Will Campbell

What is the Crisis at Hand?: Further Reflections on a Town Hall Meeting

by Andrew Krinks

It has become all too clear in recent days that we now find ourselves, once again, at a moment of crisis in our work with the homeless community in our city. But perhaps that is somewhat of an understatement. For indeed, the last month has consisted of one crisis after another after another. First came the floods of May 1st and 2nd—a crisis for many thousands of people in Middle Tennessee. As for those of us trying to walk alongside our brothers and sisters trapped on the underside of a system that they struggle to survive in, we have seen firsthand the crisis of displacement—displacement after displacement after displacement.

After the Red Cross shelter at Lipscomb University closed; after the week-long shelter of motel rooms and gracious churches expired; after driving those Tent City residents left with no other place to go out to Otter Creek Church to wait and scramble for another plan to come through so that our friends would not be abandoned, we found ourselves taking up the offer of the only landowner willing to help us out. And as we all know by now, that final move led to the crisis of a vehement people. Crisis after crisis, displacement after displacement—a familiar rhythm for people without homes or adequate community.

But the crisis I want to talk about is not the crisis of the flood itself. Neither is it the crisis of finding temporary shelter for our homeless brothers and sisters in its wake—whether hotel room, church building, or 124-acre plot of land. Neither is it the crisis of being accused of acting as scheming, manipulative connivers for refusing to abandon our friends, and for moving them to the only place we had left without first asking for permission from area residents (permission that surely would never have been granted, which we only now realize after the fact). To be sure, these are the crises that ring in our ears at such a high pitch these days that it’s hard to sleep at night, hard to keep from feeling exhausted, enraged, and ever at a loss for words. And indeed, we remain awestruck in the wake of the Town Hall meeting in Antioch in which the empty refrain was repeated over and over again: “We love the homeless, but…”

The crisis I want to talk about is the one that confronts us, much like these other crises, generation after generation—a crisis that seems to grow like a weed in our world, never squelched no matter how hard we try. It is a crisis I wrestle with as if it were another person—and one could even say that it is. What is the crisis? It is the crisis of trying to discern how best to love—to be reconciled with—“the people of Antioch”. Why is it a crisis at all? Why should I even care? Because, as Christ says, we find God in “the least of these.” For Amos House and our friends and partners, we are ever finding God in society’s “least”. But as Southern Baptist bootleg-preacher Will Campbell has recently reminded me, if the people who appear the most detestable to me are “the least” then, according to scripture, that’s where I meet God. And to be quite honest, the people who incite the most fury in me these days are those who spewed so much vitriol from the microphone at Living Word Church last Thursday night. And when I contemplate whether or not this could possibly be true, that God resides in them, I feel a rope wringing itself into a knot right in the center of my chest.

If there are no flesh-and-blood enemies in God’s kingdom, then those people of Antioch who are denying the Christ in their poorest neighbors are as family to me. So I guess that means I’m angry with my brothers, upset with my sisters. But they are family, beloved, which means that they lie within the fold of God’s love.

So what, then, is the task at hand? For those of us who have refused to abandon our friends at Tent City, it is to learn to put on the gaze of God—to see in our most-misguided brothers and sisters from Antioch the very presence of God, and in so doing, to seek new ways to bring the good news, and to do so in ways that don’t demonize or diminish. For many of the people of Antioch, the task lies in learning to see in Amos House, in Jeannie Alexander, in Doug Sanders, not conniving, self-righteous bastards who have “dumped” garbage on them, but rather people seeking to be ministers of the God who takes the shape of those cast out from society. Nothing more, nothing less. Brothers and sisters. Their task also lies in walking out of their houses, into Tent City, not with burning anger or clenched fists, but with open hands and hearts willing to go beyond what they have so long considered their charitable way of being. This is an invitation.

Let me clear. This is not some sorry attempt at utopian diplomacy. Nor is it, I pray, merely a fear of confrontation speaking through my words. For if there is no confrontation in Antioch now, if we hear no complaints for our actions, then maybe we are the misguided ones. (Jesus makes clear, after all, that this sort of work will not always be welcomed.) No, on the contrary, what I am interested in is learning the sort of persistent patience that would not dismiss “the people of Antioch” as a homogenous monolith that has struck out and lost their chance to do good. For indeed, we have seen how they are anything but homogenous: many Antioch residents have even come down to Tent City to donate time and resources to those living in the camp. Indeed, there were even those few exceptional men and women who sought to offer more compassionate perspectives on the situation from the microphone at Living Word Church. I even overheard a couple outside of the town hall meeting offer their genuine support to a Tent City resident in need of work, promising to keep in touch about it, even promising to come visit the camp. And whether they ever went to the camp or not, I am here making it known that “the people of Antioch” is anything but a monolithic beast of hatefulness that we “righteous” ones have come to condemn. It is a people—colorful, diverse, lost, found, beloved.

Clearly, this does not mean that I have overlooked the poisonous speech that made up the majority of the town hall meeting last Thursday. Indeed, I believe there were many a captive mind, false allegiance, and demon-possessed imagination in that room. But driving home from the meeting, in between fits of frustration, I felt a deep sadness, a heavy pity, a longing to see transformation take place in Antioch. And this, precisely, is the reason I even venture to put these thoughts before you at all. As Will Campbell says, echoing Jesus of Nazareth, prisoners are prisoners; it is our vocation to set them free. Whether an actual prison, or the prison of poverty, our vocation is to help liberate, and in so doing find liberation ourselves. But what is truly scandalous about this vocation is that we are even called to help liberate those held captive in ideologies that oppress, in lifestyles that insulate from strangers and “others”, those lost along those ways of being that mistake safety and property value for the tenets of a meaningful existence.

If we are to find God—the God who has reconciled us to himself, and all peoples to one another—then we should begin by using our imaginations to find new ways to welcome the “people of Antioch” into further reflection and action and community. Yes, many proved that they will refuse to listen, to think critically enough to realize their doublespeak regarding their Christian-ness and good citizenry. For those lost children of God, we offer our prayers tonight. If their hearts remain hard, we will, as my sister Jeannie (and the gospel) says, shake the dust from our feet and move on. But, as ungodly as they have proven themselves to be, I don’t believe God gives up on people, even when they deny him in the guise of a poor stranger. It is for this very reason that we shouldn’t give up on them either. If the grace of God has, and continues, to transform me—a gift I do not deserve—then by all means, I ought to extend that gift to others, to extend the table that has been extended to me by God and by God-in-my-homeless-brothers-and-sisters time and time again. For I have been given a gift from those living on the margins of our city. Therefore, in trying to continually receive this gift, and to receive it well, it is my desire to share it—to share it, especially, with the people of Antioch.

To reference once more that one-of-a-kind prophet and pastor of our time, Will Campbell, unless those who, whether they realize it or not, hold up those systems and structures that dominate and oppress—unless they are enlisted in the communal effort to dismantle the powers of death, then our work might accomplish some good things, and we’ll move on with the people of Tent City to whatever place we can find, but there will still be people in Antioch in dire need of liberation. And so, once again, let this be an invitation. For we have discovered God, the God of freedom, through our communion with the cast-aside and oppressed of our city, and we invite you to do the same.

I don’t presume that these words speak for God or that they encapsulate the heart of what’s true. Indeed, no naïve romance has accompanied the writing of these words, only genuine fear and trembling, and great uncertainty—which makes me wonder if there isn’t something here worthy of being said. But I could also be wrong. In the end, all that I am confident of is that we desperately need the fire of prophetic witness, but not the fire of prophetic witness alone. For if that fire is not leavened with the equally scandalous fire of radical reconciliation—reconciliation that resists that part of our nature that would cast out those men and women who spewed false witness in Antioch—then our holy anger lies in danger of turning sour, dull, incapable of bearing faithful witness. For the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against those powers—powers that hold imaginations captive—that possess those beloved children of God who live in Antioch and have made their voice heard in such a sad way. Indeed, it is my conviction that such foolishness as this, such reconciliation, is, in fact, prophetic in and of itself.

May the people of Antioch—may we all—be liberated into the freedom of God wherein the words “rich” and “poor” lose all their meaning in the wake of radical hospitality, reconciliation, and resistance to those systems and structures that know not what it means to love those deemed unlovable. Let us have the courage, and the faith, to be surprised, shocked, thrown off our “safe” courses-of-action by genuine encounters with those “others” who exist on the far side of our failure to love and be truly reconciled.

Why it Pays to Imprison: Interrogating the Prison-Industrial Complex

by Andrew Krinks (published in The Contributor, April 2010)

In a February 22nd special feature spotlighting nine new and innovative Nashville “Entrepreneurs of the Year” who show extraordinary promise in excelling their business in 2010, The City Paper celebrated the entrepreneurial expertise of the owner of Prisoner Transportation Services (PTS) of America, LLC, “a prisoner extradition company that transports inmates for state and local agencies.” Taking advantage of a key niche in the market, PTS is proving not only to possess “‘a lot of room for growth,’” but is even “recession-proof”—which, as the editors note, is surely the mark of “doing something right” in our current economic climate.

As any expert in free market economics knows, the key to successful entrepreneurialism lies less in being able to summon profit from scratch and more in identifying and narrowing in on those areas of the market-at-large that bear unique potential for profitability. In the case of PTS, the cue very well may have been taken from national politics, specifically the growing resentment at an ever-increasing influx of illegal immigrants coming across the U.S. border. Riding a ground swell originating most recently in the Bush administration, and seemingly continuing through the present one, the company’s owner is right to expect continued growth. As The City Paper explains, “Crackdowns against illegal immigration are helping to grow a new line of business for PTS—sending planes full of deportees back to their home countries and continents.”

In all honesty, it is not so difficult to understand why such business is celebrated, even held up as an exemplar of ideal entrepreneurialism. After all, who can deny the significance of a company that has somehow managed to increase its profit 13-fold in the span of a few short years—in a recession no less? And so, in one sense, there is no question that PTS is most definitely “doing something right.”

Unfortunately, though, in an economy such as ours, it is all too often the case that the mark of “doing something right” in terms of financial profit is precisely the mark of doing something wrong in terms of human life and its flourishing. Of course, such isn’t the case with every entrepreneurial endeavor, which is why it is important (if we hope to become better judges of what, exactly, constitutes “good” business) to ask better questions of a company than “did it increase its profits last year?” Indeed, we might even begin with a more thorough engagement with that that age-old question: what is the measure of success?

Of course, it is rare today to find such a question asked seriously, if at all. But this should be no surprise, for it is risky—dangerous, even—to call into question what philosopher Cornel West calls our “tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions,” especially when doing so might very well jeopardize not only our business’ bank account, but the very systems whose purpose it is to maintain the profitability of such business in the first place. For while it is most definitely the nature of “good” business to take certain risks, it is most definitely not the nature of “good” business to take the risk of self-examination; institutions, by their very nature, are in the business of self-perpetuation at any cost, and self-perpetuation, by definition, excludes the asking of questions.

Therefore, in the spirit of what we might call truly “good” entrepreneurialism, let us endeavor to take our own risk. For it would be anything but risky to simply echo the praises of The City Paper toward what it considers to be an exemplar of successful entrepreneurialism. Likewise, it would be playing it just as safe to react in a demonizing, self-righteous, fire-and-brimstone posture toward the company at hand. Indeed, both responses allow narrow emotional impulses to eclipse the more important task of critical reflection. In moving beyond these rather mundane options, let us opt instead for a more thorough—and perhaps more difficult—examination of what exactly is going on beneath the surface-level of our perceptions when a company makes its profit off the imprisonment and deportation of human beings.

*     *     *

To start, it is important to acknowledge that companies like PTS don’t just originate from scratch. By no means the first to make a profit off the transportation of prisoners and the deportation of illegal immigrants, PTS (along with similar companies) is the grease that keeps what is often referred to as the “prison-industrial complex” running. The prison-industrial complex, loosely defined, is the multi-faceted network of companies and organizations that keep both state and local correctional facilities operating by offering their services on a for-profit basis. Existing independently from the state itself, companies that comprise the prison-industrial complex make their profit by doing the job of the government, only more efficiently and effectively, as an outside party. Since it is in the best interest of the state to get the job done well, it makes sense to outsource their work to for-profit businesses rather than taking on the burden of paying workers internally out of what seem to be constantly diminishing budgets. And just as in the equally omniscient “military-industrial complex”, there is serious profit to be made in a country like the United States where the annual military budget (upwards of $600 billion for 2010) and the number of incarcerated men and women (over 2 million in recent years—nearly 25% of the world’s inmates) far surpasses every other country on the globe.

Indeed, crime is good for business.

Now on one hand, it could be argued that contracting out the work of the prison system in this way—thereby resulting in the very creation and sustaining of the prison-industrial complex as we know it—is in the best interest of the economy as a whole: it creates jobs and allows various pocket niches to emerge in the marketplace, leading to more competition, which is the foundation of any capitalist system. And to be sure, in a recessed economy, the creation of jobs is crucial—not to mention jobs that appear to make our communities safer by punishing offenders of the law.

But there is another side to this coin which demands serious reflection.

To begin with, it is important to note that a system (i.e., the criminal-justice system) becomes an industry when its core elements—“justice”, “correction”, and, most importantly, human subjects—are transformed into commodities and goods. And in order for something to be conceived of as a commodity or good, it must first be reduced from whatever it was prior to a “raw material” to be used in the “free”, unrestrained exchange which takes place in the marketplace. Thus, when the criminal-justice system is transformed from a site of (supposed) “justice” and “correction” into a marketplace, men and women who have offended the law are transformed from subjects into objects—no longer primarily men and women, but the raw goods of industry and market. In this setup, prisoners of the state are identified not only by their assigned number, they are even identified, as raw materials, into those numbers and statistics which make up end-of-year business report sheets, thus existing as numbers (at least) twice over.

Thus, we might make the observation that the prison-industrial complex is in the business of transformation: the transformation of human subjects into raw materials; the transformation of crime into a site of profit-making; and the transformation of “justice”, “correction”, and prison itself into the realm of market and economic exchange. Of course, the prison-industrial complex might also purport itself as effecting transformation: the transformation of crime-committing individuals into “corrected” (non-crime-committing) individuals, creating jobs in the process; the transformation of society from a state of danger at the hands of criminals to a state of relative safety at their being locked away, creating profit in the process—in short, the harmless utilization of business and market for the purpose of transforming injustice into justice.

So which transformation is it? In order to ascertain, we must make another observation. When a person or thing undergoes transformation, they are fundamentally changed, made into someone or something new, seen in a whole new light. The question truly worth asking, however, is does the act of transformation increase or decrease the inherent dignity of the person or thing? Certainly, the prison-industrial complex and its network of businesses (like PTS) effects transformation—but, I would suggest, a dangerous sort of transformation: the transformation of persons, places and things into raw materials and expendable objects to be used in the making of profit. Indeed, without such minimizing acts of transformation, businesses within the prison-industrial complex would not only suffer, they would cease to exist, for the sustenance of the whole system depends upon it.

Now it would be a mistake here to paint in strokes so broad that the finer details of a complex system are overlooked. Indeed, it would be an even graver mistake to mirror the very diminishment I am here accusing the prison-industrial complex of by diminishing the very men and women who manage and operate such facilities. As St. Paul instructs, the problem is not so much flesh and blood, men and women; the real problem is those forces, those powers and principalities, those systems and institutions whose sole purpose is self-perpetuation and profit, whose “spirit” is such that it cannot apprehend the complex reality of human life.

So on one hand, it is appropriate to acknowledge that good things do often arise out of those institutions which make up the prison-industrial complex: rehabilitation, job-training, education, and so on. However, it would be a mistake to concede that such things comprise the heart and soul of the industry. On the contrary, the heart of the industry would cease its beating if its core mission was truly the rehabilitation of individuals, for the rehabilitation of individuals cannot exist in the same space as the systematic diminishment and reduction of individuals—which is precisely what keeps the wheels of the industry turning.

Indeed, if we can be certain of one thing, it is that the spirit which makes such rehabilitation possible is not the same spirit which makes its profit off the systematic diminishment and objectification of men and women. For authentic rehabilitation and restoration do not even compute to a system whose “bottom line” (increased profit) excludes the possibility of engaging its raw materials (prisoners) as dignified persons. Authentic rehabilitation is not the product of a system that can only operate as a diminishing force; authentic rehabilitation is a seed that subverts such systems. And the fact that such seeds are allowed access to such systems is, for me, a source of great hope: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

*     *     *

If it is true, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, that “language is the house of being,” then there is much to learn from looking to the ways in which language is used (or misused) in the lexicon of the prison-industrial complex. To follow Heidegger’s metaphor for a moment, it might be said that one can “be” in a “house” in one of two ways: either inhabiting it with full and serious attention—to its foundations, its architecture, learning to make of it not just a house, but a home—or with apathy, interested in little more than the mere fact of four walls and a roof, unable to take it seriously as a space that shapes and forms us. The former understands language as a gift to be handled with care, as all gifts are to be handled; the latter relates to language as it relates to all other objects: as a tool to be manipulated and discarded along the path to self-perpetuation.

The prison-industrial complex, more often than not, fits into the latter category. And there is a notable irony to the fact of their carelessness with language: as a system which claims to operate as an executer of “justice”, the prison-industrial complex is guilty of failing to take the word “justice” seriously enough. Not only does it exhibit a lack of imagination with words like “justice”, it follows suit with much of its core vocabulary. Allow me to explain.

To start, when it comes to a more authentic vision of “justice”, I find the prophets Amos and Jeremiah to be helpful guides. As they see it, one cannot be “righteous” (one who fosters justice, one who makes things right) before God if, on their way to the synagogue (or church, or mosque), they trample upon a poor beggar, or sell him in exchange for a pair of sandals (transforming a poor person into a raw material to be used for profit). Likewise, if one praises God for the gift of a beautiful home, with spacious halls and walls made of the finest wood, and yet pays his workers a wage so meager they could never live off it, then their praise is nothing more than what St. Paul might call “clanging cymbals” or “a resounding gong” in the ears of God.

We might then question what sort of system it is that claims to foster “justice” by means of the definitively unjust act of diminishing human persons into the raw materials of business. In short, the answer is: an unjust system. Too, we might even question the authenticity of “correction” if the means of correcting is only possible thanks to the sort of entrepreneurialism that thrives off higher crime rates and deportations. How just, how correcting, can a system be if it depends upon the transformation of men and women into raw materials, the transformation of subjects into objects?

Such a separation of ends and means effectively results in the breakdown of language: if we fail to take our language seriously enough, more and more of our language fails to pack any punch, to make any lasting difference; such language fails to make physically manifest the fullness of what we evoke with our words. The same effect can be seen in the lives of politicians: for many politicians, language is a tool to be used and discarded for the purpose of self-perpetuation. As a result, word and deed are separated, which results in all sorts of scandal.

So what we discover in the language of the prison system—as well as those businesses which make a profit off its smooth running—is that conceiving of “correction” or “justice” in these terms is to exhibit a failure of imagination. Now if “justice” is primarily achieved by way of retribution, of equalizing wrongdoing with equal wrongdoing (violence for violence, an eye for an eye), then the prison-industrial complex fosters justice. But I would argue that conceiving of justice or correction in these terms is to fail to envision something richer, more peculiar, and altogether more redeeming.

Thus, in a paradoxical twist, we discover that what really needs to be made right, to be corrected just as much as those men and women who have offended the law in very real and serious ways, is the very system which claims the execution of “justice” and “correction” as its own.

*     *     *

It has been said that “an enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.” If we hear an enemy’s story, chances are, they will cease to be our enemy. And since having an enemy to loathe and fear helps fuel much of what passes as politics in our world, it follows that there is not a whole lot of storytelling or listening going on. And indeed, it is a great deal easier to keep enemies rather than submit ourselves to the vulnerability of standing in someone else’s shoes for even a moment. To make ourselves vulnerable to the ways in which other people live, to the dark and messy complexity of their sometimes grievous histories and contexts (enemies, prisoners, “illegal aliens”, homeless individuals), is to submit ourselves to a death of sorts—the death of our “unarticulated presuppositions,” our limited worldviews, our solipsistic prejudices about the ways of the world.

In like manner to the quote above, Will Campbell says that anyone “who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” The social, economic, spiritual, historical, and geographical factors that give rise to such things as crime (and tragedy) are such that a black-and-white system of retributive punishment—a form of “taking of sides”—will never be effective in either rehabilitating or restoring an individual. Since the factors which give rise to crime—and illegal immigration for that matter—are infinitely complex, it follows that our responses ought to be more complex, more nuanced, which means being vulnerable, flexible, and open to failure. Such may be foolishness to the world, and baffling to those systems which claim to execute justice, but it is the sort of foolishness so peculiar that it is in fact the very fullness of wisdom—a foolishness the world cannot do without.

In the end, it is important to recognize that human diminishment is the root of all violence. Whether the more explicit violence of crimes like assault or murder, or the more subtle violence of reducing complex individuals into flat, objective numbers or commodities, it all begins with the act of diminishment. Thus, when a person enters prison for a violent (or non-violent) crime, they are handed violence in return—not necessarily a violence as explicit as the kind they may be in prison for, but a more subtle, more systemic and insidious form of violence. Anywhere human beings are diminished, made invisible, their dignity rendered irrelevant or nonexistent, then, regardless of whether anyone has been inflicted with physical harm or not, violence has been done. It is for this reason that a “justice” system which operates on the basis of human diminishment can never actually be “just”, for true justice does not diminish human beings, no matter how “criminal” they may be. True justice restores, rehabilitates, and resurrects; true justice “makes things right” by remembering that all human beings are beloved—by re-membering those who have been dismembered from the rest of society.

So what does this wider vision of correction, this more authentic, more foolish (wise) model of justice look like? For starters, it begins with self-critical reflection. If I hope to adequately judge what makes for authentic justice, I have to begin with myself. For just like those who claim to execute justice but actually inhibit it, I too am guilty of a separation of word and deed, of ends and means. If I am willing to acknowledge my own unjust ways of being in the world, to examine, as well, what it is that gives rise to such behavior, I will also be willing to make myself vulnerable enough to acknowledge the reasons that cause others to inhibit justice, and to act mercifully in response. Because in reality, listening well is more important than speaking well, confession is more subversive than accusation, and allowing ourselves to be made vulnerable is more powerful than making ourselves strong.

Once we’ve acknowledged our complicity in the unjust systems of the world (when we “take sides” in situations in which it is, in reality, impossible to do so), it becomes more possible to treat those who work within systems such as the prison-industrial complex with greater dignity, realizing that it is not individuals but institutions that are the real perpetrators of injustice. Thus, in the end, it is a matter of either submitting to the inevitability of such systems and thus remaining complicit, or taking the risk of choosing another way.

As for those who have chosen another way, I am grateful to count many of them as friends. I am thinking of those who harbor enough foolishness to practice contemplative prayer with those men who sit on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, those men who wait for their name to be called, their day of death to be determined. I am thinking of those who break bread and drink wine with those the state has condemned as criminals, untouchable, the ultimate sinners. I am thinking of those who are mad enough to think it a worthwhile use of time to spend countless hours advocating for those whose very presence within our borders is literally defined as “illegal”. I am thinking of those who have made it their vocation to create opportunities for education within a prison’s walls—education that dignifies and illuminates, and even subverts. They are the witnesses to a more imaginative manifestation of what is called justice, and I count them as those men and women faithful enough to hold such a small candle against such a mighty wind and an overwhelming darkness.

On a more personal level, when my wife and I sit in a circle reading poetry and talking about how language works with those of our friends who live within the walls of the Tennessee Prison for Women, we are not sitting with raw materials or even with “prisoners”—we are sitting with beautiful, complex, and intelligent women. When I sit at my desk to write a letter, when I open the mailbox and see the return address (name and prisoner number both), when I open the envelope and read what has been written—the poetry, the creative non-fiction—and receive the bright spark of human connection, I am not skimming my eyes over the invisible voice of a stranger, I am receiving the presence of a friend.

In the midst of these experiences—both my own and those of my peers—I have encountered a fascinating truth. When a person convicted of a crime enters prison, they are given a new name—their prisoner number, and by it they are theretofore identified. Likewise, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, when a person (convicted of sin) enters the kingdom, they are also given a new name (Jacob/Israel, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul, for example). In the kingdom, a new name is a sign of belovedness; in prison, however, a new name is a sign of nothingness. One gives life, the other takes it a way; one illuminates, the other diminishes. The wisdom of those who visit people in prison is that they possess the foolishness by which to proclaim a deeper truth within a context that does not know what to do with such truth: the truth that each man and woman behind those prison walls is not primarily a number, a “criminal”, or a raw material, but a name, a face, and a beloved child of God.

*     *     *

To bring our discussion of PTS and the nature of the prison-industrial complex full circle, let us make a few final observations. First, let us say that an entrepreneur is a person of faith. Possessing the willingness to risk personal wellbeing and security by stepping out into the unknown (starting or purchasing a company that could very well fail, for instance), an entrepreneur leaps through the darkest corners of the marketplace knowing that outcomes are never quite predictable. And yet, because, in a certain sense, they “hope in things not seen,” entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk anyway.

Let us say, also, to channel the German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that there is not one, but at least two kinds of faith: “cheap” faith and “costly” faith. Cheap faith is the sort of faith understood within the parameters of personal reward: how will my risk-taking benefit me? What is the payoff? Costly faith, on the other hand, is concerned less with what personal reward lies on the other side of our risk-taking, and more with how our risk-taking brings life to others—even if it costs us our own life. Cheap faith asks what’s in it for me? Costly faith knows better than to ask such a question (because the answer could very well be death) and chooses instead to ask what’s in it for others?

Thus, it is high time, once again, to ask: what is the measure of success? If our answer is summed up with the question “did they increase their profits last year?”, then our measure of success is not only inadequate, it lacks imagination.

Truly good entrepreneurialism, truly good business, contrary to popular belief, is not mutually exclusive with the fostering of human flourishing in all sorts of places, or even with good profit and financial growth. But at the same time, good profit and financial growth is all for naught if it doesn’t submit itself to something outside itself, namely others, especially those on the margins of society.

Therefore, let those whose expertise is in money and markets and business leap into the unknown; let them take risks, let them have faith in what is not yet seen. But—in the name of God—let it be faith that is not cheap but costly. Though it flies in the face of what is called “success” by the rest of the world, it is my conviction that history will indeed prove it to be successful, though a different, more foolish sort of success. Indeed, such “success” is not without its own reward, for the reward lies precisely in the moment when prisoners of the state and “illegal” aliens cease to become objects and raw materials, and are transformed once again into men and women, into individuals with stories to tell—if only we come close enough to listen.

Enter the Gates and Weep: The Foolishness of Mercy

Jeannie Alexander and Lindsey Krinks, published in The Contributor

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.” Isaiah 10:1-2

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:1-2

Dorothy Day spent her life serving and walking with the poor, unemployed, and dispossessed. Her writings and actions are venerated by many, but she claimed a lowly place for herself and even said, “We confess to being fools and wish we were more so.” Today, we echo that confession. We are fools, and impractical ones at that. Our ways are not successful and will never lead to wealth. They often yield no impressive results or conclusions. They are messy and broken and impossible. You see, it is not considered “practical” to believe that mercy, love, and community are a large part of the answer to suffering, violence, and poverty. After all, mercy isn’t very useful when it comes to “capturing outcomes.” Recently, we were told that we were idealists, but how idealistic is it to cling to a life of mercy that leads to catching pneumonia from our displaced brothers, to spend more than we can afford on toilet paper and feminine hygiene products for our sisters who live in tents, to invite someone in and then have our possessions stolen or ruined… and then to invite them back? The ways and works of mercy are often impractical, messy, and mysterious—just like the cross of Calvary.

By the standards of the culture in which we live, it is easier to ignore or ticket someone for sleeping in a pool of their own urine than it is to pick them up, clothe them, give them something to eat, and provide them with shelter, but this is exactly what Christ asks of us. It is easier for a church to simply file a trespass warrant giving police the authority to arrest anyone found on church property “after hours” (pray tell, when is the house of God closed, when are we not to offer sanctuary?) than it is to embrace the dying alcoholic living on your church property by refusing to turn the guns of the state against him. But this is exactly what the non-violent Jesus calls us to do if we dare to follow his way.

Christ called us to live by grace and mercy, not merely by the letter of the law. In fact, if Christ were to come today with “no place to lay his head,” we would likely find him in our missions, our courthouses and jails, in a campsite facing imminent destruction, selling his plasma in order to survive, or trying to sleep sitting up on a sidewalk bench—not in some spacious church (lest he was eating at their soup kitchen) or a renowned university (lest he was mopping their floors). But instead of attending to the stranger as the Good Samaritan did, we pass by. But why? Are we too sophisticated? Are we slaves to our busy schedules and meetings? Are we convinced that this is someone else’s job? Which god do we serve? Certainly not the One who was considered an illegitimate child, who was a foreigner in the land of Egypt as a babe, who was run out of his hometown for preaching good news to the poor, who was a sojourner who lived off the charity of others, who pitched his tent among sinners, outcasts, and prostitutes, and who was tried as a criminal and executed by the death penalty.

During the week leading up to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus traveled to the city of Jerusalem and as he approached it, he began to weep, saying, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). Then he entered the gates of the city, embracing the conflict and suffering that would lead to his death. Let us also enter the gates of the city, lay down our worldly wisdom for the foolishness of God, embrace the conflict and suffering of those who are impoverished and oppressed, and weep with Christ. Let us weep for the unborn baby in the womb of a mother who must prostitute herself to afford housing in a filthy motel room. Let us weep for the impoverished men and women who had everything they owned destroyed by a city who values entertainment over hospitality. Let us weep for the uninsured whose wounds fester, whose cancers flourish, whose diabetic feet are amputated. Let us weep for the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the blessed, and let us weep that we are far from them, for theirs is the kingdom.

Yes, theirs is the kingdom where people aren’t arrested for their poverty, their skin color, or their status. Theirs is the kingdom where grace and mercy reign over retribution and punishment, where justice translates into more than court fines and time behind bars. Enter the gates of the city with open eyes and open ears lest we miss our Christ in our breadlines, in our missions, and in our jails.

Enter the gates and listen to the story of one of our friends. We’ll call him “Carl.” Until recently, Carl camped just south of the city in Fort Negley Park. He lived in a humble yet well-built structure that provided warmth and gave him a safe place to store his meager possessions—food, kitchenware, important documents, clothing, bedding, and a few books, including his baptismal Bible. No one really bothered Carl or the others who camped nearby. Metro police even came to check on them during the cold spell to see if they needed to come indoors. But on Wednesday, February 24th, Carl returned to his home to find his camp being raided by Metro Parks Police. They dismantled his home, piece by piece, and when Carl protested and asked to get a few of his possessions out before they destroyed them, he was taunted and told that he would be ticketed if he said anything—that he was lucky he wasn’t getting arrested. Piece by piece, they destroyed his home before his very eyes. They disposed of his blankets, food, documents, records, and Bible. He was left with the shirt on his back and the bag he was carrying on a night when the temperature was below freezing. Did I mention that Carl went to his camp to retrieve one of his blankets for a homeless woman downtown? Did I mention that it was also Carl’s birthday? Five other individuals also had their homes and personal belongings destroyed without warning by Metro Parks Police. Not only is this unacceptable, unconstitutional, and illegal, it is also immoral.

Do we not remember the Fresno case just two years ago where the city, as well as the California Department of Transportation, were sued by hundreds of homeless residents for raiding and destroying their personal possessions without notice? The courts of California ruled that such activities violated the constitutional rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment that protect individuals from unreasonable search and seizure and awarded the plaintiffs a multi-million dollar settlement. Other cities such as St. Louis and St. Petersburg now provide storage facilities for people’s belongings that are collected by police officers and the city. It is interesting that the law enforcement individuals who destroy and take people’s possessions often claim that they are just trying to help, just trying to “prod” homeless individuals toward housing, as a recent NPR article put it. It would be one thing if we had empty, accessible units of low-income or subsidized housing for our homeless friends to move into, but today, the only empty units of housing in Nashville are our foreclosed homes and our luxury condos. So how can we “prod” people toward housing when we have none? How can we “prod” people toward traditional shelters when they are full, when they split families apart, when they cannot accommodate pets and cannot even ensure the safety of people’s bags and belongings?

Can we not see the irony? Our city—Metro Nashville—claims to be “executing justice” when they lock up homeless individuals for petty offenses and unpaid fines. But where is the justice when Metro’s own employees—the very ones charged with upholding the law and Constitution—break the law in a way that devastates the lives of others? Metro should be ashamed. Let this be a call for a public apology, for repentance, for compensation, and for change. And if those calls go unanswered, let this be a call for attorneys to step up who are interested in taking the case of those who had their belongings unjustly destroyed. Let us be wary, though, of thinking that ultimate “justice” and “change” will come from the Metro Courthouse. As theologian and boot-leg preacher Will Campbell would say, “Prison is all that society and law know to do when there are violations of its codes, values, moralities, prejudices. Society and society’s law cannot acquit, liberate, reconcile, free, resurrect.” True mercy, restoration, and liberation cannot be legislated, but legislation can, at its best, promote such things.

As demonstrated above, there seems to be some confusion as to the Constitutional rights of the poor and homeless in Nashville. So let’s discuss such rights. First, of course, is the aforementioned Fourth Amendment right that protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure. Next, there is the Eighth Amendment which clearly states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishment inflicted.” Then, there’s the Fourteenth Amendment which declares, “No State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” So what of our homeless friend who was give a $1,000 fine for smoking a joint? What about our homeless friend who is prevented from entering dining establishments because he must carry all of his worldly possessions on his back, while students with backpacks are welcomed with open arms? And what of the fact that our skin color and socio-economic status protects us from getting a ticket for cutting across a downtown parking lot and carrying a cup of wine from gallery to gallery during the Downtown Art Crawl?  And what of tourists drinking bottles of beer on the street corners of Broadway, falling drunk out of their cars while the police look the other way, the other way toward our homeless sister who sits intoxicated and crying on a bench and who is then arrested? Our homeless friends have no such protection and no such privileges. There is no equal protection in our economically segregated society. The poor are not a protected class, and so they are targeted and crucified day in and day out in the interest of improving the quality of life for those who can afford luxury condos and honky-tonk vacations.

How can our homeless brothers and sisters comply with the law when the laws change depending upon who is committing the so-called violation? How can they comply with the laws when police officers issue the homeless “green tickets” (Metro citations) while telling them that such tickets “don’t mean anything” and then offer to throw the tickets into the campfire of the person to whom they are issuing the ticket? How can a person possibly enjoy equal protection of the law and due process, when they are told a citation is “meaningless” only to find two months later that such a citation has caused them to incur significant fines that they cannot pay, which will then lead to jail time that is surely unjust under any but the most Orwellian system?

If we are going to charge Nashville’s citizens with trespassing for cutting through parking lots, let us charge everyone in equal proportion: the business man running late to work, the tourist looking for a short-cut. If we are going to charge Nashville’s citizens with public intoxication, let us charge everyone in equal proportion: the bar-hoppers, Titans fans, and “art crawlers.” If we continue, however, to violate the Constitutional and civil rights of our poor and homeless citizens, let us not be surprised if civil disobedience and public non-violent protests begin to bring such injustices to light. Unjust laws and policies must be resisted, especially by those of us who are no longer ignorant to the plight of the oppressed.

But for those who have made it this far and are still hindered by a misreading of Romans 13 and think that being a “good Christian” means being a “good American citizen” who always submits to the law of the land, let us be clear: Moses, an agent of civil disobedience, did not submit to Pharaoh when he demanded that his people—oppressed, enslaved minorities—be freed from bondage. Mary and Joseph did not submit to the governing authorities when they fled to Egypt because King Herod was murdering baby boys. Jesus did not heed the religious laws of the Sabbath when he healed the man with the withered hand, when he, out of hunger, picked grain for himself and his disciples. One could even say that Jesus’ resurrection was an act of civil disobedience against the state—the Roman Empire—who crucified him. Our criminal justice system which revolves on retribution does not, itself, submit to a God of restorative justice, and is therefore fallen. In such a broken, fallen system, there are unjust laws that must be resisted by people of all faith traditions who value mercy and love, especially those who claim to live in light of the Christian tradition. Campbell says, “If one thing is clear in the New Testament it is the central theme of the triumph of grace over law. While St. Paul stopped short of a rigid antinomian position, a complete disregard for the law, he did make it clear that to abide in grace is more radical than to abide by law.” And for those outside of the Christian or Jewish traditions, consider the words of the Dali Lama: “When I see beings of wicked nature overwhelmed by violent negative actions and sufferings, I shall hold such rare ones dear, as if I had found a precious treasure.”

Yes, to read Romans 13 outside of its context subsequent to Romans 12 will assuredly lead one to a misunderstanding and misapplication of scripture. God always, without exception, calls us to stand with the oppressed and lowly, never with the oppressors and persecutors:

 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind … Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil, Cling to what is good … Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble … Repay no one evil for evil. (Romans 12: 1-17)

Likewise, Matthew chapter 25 calls us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, offer sanctuary to the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the ill and infirm, and visit the prisoner without qualification or exception. Nowhere is the imperative given to feed the hungry, except for the prostitute turning tricks for another fix; clothe the naked, except for the hopeless alcoholic who has soiled himself for the third time in one day; give drink to the thirsty, except for those trespassing on McDonald’s property; give sanctuary to the stranger, except those who are illegal; visit the prisoner, except for the child molester; care for the ill, except those lying in a gutter dying from “self-inflicted” AIDS and Hepatitis C. The fig tree-killing, temple-clearing, whore-loving Nazarene calls us to choose mercy and grace over law. To follow the way of Jesus is to choose a difficult, impractical, heartbreaking life that stands in direct contradiction to the life that the dominant culture calls us to embrace. But if we do not choose this difficult, impractical heartbreaking life, if we do not respond to the suffering in our city, then we should ready ourselves, for one day Jesus will turn to us and say, “For I was hungry and you arrested those who tried to feed me, I was weary and you told me to move along, I was a stranger and you deported me, I needed clothes and you wrote me a citation for indecent exposure, I was sick and uninsured and you refused to treat me, I was in prison and you abandoned me.” 

Every time we refuse to embrace the broken and dispossessed, we deny the resurrection of Christ. Every time we turn to the false power of the state to coerce and imprison our brothers and sisters instead of choosing the redemptive power of love and grace to heal our brothers and sisters, we turn our back on the resurrection.

While there is talk of creating a “homeless court” in Nashville that enables social workers to intervene for homeless individuals who are arrested (or about to be arrested) for petty offenses, maybe our city should simply stop arresting individuals for such. After all, our outreach workers already spend a good deal of their outreach time in court advocating for individuals who are trying to get their citations for “trespassing” (cutting through a parking lot) and other things dismissed. Such advocating is important, but it takes our few outreach workers off the streets. Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas could settle this by declaring that homeless individuals will no longer be the targeted recipients of “quality of life citations,” which include public urination (when there are limited public restrooms), obstruction of a passageway (when a homeless individual can’t sit on the sidewalk with her backpack but a businesswoman can sit with her rolling suitcase), no trespassing or sleeping in public parks (when there is not enough shelter space for everyone in our homeless community), no public feedings by persons without permits (when men, women, and children are malnourished), and the list goes on. Rather than paying $1,000 a night to arrest and  hold a homeless individual in jail, maybe our city should invest in more street outreach workers, more public restrooms, and allow police officers (and lieutenants) more freedom to partner with social services systems. Maybe the very existence of our “Quality of Life Ordinance” is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment because such an ordinance is clearly concerned with the quality of life of a selective group of citizens and does not provide equal protection under law to the homeless community. And the “burden” of these responsibilities and changes should not just fall on Metro, but on all of Nashville’s citizens, especially faith-based communities.

But what happens when Nashville’s churches do not heed the call to see Christ in the stranger and to be the Good Samaritan to our brother or sister who is lying in a pool of his or her own urine? And what if we don’t just pass by; what if we stop to take action by calling the police because we don’t want to see this oh-so-disgusting visage of a human wreck die on our property? Tell me brothers and sisters of Christ, what better place is there to crawl to in order to die than the sanctuary offered by the living and resurrected God on the holy, sacred grounds of a church, particularly if you have nowhere else to go? But then again, perhaps your church is merely a business, as instruments of Caesar would have us believe. Perhaps this dying man has not crawled to sanctuary, perhaps he has crawled to Gehenna.

On March 19th, The Tennessean ran an article entitled “Nashville churches consider ban on trespassers” by Nicole Young. The article quotes a Paragon Mills Church of Christ member attempting to justify the church’s decision to sign a trespass waiver as saying: “We have people gathering on our front steps engaging in what appears to be drug deals. We have vandalism on an almost constant basis. One day, we even had a homeless guy walk in on us during a meeting.” Imagine that, a homeless man dared to walk into the sanctuary of church. What paragons of Christian virtue to decide to hand over your brothers and sisters at the point of a gun to the courts of empire. I weep for the churches of Nashville and their lost opportunity to embrace the living Christ. If we are the body of Christ, why then do we not feed the stranger, and bind his feet, and love him as the precious child of God that he is? How often have we scorned an encounter with the living Christ, an encounter where we could have found in the body and eyes of the beaten, the broken, and the damned, the God whom we claim to serve? “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37) You stone those who are sent to you, and you are not willing!

And as for you our brothers and sisters at Woodbine United Methodist Church, who may now decide to sign the ban because you do not want to see a man die on to grounds of your church: in the name of Christ, do you hear yourselves? Have we all become so blind that we cannot see and deaf so that we cannot hear? Would you followers of Jesus really rather see this poor soul die surrounded by the walls of a prison than in the embrace of the body of Christ because you cannot bear to look at him? Do not sign the ban; we will come and take this offensive child of God from your sight so that you will have to look on him no more, but be warned, you stand in the place of the rich man who turns from Lazarus at the gate.

We speak not just to Paragon Mills or Woodbine, but to all churches in Nashville; for the love of your God, transform, repent, turn around, all of you churches who have signed or are considering signing such bans, repent! That church property does not belong to you, do not be fooled by the lies of the Deceiver; that church property belongs to the living God, and there is not one material thing contained in that church or on its grounds that your God values more than a single human life. Do not be as the Sanhedrin, turning to empire to do your dirty work for you. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts” (Mark 7:6, 7).  

There are examples within our community of churches who indeed embrace the living Christ. McKendree United Methodist Church has refused to sign a trespass warrant, and Otter Creek Church of Christ has offered to organize volunteers to clean up the property of any downtown church who agrees to pull their trespass warrant, and to consider funding port-o-potties so that our brothers and sisters can pee with dignity. And Amos House Community continues to offer outreach support and training.

Let us learn from our friend Carl who had his camp destroyed. Carl does not believe the police are the “bad guys” and neither do we. In fact, we work closely with many Metro PD officers, lieutenants, and commanders to help provide outreach support for the homeless individuals they come into contact with. While we do not condone the crooked ways of our empire, we acknowledge that we are all children of God operating in a broken system, whether we are homeless individuals, police officers, prison guards, students, physicians, or inmates. The second we begin to demonize individuals we view as the “other,” whoever “they” may be, we lose sight of the very things we claim to be pursuing, namely justice, mercy, and reconciliation. You see, the very day that Metro Parks Police destroyed Carl’s camp, the February issue of The Contributor hit the streets with a poem by Carl expressing his appreciation for the police. The same night Carl lost his camp, he remembered a birthday card that was given to him by one of his customers who also gave him a birthday cake. With hot tears drenching his face, he opened the birthday card to find $100. You see, the next day when Carl was speaking with a friend, mourning the loss of everything he had, he said, “Yet in all things, in all suffering, I will rejoice.”

Maybe it is foolish to think that we should stop ticketing and arresting members of our homeless community for petty quality of life citations. Maybe it is foolish for Carl to say that without a home or his possessions, he will rejoice. But if it is foolish, it is the holy foolishness of God that shames the wise, the strong, and the powerful and paves the way for the kingdom of God.