This week's guest blog is by Richard C. Goode, editor of the new book, And the Criminals with Him. Richard is Professor of History at Lipscomb University, where he also coordinates the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) programs.
You know Lee Camp’s challenge to break down false dichotomies? Here’s one for consideration.
Twenty years ago a professor at a prestigious mid-western university used a Nashville homicide to make a point. The details of the case read like a made-for-TV drama, with a local woman on trial for first-degree murder. Her defense argued that she had endured years of violence at the hands of her husband, which explained her crime. Given the circumstances, in other words, she was not guilty of first-degree murder. The professor, however, sided with the prosecution. Although battered woman syndrome was understandable, it was no excuse for murder. The accused had acted reprehensibly, and a just society must punish her. The jury agreed and imposed a stiff prison sentence.
I do not recall that original case, but in the Spring 2010 semester I met the woman at the center of this debate when she became a Lipscomb student by joining the University’s LIFE program at the Tennessee Prison for Women. She quickly established herself as a strong student, maintaining a better than 3.85 GPA. She has grown since she first made headlines. Reflecting on her experience, she explains: “Once I thought I was a possession whose sole responsibility was to make my abuser happy. Today, I am learning to identify my own dreams and thoughts. I am beginning to recognize that I am a new creature in Christ, and the meaning behind that statement. . . . This is a wonderful feeling—knowing that I have a voice. Greater still is that people are willing to listen. I want to use this voice to show that what others meant for evil, God will use for good. I want to use this voice to reach out to others who have been abused as I have, and to help them triumph over their situations.”
Twenty years ago she was a case study, an object of our policy debate, someone we could use to decide who was good and who was bad.
Will Campbell—a bootleg preacher, minister to the civil rights movement and the KKK alike—has warned us of such false dichotomies. When we “good” folks presume to decide what to do with those “bad” people, we miss the larger tragedy of human sin. Only when we truly understand the complexities of a tragedy, Will says, will we “quit blaming one side or the other. [Only then will] we quit choosing up sides and start to minister wherever the hurt is, as best we can.”
When violence disrupts our world and one neighbor harms another, why do we see only two options (i.e., this side vs. that side)? There is a third way. Instead of choosing sides, be an alternative to division-as-usual. “Stand in the tragic gap.” “Hold the tension between the reality of the moment and the possibility that something better might emerge;” to employ the counsel of Parker Palmer.
Here’s a nonviolent justice that restores. Not by “good” defeating “evil,” but by holding the ground between all the alienated, precisely at the most difficult, contested, divisive moment. In other words, refuse to label, categorize, and seek revenge. Reject the false dichotomies and zero-sum games. Live the reconciliation that social convention refuses to acknowledge—the reconciliation we know has already occurred in Christ.
In that spirit of reconciliation, Will Campbell published an issue of Katallagete in 1972, to illustrate the false dichotomies created by our retributive prison system. Over the last forty years that system has grown exponentially. Therefore, a 2012 edition has just been released under the title And the Criminals With Him: Essays in Honor of Will D. Campbell and All the Reconciled. Twenty new essays invite us to stand reconciled in this tragic gap. Selected essays include:
- The Good News from God in Jesus is Freedom to the Prisoners — Will Campbell and James Holloway
- What Has Happened Since 1973 — Preston Shipp
- Why It Pays to Imprison: Unmasking the Prison Industrial Complex — Andrew Krinks
- The Incarcerated Village — Shelly Breeden
- What Prison Has Taught Me — Crystal Sturgill
- Transformations: How Prison Has Changed Me — Donna McCoy
- My Friend Steve — Stacy Rector
- The Diary of an Execution: Is Lethal Injection Really Painless — William Stevens
- Tearing Down the Temple to Rebuild the Kingdom — Jeannie Alexander
- Questioning Society's Criminal Justice Narratives — Randy Spivey
- The Confession and Correction of a Former Correctional Chaplain — Marlin Elbon Kilpatrick
- Freedom Out of Bondage: The Baptism of Walter Pride — Jeannie Alexander (illustrations by Nathan Miller)
- On Fear and Following: Reading the Beatitudes in Prison — Richard Beck
- Punitive Justice vs. Restorative Justice: A Meditation on the Spirit of Punishment and the Spirit of Healing — Harmon Wray
- Misjudging: A Reconciliation Story — Cyntoia Brown and Preston Shipp
- Reframing Academy and Community: The Prison and the Power of Art — Laura Lake Smith
- The Transformation of X, Y, and We — Felicia Ybanez
- To See and Be Seen — Janet Wolf
For more information, visit the Cascade Books website, here.To get a 40% discount, use the word CASCADE as the coupon at checkout (discount expires August 5, 2012).