore demonic. One could make trouble for the guard, speak to a superior, go over his head (as the saying goes), but that’s wrestling against flesh and blood, that’s mistaking a person for what a prison-industrial complex has done to a person. That’s also letting myself off the hook and somehow placing myself magically outside that inescapable network of mutuality (King’s phrase) that, looked at squarely, implicates my voting, my spending, my easily presumed consent, and my inaction in the passion of the guard. We’re kin, after all. There’s a common blasphemy at work, reaching every which way in the policy of our institutions. And policy is liturgy writ large.
As policy, our liturgies of incarceration are shared expressions of faith and fear. In the expensively publicized interest of serving, protecting, and correcting, a swathe of the population is hidden away and put to work, sometimes indefinitely, and as many a podcast, documentary, and TED Talk will tell you, these processes often mock the possibility of justice and general welfare. What do we do with the dubious liturgies we’re born into, the bad orderings instituted long ago and at work this very minute allegedly on our behalf, for our presumed protection, and with the backing of our resources but often, perhaps mostly, according to a punitive logic and mythologized security that many and maybe most didn’t credit to begin with? Are there ways forward?
At their worst, institutions sacrifice individuals, and at their best, communities sacrifice for individuals. This is a paraphrase of one of Will Campbell’s co-conspirators—a conspirer of community, we might say—Richard Goode, a history professor at Lipscomb University. In a feverish attempt to access more deeply, in middle Tennessee, a community of thoughtfulness in the heady days following the September 11 attacks, I found him, clung to him, and insinuated myself into his life.
Following the lead of the restorative justice activist Harmon Wray, Richard started holding Lipscomb classes within the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women (TPW), notifying students who registered that getting to class would involve a late afternoon drive, security clearance, requisite footwear, and a desire to seek fellowship with their incarcerated student peers. Over time, what began as a restorative communal prerogative Richard undertook completely on his own became a program Lipscomb touted as its own unique initiative. One begins to see that a university, like any principality, can be made to sponsor community if it’s incontestably good for its public image (read brand). In what’s come to be called the Life Program, sixty-six female and male students at TPW and Riverbend maximum security are currently enrolled in semester and summer sessions, and sixteen women, most of whom remain incarcerated, have already earned associate’s degrees. Noncredit workshops (Shakespeare, yoga, as well as music and visual arts and ESL) are offered to the general prison population. I jumped in just as soon as I had the credential to teach college-level composition. All the classes I’ve taught have met once a week on Wednesday nights.
Each week, I’m awakened anew to the joy and privilege it is to undertake learning in community with incarcerated people. Reading and discussing Wendell Berry or Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Frederick Douglass or Ursula K. Le Guin in a prison setting intensifies profoundly what I have to offer concerning these voices in the “free-world” setting I encounter the next morning. To deploy the jargon of incarcerated communities, the one enriches the other as outside (nonincarcerated) students often perk up at mention of inside students who, as the most self-motivated scholars I know, bring an urgency to the material that, if I recount it well, can even persuade students to look up from their screens. While news of my relationship with imprisoned people seems to lend my person a kind of credibility or legitimacy with outside students, I’d like to think it also brings inside students out of hiding, placing before them a population that politicians and other profiteers use to project an image of toughness and effectiveness, the fact of connection and relationship. I hope my account of their reading, their insights, and their experiences call that long confidence game into question.
When Did The Disaster Begin?
I have one such story—slightly adapted— to share, and I’ll refer to my student as Bobby, a thirtysomething, small-statured, incarcerated philosopher with a deep love for biblical criticism and Carl Jung. His personal history arose in the context of a series of assignments I styled, borrowing a phrase from early Wilco, “writing our minds the way we want them to read.” We draw from our assigned texts, but I encourage students to borrow the voices of others to better find their own. One line from a Gregory Orr poem, for instance, can serve as the occasion to chronicle at length a mostly untold tale. As it often does, the exercise can prove revelatory, and in the back-and-forth of feedback, certain connections arise that, until they’re written out, remained obscure.
Growing up in a small town in the care of a single mother who managed a revolving door of violent, bullying boyfriends turned occasional stepfather, Bobby experienced something of an emancipation from everyday domestic dysfunction when he gained access, upon turning sixteen, to a driver’s license and a functioning automobile. The world of newfound freedom, however, came under threat late one night while doing doughnuts in a shopping-mall parking lot, a frenzy of adrenalin that ended abruptly when he crashed into a parked car. The quandary of what to do: Lose the license and its accompanying escape, or move swiftly on? There’s a popular response— I bet many a reader will know someone who’s hit and run—for which Bobby opted: write a note with a fake phone number.
Freaked out, anxious, and commiserating with a friend at his high school the next day, a young woman overheard what Bobby was on about and started asking questions. His fear and defensiveness only escalated the situation, but her appeals to his shame and his desire to be left alone eventually led him to yield, at her insistence, his actual phone number. As she walked away with the piece of paper held aloft, she called back, “You better have car insurance.”
And from his own lips, Bobby was surprised to hear himself speak words that somehow arose unbidden: “You better have life insurance.” He appeared at school armed the next day and opened fire, killing his classmate and a coach who attempted to intervene.
As we discussed his written narrative, Bobby’s remorse, grief, and clear-eyed contemplation concerning his actions were overwhelmingly obvious. Time and a written assignment, however, accorded the two of us a context in which to grieve the culture—our culture— that can’t be rightly or definitively removed from the account of his crime. When did the disaster begin? I wrote, following his lead, in the margin.
We didn’t talk about his abusive home situation, but sitting together in a prison classroom, we noted how wonderful it would be if we lived in a world where a sixteen-year-old who had just collided into a parked car could rightly hope that, upon communicating with the owner of the car, certain assurances would be extended. Too bad about my car, a mature adult might say, but what’s really important is that you’re all right. You’re what’s important. Your life—everything about you—is of greater value than any car. What can I do for you? How can we help you feel safe? What do you need?
Community Of Mentors
As I see it, to pay deep attention to someone else’s story, meditating on experience, circumstance, and the little betrayals that lead to big catastrophes, isn’t to absolve anyone of their responsibilities, but it is a way of taking care, owning up to and mourning that which is common to us, and paying due reverence to the human tragedy. As I’ve tried to grieve and imagine with Bobby his story up till now, I’ve recalled a strange but worthy saying of Will Campbell’s: “One who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”
Of course we advocate, confront wrongdoing, de-escalate a violent situation when we can, and draw boundaries in the interest of helping people to thrive. But we also get to exercise the preemptive empathy (Wendell Berry’s phrase) that wants to know what brought people to places of despair and destruction. And even then there’s always more to people. No person is only the worst decision they ever made.
In a recent class at Riverbend a few years ago, I’d gone through my long-rehearsed introductions and was preparing to announce a break, but not before inviting questions from the class. A Muslim man who’d been incarcerated for almost thirty years raised his hand. He expressed appreciation for all I’d said and admiration for the fact of my teaching experience in a prison setting, but I could tell he was setting me up for a real doozy of a question. He noted that my understanding of our time together was clearly influenced by the Bible, and he was curious on this point: “Are you one of those Matthew 25 Christians?”
It was indeed a doozy. To speak truthfully and to also buy a little time, I told him that he’d given me a real gift by putting this question to me and that I’d need a moment to answer it to my own satisfaction. So I took another technical question or two and we moved on to other things, but before class was over I saw that his question had given rise to a phrase I’d needed for some time.
I am informed, I admitted, by Jesus’s teaching concerning “the least of these,” and I do believe that the degree to which I remain personally and physically estranged from the incarcerated, the hungry, and the sick is to my own loss in the abundant life of seeking first God’s reign in my everyday life. But—I really wanted to get this right—I’m not one who presumes I’m bringing illumination, assistance, or even education to our classroom situation. Instead, I think of my evenings of reading and writing in prison as an opportunity to enter into a community of mentors, a group of people from whom I have much to learn, individuals who are each a library of wisdom, experience, and insight who, if I’m attentive, will transform me in my own desire to live toward God’s righteousness. I need them, though I hadn’t thought to put it this way, if I’m to have any hope of doing that.
“I don’t like it when people are hidden,” Julie Doochin, director and founder of the Tennessee Education Initiative in Correction, once observed aloud when asked by an incarcerated man what motivates her own determination to bring college-level education to inmates. And I was reminded of Will Campbell’s succinct response when he was asked to offer a position on the death penalty: “I think it’s tacky.” Both postures evince a deep desire for a more poetic conception of human beings, a more beautiful response to tragedy, disorder, and fear. We get to live into the fact of relationship, bearing witness to it in all our decisions. The work of Beloved Community is never done.