The Question the Whole World Revolves Around
“You know that bible verse that talks about the greatest three things, or whatever… you know, the three things that remain and how the best one is love?” The question comes from a young man at the jail. He has this wild look about him, hair everywhere, restless movements, a frantic, searching gaze, cuts on his hands. One is still bleeding. He gets up now and then to go tear a few strips off the toilet paper roll on the bookshelf to slow the flow. He follows this up by spraying disinfectant on his hands (there’s a bottle in the corner by the overhead projector, a lingering remnant of early pandemic days, I suppose). “Yeah, that’s 1 Corinthians 13,” I say, trying to keep tabs on his movements. “It’s one of my favourites.” “Yeah, I read it last night,” he responds. “I like it, too. But he’s missing one. There’s a fourth one that should be in there.”
Just this morning Richard Beck posted about how the bible sounds different in jail than it does when it’s read in more “respectable” contexts.
Good News for respectable, educated, middle-class people at a church on a Sunday isn’t necessarily Good News for the incarcerated. And messages that would be dismissed or sneered at in seminary classrooms are received as water in a dry and thirsty land out at the unit.
Well, yes. I have certainly found this to be true. Rational, socially respectable liberal theology shorn of all its embarrassing supernatural elements is pretty much useless in the jail. Things are rather more existentially urgent behind bars than a bit of progressive politics with a thin religious veneer can address. So, I’m curious about the editorial additions this young man would make to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. “What’s the fourth thing?”, I ask. He pauses the frantic movements for a minute, looks straight at me with unsettling intensity, and says: “forgiveness.”
Ah, yes. Forgiveness. Water in a dry and thirsty land. “Tell me more,” I say. He pauses again, before going on. “Well, you know, I think if you don’t have forgiveness then love and hope are impossible… and maybe even faith, I don’t know. It kind of weaves through all of them. And you know, I’ve done some bad stuff, and, well, you know God’s forgiveness never runs out, right? Like, no limits, he’ll always forgive you, even if you’ve murdered someone, or… you know, whatever.”
Or, you know… whatever. Speaking of editing 1 Cor. 13:13, in his book Faith, Hope and Carnage, Nick Cave is asked if he has many regrets. His response was brilliant:
Well, I can’t imagine there is anyone with no regrets, unless they are leading extraordinarily unexamined lives, or they are young, which often amounts to much the same thing.
I chuckled as I nodded along at that one. To be human is, in some ways to accumulate regrets. We do things and we leave things undone. We make mistakes. We hurt people and are hurt by them. We blunder foolishly down predictable paths. We forget what needs remembering and remember that which we would do better to forget. We chase after small and stupid gods and ignore the One who made us, loves us and has called us.
And we need to be forgiven. Each one of us. We need to know that the wrong that we have done can finally be acknowledge, overcome, healed, redeemed. Cave puts it well:
Can we be forgiven? I think that question is fundamental to all our lives. In fact, it may be the question that our lives pivot around or, indeed, the whole world revolves around. Can we be forgiven? And it is, of course, a religious question, not least because the secular world has failed to find a way of adequately asking it… I think this need is at the very center of our lives—a need for forgiveness.
For a brief moment, I thought about parsing my young friend’s editing of 1 Corinthians 13—is forgiveness really a fourth separate thing? Surely love is a category with enough theological room to incorporate and contextualize forgiveness—but I was (I think) wise enough to abandon that project after about five seconds. It feels like a fourth thing when you’re wearing coveralls and crocs sitting on a plastic chair in a prison chapel. Let the theologians and the preachers squabble about the hierarchies and priorities and logical flow of Paul’s argument (if indeed Paul is making an argument). The bible sounds different here.