Deliver Us from Evil
I’ve remarked often that the jail is where certain forms of progressive theology go to die. You don’t hear much about inclusivity or diversity or bespoke spiritualities or wellness and self-care at the jail. What you do hear is an at-times-uncomfortable amount of talk about judgment and salvation and damnation and spiritual warfare and atonement. You hear about heaven and hell and purgatory. You hear about how forgiveness and mercy sound pretty nice and I’ll have some of that thank you very much, but they’re too goddamned hard for Jesus to expect of us.
Prayer is different in jail, too. When I solicit prayer requests in church-y contexts, I often get a litany of health concerns. Someone is facing surgery or had an accident or there’s an unwelcome diagnosis. Someone is dying. These requests are all very natural and appropriate. We can and should pray for healing, for courage, for patience, for peace and strength. We can and should shoulder these burdens together.
When I ask the guys at the jail what I can pray for, it’s a bit different. There are a few predictable responses. Pray for my kids, my girlfriend, my mom… Pray for my upcoming court date. But there’s nearly always a surprise. These guys don’t tend to get hung up on the (real or imagined) demands of piety. They say what they think, they ask for what they want.
At a recent bible study, we were discussing the aforementioned challenge of forgiveness. The general consensus seemed to be that it was an unreasonable demand. If you had seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t forgive either… If you’d seen your friend murdered… your step-daughter raped… yeah, it all sounds good, but some things you can’t forgive. And God’s not stepping in so sometimes you got to make it right.
My heart ached as I watched one guy in particular wrestle through this. He was practically vibrating with rage. I wanna believe in a God who makes things right, but what if it’s just a bunch of stories in a book… what if nobody ever makes it right. Then it’s on me. Another inmate looked at him and said, “Have you ever prayed that God would take revenge for you?” He looked up. “No, I haven’t,” he replied. “Well,” the second inmate said, “who knows, maybe you should try… maybe God takes the guy out in a car accident and saves you a few years in the pen.”
I pondered that comment for a few seconds. Suffice to say that praying God would take out an enemy so we wouldn’t have to hadn’t shown up during any prayer time that I could remember in church.
“So, can we pray that?” Vibrating guy wanted to know, as our time together drew to a close. “Can you pray that God would take revenge on people? That’s my prayer request today.” I paused, before answering. Was I really about to pray that God would act like some kind of proxy hit man? I’ve always had an ambiguous relationship with the whole Mennonite pacifism thing, but this felt like crossing a line of some kind. The Sermon on the Mount came rushing into my brain. Love your enemies… turn the other cheek, etc. This was followed up by an appearance from Romans 12: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. I tried to fit the pieces together while the guys in coveralls sat waiting for me to say something. Or to pray, at least.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said, “I’ll pray for justice but not revenge. You ok with that?” Vibrating guy looked at me with half a grin. “Yeah, sure. But I know what I mean by ‘justice.’” “That’s fine,” I said. “We all have our own versions of justice in our heads; I’ll just pray that God will make what is wrong, right.” He nodded and looked away.
And so, I prayed.
Dear God. There are terrible things done in our world. To us and by us. To those we care about. Make it right. We need some justice. Take it out of our hands. Deliver us from evil. Amen.
Brilliant. Those guys in jail. My guess is that God listens particularly closely to their prayers. Jesus always tended to do that …
Hi Ryan, thanks for bringing news from the prison. It brings back memories of when I was more involved in prison ministry. Your stories also complement those in Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible with the Damned. Keep up the good work. You are inspiring.
Great to hear from you, Ken! Yes, I’ve visited Ekblad a few times over the last little while. Thanks for the kind words.
Well, if I’m remembering correctly, some of David’s psalms seem like a musical appeal to a cosmic, “hit man”…
I’ve come to see that my periodic thirst for revenge against another human being, isn’t worth the price of my immortal soul. Not as noble or as flattering as the inspiration the Beatitudes offer to be sure but it works also.
Sometime a fairly crude calculation does the job…
As does any honest one.
Thanks, Ryan. Reading this while back in Palestine, where it is so tempting to pray that God would just take out the bad guys.
No doubt, Byron. A temptation complicated by the fact that both sides of that conflict are essentially praying that very thing.
All the best in your time over there!
He could always pray the imprecatory psalms. They tend to be somewhat cathartic. (Most days I have more in common with your jailhouse crew than with my church crowd (they are all upbeat & sunshiny rainbows & i’m not.)
Good point, Micki. Maybe I’ll suggest one of those next week. 🙂
(I often feel the same, re: the jailhouse crew.)