On Fear and Following: Reading the Beatitudes in Prision

As many of you know, each week I help lead a bible study at a local prison. And each week I keep learning a lot about reading the bible "from the margins" of society.

As I noted in a prior post, I'm continually struck by how the bible sounds on the inside of the prison. And perhaps there is no better example of this than the Beatitudes.

For my part of the study I'm working through the gospels and this week we started on the Sermon on the Mount.

I knew I'd be facing a challenge with the Beatitudes. My fear was that our discussion of the Beatitudes would reduce to platitudes and sentimentality. But I knew, if we really confronted the Beatitudes, we'd be talking about something closer to life and death. For the Beatitudes are some of the hardest and craziest words Jesus ever uttered.

But how to get that across?

I started by asking a question. Before we read the Beatitudes, I said, I want you to think of the "Beatitudes" the govern the world in which you live, the life behind these concrete walls and barbed wire. Who is blessed in here? Who gets ahead? Who comes out as #1? So fill in the sentence, "Blessed are the..."

The was a pause and some silence. Generally speaking, prisoners live two lives. One life is the face they present to the guards and other prison officials. This is a nice compliant face. And for the most part this is the face the prisoners show the volunteers. The other face is the face they show among the other prisoners. The face they show to survive day to day. And as you might expect, the two often don't go together very well. But it's really just the extreme version of what we see everyday in our own lives. I have my church, work, and public face. My nice, devout, and together face. And then there is the real me sitting behind that facade.

Week to week, as you lead a bible study with prisoners, you can come to believe that this is the most holy, devout, and saintly bunch of Christians you've ever seen. This is, incidentally, one of the joys of prison ministry, how nice, grateful and cooperative the men are. You'll never have a better audience.

But I know that this is a bit of an illusion. To be sure, the men are grateful. The time they have with us is, perhaps, the only non-coercive, relaxed and egalitarian interaction they have during the week. So they are truly grateful and happy to be a part of the bible study. And many have become committed followers of Jesus.

Still, for the most part I know that the devoutness on display during the bible study is hiding a great deal of darkness. And we don't talk much about that darkness. At least not in our bible study. But I knew it was there and I wanted to try to talk about it a bit before reading the Beatitudes.

So I waited. And asked again, "Inside the prison, who is blessed?"

Finally, a man answered:

"The violent."

I nodded. "So that is Beatitude #1. 'Blessed are the violent.' What else?" The floodgates opened.

The thieves.
The liars.
The manipulators.
The hypocrites.
The wealthy. (There is an underground black market economy.)
The strong.

On and on it went. These were the "virtues" that got "blessed" and rewarded inside the prison. These were the "virtues" that helped you get ahead, survive, and thrive. And I wondered, is it any different on the outside where I live?

Not much.

After creating this list we then turned to Matthew 5 and we read aloud:

Blessed are the poor in spirit...

Blessed are those who mourn...

Blessed are the meek...

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...

Blessed are the merciful...

Blessed are the pure in heart...

Blessed are the peacemakers...

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness...
As we read these words the room became very somber. In light of what we'd just been talking about the radical call of Jesus shone like a white hot light. It burned. When you read the Beatitudes on the outside it all sounds so nice and happy. But read inside a prison you suddenly see just how crazy you have to be to be a follower of Jesus. How the Beatitudes really are a matter of life and death.

I asked the prisoners, can you be meek, poor in spirit, or merciful in prison? Finally opening up, they said no, you can't. You'd get hurt, taken advantage of, raped, killed. Your days would be numbered if you tried to live out the Beatitudes.

And suddenly, I didn't know what to say. For it became very clear to me what it would mean for me to preach the Beatitudes to these men. I'd be asking them to give their lives to Jesus. I'd be asking them to die.

So I hesitated. For one simple reason. I didn't know if I was ready to make that commitment. And sensing hesitancy in my own heart, my own fear of Jesus, I couldn't ask these men to do something that I myself lacked the courage to do.

None of this was verbalized. After the men described how it would be suicidal to live out the Beatitudes inside the prison we started to talk about how, in small moments here and there, they could let their defenses down to show a little meekness, to show a little mercy. We started to figure out ways they could fit Jesus into the gaps and margins of prison life. Where their shell of violence and toughness could be dropped for a moment.

Basically, we talked about compromise. How to accommodate Jesus to the ruling ethic of prison life. And like I said, I couldn't ask for anything more. Who was I to push them for more mercy and meekness when I'd be walking out of the prison gates in less than an hour? I didn't know what I was asking them to do. Nor was I confident about what I would do if I was in their shoes. So we talked of compromise.

The sun was setting as I walked through the prison gates toward my car. I stood for a moment looking at that gorgeous West Texas sky. Inside I was troubled.

I knew, deep down, that the problem the prisoners faced wasn't so dissimilar from my own. True, the metal meets the bone in prison in ways I don't experience on a day to day basis. But is a life lived on the outside according to the Beatitudes any less radical, crazy and suicidal? And in the face of that call have I not balked and backed down? Have I not been living my life the same way I encouraged the prisoners to live theirs, trying to make a compromise between Jesus and the patterns of this world? Am I not trying to fit Jesus into my life when it's convenient, when it costs me nothing?

This is what happens to you when you read the bible inside a prison.

For the first time in my life I'd read the Beatitudes...

and was afraid.

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33 thoughts on “On Fear and Following: Reading the Beatitudes in Prision”

  1. Very insightful, and yet you don't admit to having all the answers... which makes it all the more insightful.

    I was struck with your closing statement: "This is what happens to you when you read the bible inside a prison."

    ... and reminded of what happens to people when they read the bible while stuck inside religion... church... doctrine.... 

    ... they are in bondage to it.

  2. Wow. You're battin' a thousand these days on the old "kick-me-in-the-teeth" scale, Dr. Beck. 

    A potent reminder of what a (insert vulgarity) I am when it comes to the radical call. I live and work in Mainstream "Christian" Culture, and even in my little cocoon I find myself compromising the truth - fitting Jesus into the chinks in the pre-fab armor provided for me as a "Christian Educator." Those prisoners would be risking their lives... and often I'm not even willing to risk my job to speak the truth that some scared, wandering kid needs to hear.

    Thank God for... er... God, eh? For Grace that's real, and omni, and not just the conditional payoff for speaking, thinking, or acting "correctly."

  3. Yeah, the Sermon on the Mount can be pretty demoralizing. I ended the lesson by circling back to "blessed are those who mourn" and how some have interpreted that along the lines of Luke 18.9-14. Which also fits in with being "poor in spirit."

  4. That's a great point. Makes you wonder if you can even hear the bible being on the "inside" of religion or church. Like how the scribes and the teachers of the Law totally miss Jesus. Happens everyday in churches across the world.

  5. Some 16 years ago as a grad student in the ACU psych program I did my internship at the French Robertson Unit.  During one session with a young inmate named J. Martinez we practiced progressive muscle relaxation.  In the middle of the exercise he jumped out of his chair and angrily told me to stop.  After a few moments in silence he began to cry and said "I just can't relax in here.  If I relax I'll get hurt."  That comment has haunted me ever since.  I strongly empathize with what you must have wrestled with while looking at the Texas sky.

  6. "I'm continually struck by how the bible sounds on the inside of the prison."

    In this free country of ours anybody can take Matthew 5 and try to make sense out of it against the backdrop of 21st century America.  However, it is most unlikely that any good will come of that; for the Scripture is being taken out of its context.

    In Matthew 5, Jesus, the son of God, the son of David, the king of the Jews, is telling His wayward and blind people (all Jews) about those who will enter the earthly kingdom He is offering to them. Long story short, they don't listen and the offer is retracted, for at least 2000 years.

    Nothing here has anything to do with what Paul called the body of Christ.  So, you, and I, and all those alive today really have nothing to fear from 'the sound' of this passage.  BUT, there are a few I could point out in which you might better spend your time looking for application.

  7. Context? Is that the context? Are we still looking for a savior with a sword riding a white horse? Wow, I am sorry to read this comment. The offer was extended to all of us "non Jews" too. It is still offered and a land called Israel was not and is not a part of that offer. OR: do I read this comment all wrong? Thanks to Dr. Beck and folks like him, scales on our eyes and wax in our ears can be cleaned by a desert master making mud with his spit in the dust on the road.

  8. Beautiful, scary, sublime, frightening, hopeful, angry - those aere some of my flash reactions to your wonderful post.

  9. So Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship is also irrelevant? Your comment was very stimulating. Might even get me to reading theology again...especially the history of Euoropean dispensational hermeneutic.

  10. Hi Chuck,
    My best guess is that David is working with some form of dispensationalist theology where Jesus' teaching is a part of the "Old Law" which ended at Jesus' death. The "New Law" them, which Paul preaches, is what governs the church. Dispensationalist thinking allows you to minimize, remove, or bracket Jesus' performance-oriented teachings from impacting the "faith alone" theology that emerged during the Reformation.

    Of course, I disagree totally with dispensationalist thinking and theology. But I don't really know what to say to anyone who believes in it. It's just a unique perspective you see some Christians hold.

  11. "Are we still looking for a savior with a sword riding a white horse?"

    Certainly not me.

    "The offer was extended to all of us "non Jews" too."

    Which offer are you talking about?  By the way, how do you understand Matthew 10:5-6 and/or Matthew 15:24?

    "It is still offered and a land called Israel was not and is not a part of that offer."

    I agree that the offer of eternal life to us today has nothing to do with getting land in Israel.

    "do I read this comment all wrong?"

    Don't know; but an interesting question.

  12. Oh Richard!

    "'faith alone' theology that emerged during the Reformation."

    Paul never 'preached' a new law; and he was long gone before the reformation and yet he wrote:  Romans 3:28  "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."  (that would include both 'new' and 'old' law)

    By the way, there is absolutely no conflict between 'performance-oriented' teachings and 'faith alone' teachings.  That is, if one keeps track of whether the context is 'before' or 'after' salvation.

  13. So, a Facebook friend sent me a link to this. You have got to, got to, got to find and watch a copy of the 2005 documentary movie Shakespeare Behind Bars. It gets to some of these same issues, using Shakespeare's The Tempest. Since viewing the movie, I've begun working with SBB on an occasional basis every years since 2007.

  14. Thanks Dr. Beck for your comment. I gathered as much too but did not have a name for it.

    David, I should make myself clear. The "offer" I consider legitimate is one of salvation from my "sin of egocentricity", not from hell or into some eternal life after I die. What happens to me after death is none of my business, its God's.

     Jesus offers us insights into our egos that can liberate us from the bondage to the self. I am a recovering Calvinist that understands how "faith alone" teaching has destroyed the good news that might even be crucial for the survival of the species that has called itself "human." We are still in a stage of evolution where the self centered sense of survival that powers the ego is a legacy from which Jesus' teachings could save us if we can only see it.

    I suppose that is enough said.


  15. Thank you, for your willingness to go into the prison and be present with these men, and for sharing how these encounters are transforming you.  Very challenging thoughts on the Beatitudes...actually living them out.  I think your advice to the men was wise and good -- we can only do what we can, with God's help, and keep moving toward perfection, day by day and step by step.  Some have much more difficult circumstances in which to grow in faith and obedience.  Does God mercifully take this into account?  I think so.  Freedom is more subjective than we (outside of prison) like to admit, I think.

  16. You said, "Am I not trying to fit Jesus into my life when it's convenient, when it costs me nothing?"

    I can assure you that, while it costs you nothing, somebody else is paying a heavy price for your convenience.

  17. It's not prison, but I'm standing at the threshold of another world into which we're about to send our oldest ... he registered for college this week at a rather large university a few hours away. I got to thinking about your "Blessed are the ____?" in regards to his soon-to-be new environment. He's ready to launch, but I'm hoping my stomach untwists at some point.

  18. If you should happen to see Shakespeare Behind Bars, I would certainly like to know about it.

  19. Got it in the queue on Netflix! Thanks so much for the recommendation.

  20. I've been away from reading blogs for several weeks, due to being employed (after 25 months without income, I am grateful for this little inconvenience).  And, this is the first item I read.

    Just about the most spiritually moving piece I have read in months.

    Thank you.

  21. I did jail ministry in Phoenix, in one of Joe Arpaio's gulags. The guys in the Durango Jail were too violent to be housed in the tents. Many were gang members from rival gangs who took advantage of the opportunity to escape the cellblock to participate in religious services, whether they were "churched" or not (mostly not) on the outside.
    We would show a video tape of the Gospel of John, then discuss it, sing a few songs with a guitar, then serve communion before leaving. When the Beatitudes came on as the video segment, I had the same difficulty you describe on this beautiful piece. Asking men who needed to be hard to survive to lower their defenses & become meek peacemakers seemed like treason. It really did make me think about how we perceive the more difficult sections of scripture.
    Sometimes, we were able to reach them with Jesus' message of love & forgiveness. The experience made me think about communion differently. I no longer saw the holy meal as just another routine done by rote without considering the sacrifice behind the symbolism. He gave his body & blood for those men as much (if not more) as he gave it for the pious. Some of the men we served "got it" & received the host with tears in their eyes. To be forgiven & loved to the point of sacrifice was overwhelming for them in comparison to the selfishness necessary for survival in jail or their neighborhoods.
    I remember them & the gratitude they felt for the gift of forgiveness represented in the communion meal every time I partake. I remember the rough, tough men with tatoos, wearing chains receiving the representation of forgiveness with tears. At that moment, they were no longer performing for the others in the room or the jail. They became "meek" for just a few seconds, before they were forced to put their "game face" back on.

  22. Why do we reflexively read the Beatitudes as if they were commandments, as if all of the attributes Jesus lists there were divinely desirable as character traits?  Dallas Willard challenged me on this very question in _The Divine Conspiracy_, and I haven't yet come up with a good answer.  The only attribute in the list that might be a candidate for such a treatment is "merciful" - yes, without a doubt, it qualifies, perhaps near the top - but "mourning?"  "Poor in spirit?"  "Hungering after covenant justice (presumably because it has been deprived them, not because of some deep piety)?"  None of those things is intrinsically desirable.

    It does seem a bit rash and dangerous, therefore, even to consider setting the Beatitudes forward as some list of "must bes," especially in such a violent setting.


  23. I've been waiting for someone else to make this point: This post makes a good case for the local church being the community where the Jesus' kingdom ideals can safely be enacted. That might be a good way to frame the Church's purpose? 

  24. You talked about the prisoners having two sides: the side they show "the man", the side they show each other.  As an outsider, all you see is the "good guy" side they want you to see.  For you, the other side doesn't exist.  They don't want you to see it, and they think you don't want to see it, because they think you'll reject them for it.

    This dynamic is staggeringly familiar to me from working with high school youth.  I'm not sure what that says about our educational system...

  25. qb,

    Having taught literature and history for five years in a maximum security prison in the 1970s, I find myself agreeing with you.  It might be helpful to consider the text and the context.  To what extent are maximum security inmates contextually similar to the poor and marginal Jews under Roman occupation that Jesus was seeking to give hope to? or the largely Greek-speaking Jewish followers to whom Matthew was speaking?  Is our way of wanting to live out the Beatitudes a way of binding burdens on ourselves and others too hard to bear?


  26. Dr. Beck, I must say that I love the way the Spirit is working with you on this.  It's very insightful.  However I am a bit surprised that you don't see an analogy between the 1st Century Christians and the prisoners.  It seems that they both face somewhat dire stresses from outside forces and the threat of persecution and death.  As Tracy notes, it seems that community building within the prison system might create a respite for the prisoners to practice and live the beatitudes.

    It's also too bad that you turned to Matthew's version of the beatitudes instead of Luke's.  I love how Jesus takes those things that we expect would be our ideals, and turns them into pitfalls in that recounting.  Thus it would seem that while the thieves, liars, manipulators, hypocrites, wealthy and strong might be the ideals to surviving the prison system, they are really the woes of the soul.

    Preach on brother!

  27. I guess I haven't given you a way to let me know. I'm at jheller@huntington.edu. By the way, where's that earlier post about how the Bible sounds in prison?

  28. For the first time in my life I've really looked at the Beatitudes as part of my life....not as an abstract.  I intend to look further.

  29. At the risk of being tiresome, here's some more about them:

    and http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011306150109

    I am not any of the people you'll see in the video or quoted in the article. I live too far away from the prison to be involved as much as I'd like, so I'm just a supporter and volunteer.

  30. I find it so interesting that 10 days after writing about this experience you find yourself writing about Stringfellow and the Ethic of Death/Survival. Jesus' ways truly are radical in this fallen world, and that can be scary. I know I've had more than one panic attack thinking about being persecuted for righteousness' sake. Nevertheless, we continually hear from Heaven - Do not be afraid; Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good; and throughout the Psalms of God's keeping power.

    So, any new insight into Beatitude living after seeing the ethic/service of Death in survival? :) This is life or death stuff indeed.

  31. Profound words. I printed out this post for my prison pen pal, who responded with an extraordinary tale of Christ-like love in prison. His letter is posted on my blog:

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