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:
I nodded. "So that is Beatitude #1. 'Blessed are the violent.' What else?" The floodgates opened.
The wealthy. (There is an underground black market economy.)
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?
After creating this list we then turned to Matthew 5 and we read aloud:
Blessed are the poor in spirit...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.
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...
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.