Soulful Resistance

In light of yesterday's post about the experience of prison inmates, I wanted to point you to a powerful two-part essay written by Andrew Krinks at The Other Journal entitled "Soulful Resistance: Theological Body Knowledge on Tennessee’s Death Row" (Part 1, Part 2).

In the essay Andrew reflects on theological notion of embodiment in light of the experiences of death row inmates. During multiple visits in 2012 and 2013 Andrew interviewed five prisoners facing death sentences at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee. And what Andrew discovered through those interviews is that when you live on death row, when you don't control your own body, the issue of "embodiment" becomes very complicated.

As Andrew writes:
[T]o be human is to be embodied.

And yet, for people living in especially fragmented and fragmenting material contexts, such as Tennessee’s death row, embodiment is often much more complicated. To be embodied on death row is to be thoroughly delimited—materially, spatially, and relationally—under another’s control, destined for death strapped to a gurney. As a result, men here have few options but to center their subjectivity beyond the purely material: to be human inside a death machine demands being more than just a body; it demands soulfulness. To understand what it means to be human on Tennessee’s death row, we must look at the material and relational nature of life on death row, the theological frameworks that guide life there, and, finally, the soulful resistance that rehumanizes life in this dehumanizing environment.
When Andrew and I talked last week at the Christians Scholars Conference I shared how the old gospel song "I'll Fly Away" has been rehabilitated ever since I started singing it with inmates. Prior to that experience I felt that "I'll Fly Away" was too dualistic and escapist. Contra to "I'll Fly Away" I wanted a song that embraced this world and our material existence. I didn't want a song that yearned for "flying away" to "a home on God's celestial shore."

And yet, when you sing "I'll Fly Away" inside a prison you come to understand that the song is, to use Andrew's words, an act of "soulful resistance." When the body has become trapped and is no longer under your control your only way to resist is to retreat into interiority and spirituality. The spiritual must resist the oppression and dehumanization of material existence where life has become, as Andrew describes it, a "living death." Oppressed persons have long known this, and it goes a long way toward explaining why dualistic and charismatic spirituality flourishes in oppressed contexts.

For people like me, it's all well and good to embrace material existence when you are well-fed and safe. But when material existence is oppressive and dehumanizing the cry to "fly away" functions as a lament, a prophetic rebuke, and an act of soulful resistance.

Cynicism about "I'll Fly Away" is a luxury of the privileged.

A final reflection from Andrew's essay:
...As the last bastion of freedom and dignity, the soul/mind/spirit thus functions powerfully as the site from which imprisoned subjects assert themselves over against the material, spatial, and relational inscriptions on the body that would seek to define them as little more than irredeemable pieces of property. And though for my interviewees such resistance may seem, in part, to deny the body, it nevertheless requires the body in order to take concrete shape through the body-based practices they employ on a daily basis, practices that serve to rehumanize an otherwise dehumanizing environment.

When the body’s knowledge is formed through strict material, spatial, and relational delimitation, one has little option but to root one’s sense of self beyond a strict materiality of the body alone, seeking postures and practices, rather, that allow the body to transcend its corporeal confinement by embodying that part of oneself that cannot be contained by concrete walls, steel doors, and razor wire. And as my interviewees demonstrate, this embodiment of the transcendent aspects of one’s selfhood can serve to transform spaces that might otherwise fragment and dissolve one’s sense of self and one’s community. By cultivating and living from a deeply rooted interiority, my interviewees on Tennessee’s death row creatively and soulfully resist those mechanisms of control that would otherwise dehumanize and fragment them to the point of death—quite literally. By creatively transcending their subjugated immanence—in the sense of both “moving beyond” and “deploying transcendentally”—they demonstrate the capacity of confined peoples to articulate and embody real freedom, even in the confines of an eight-by-ten cell.
Read the whole thing here.

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11 thoughts on “Soulful Resistance”

  1. Richard, I'm curious. Why do you insist on a polarizing duality between the incarcerated and the "privileged?"

    That there is a duality involving the incarcerated and the non-incarcerated is self-evident, hardly worth remarking, a definitional thing. But you go a step further:

    "Cynicism about 'I'll Fly Away' is a luxury of the privileged."

    The way you lay all of this out substantially equates "[being] well fed and safe" with "privilege." Is that not a bridge or two too far?

  2. Privilege is a relation. Relative to those who lack food and who live in unsafe conditions the "well fed and safe" are privileged. That seems a banal observation.

    And in the context of this post the privilege is about the knee-jerk cynicism toward a song deemed "escapist." That is, it's easy to be cynical about "escaping" material existence when material existence is working out pretty well for you. Again, that seems a banal observation.

  3. "Cynicism about 'I'll Fly Away' is a luxury of the privileged": agreed. I think Andrew's piece also has the power to interrogate our assumptions about the extent to which even the privileged singing "I'll Fly Away" is problematic (because dualistic, escapist, etc.). To be sure, the critique lands: when sung by people whose language denigrates the material order and whose practices are ecologically destructive, "I'll Fly Away" is a kind of unknowing admission of complicity and guilt, an anthem of denial of creation and therefore its creator.

    Relatively privileged people, however, also live in a world of sickness, natural disaster, moral corruption, broken relationships, tragic accidents—in short, the fallen world of embodied vulnerability in which we all share. In that way, "I'll Fly Away," when sung by such people, can serve as an interruption of the *illusion* of being "fell fed and safe," that is, that having one's needs momentarily met (or exceeded) constitutes security against death, and the powers of sin and death. In other words, "I'll Fly Away" and songs like it may actually forcibly remind the privileged persons who sing it that, first, they will die; second, they are not immune to life's dangers; and, third, they are therefore in the same lot as everybody else—including the impoverished and imprisoned.

    (Not to mention that, sung *with* the oppressed, it also means that in heaven all such temporal markers of distinction and privilege will fall away. Best to live with that in mind now than to cling to what is temporary and passing away!)

  4. I like this a lot.

    Also, a bit of clarification for readers. I want to be clear that I don't think "I'll Fly Away" is good theology. I don't want to defend the theology of the song. What I'm pushing back on is cynicism about the song. Theologically I don't like the song, but I'm sympathetic to it when it's sung in certain contexts.

  5. I think I have mentioned it before but the song "I'll Fly Away" also have complex associations for me. In my current upper middle class American life it seem so away to what? What really do I lack? But this was a perennial favorite in chapel services in the Marine Corps where I think embodiment is similarly delimited, albeit in a different way. (although many of the actors are the same) The one thing I see lacking in much theology, no matter the stripe, is a similar mistake often made in evaluating history - ignoring context. So for a leading progressive theologian to say 'We have a better hermeneutic' is not only myopic, but putting a limit of G*d reaching people where they are. I really appreciate what you are doing here.

  6. The first one may seem banal to you, but is it possible that you find it banal because you have a priori divested the term "privilege" of its essential passivity?

    A person who has busted his ass all his life to carve out a merely adequate standard of living is hardly privileged, at least in the standard usage of the word.

    I don't have any issue with the second idea, BTW. In fact, the main piont I am making merely uses this post as a touchstone, an example of a longer-term trend or characteristic of your writing and apparent thinking generally.


  7. Though the populations would be considered poles apart, in Viktor Frankl's MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEANING, the survival of the inmates in the concentration camps was also through transcending their surroundings, though Frankl's word for its power was LOVE.

    I may be totally off base with this notion, but I am curious if most prison inmates would embrace the term SOULFUL RESISTANCE, simply because they feel more empowered by the term, over the word LOVE, which, in many minds, is more passive. Just wondering.

  8. How can we not think of Paul? "For me to live is Christ; to die is gain. I am in a straight between the two. I have given everythinng up for Christ. I had much rather be with him than here with you." (paraphrases of course). Interestingly written from a prison cell. Paul's faith was so strong that he longed to "fly away!," but he willed to stay for the Philippians sake. What a challenging act of resistance in his constricted circumstance.

    And then a bit later we read his ringing valedictory, "For the time of my departue is at hand..." The Lord Jesus Christ was Paul's stake in the future....and to all those whose simple faith sustains and propells them in the now to a new and better day. "Now faith is the substnce of things hoped for...the evidence of things not seen." Let's give it up for Paul, the consumate prisoner of Jesus.

    Imitate Jesus. Fly away some day. Good stuff for us all.

  9. I believe the meaning attached to a song like that in prison is somewhat parallel to many of the spirituals sung by slaves in reference to "Canaan," and "Campground," etc. The masters thought the slaves were singing about heaven when they were actually thinking about freedom. When prisoners sing "just a few more weary days and then, I'll fly away to a land where joys shall never end," I have a suspicion they are projecting ahead to their own freedom. Think I'll pose that question next week in our group therapy session - one with women and one with the men.

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