Good Intentions Gone Bad

In a compelling new study, historian Jennifer Graber investigates Protestantism's involvement in America's penal system in the first half of the 19th century. Her sobering conclusion is that the well-meaning Christians who were involved in prison reform contributed to the creation of a penal culture that "not only allowed but actually demanded" corporal punishment and inmates' suffering.

Graber argues that many Protestant prison activists, including the nation's first prison chaplains, believed that prison should aim to reform prisoners, not simply punish them. But there wasn't agreement about how to achieve prisoner reformation. Quaker Thomas Eddy, who ran New York's Newgate prison from 1797 to 1804, tried to offer inmates, in Graber's phrase, "a completely positive experience." He forbade corporal punishment, and provided prisoners with healthy meals, a clean environment, and "wholesome activities." Even solitary confinement, which was meted out only to Newgate's most obstinate inmates, was, in Eddy's eyes, not so much a punishment as an opportunity for transformation: In the silence of solitary, prisoners would finally be able to hear the Inner Light to which, Quakers believed, all people had access. In other words, Quakerism's generous theological anthropology underwrote a penal practice that many 21st century human rights activists (including the American Friends Service Committee) classify as torture.

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July 2011 Sojourners
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Jesus Knows Sign Language

During my last year of college, my pastor lent me the book Living Gently in a Violent World, co-authored by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. This book is an exploration on how followers of Christ ought to live in broken world.

The introduction of the book recounts the story of Jean Vanier teaching a course on pastoral care. During one class, Vanier asked the students to share some of their spiritual experiences. One of the students, Angela (who was deaf) began to share a dream she had where she met Jesus in heaven. She recalled talking with Jesus for some time and never experiencing so much joy and peace. "Jesus was everything I had hoped he would be," she said, "And his signing was amazing!" Vanier explains to the reader that "for Angela, heaven's perfection did not involve being 'healed' of her deafness. Rather, it was a place where the social, relational, and communication barriers that restricted her life in the present no longer existed."

What Would Jesus Tax?

In the face of state and federal budget cuts, many of us have been fasting and contemplating the question: "What would Jesus cut?" In light of tax day, however, we might equally contemplate: "What would Jesus tax?"

After all, a great deal of our budgetary stress is the result of declining revenue, thanks to the economic downturn and decades of tax cuts.

A new report that I co-authored, "Unnecessary Austerity," argues that before we make draconian budget cuts at the federal and state level, we should reverse huge tax cuts for the wealthy and tax dodging corporations.

The Jesus I know would be concerned about the extreme inequalities of wealth and power that have emerged in our communities. He would rail against principalities and powers that rig the tax rules so the privileged pay less.

He would lament the destruction of God's creation through excessive consumption and pollution. And, he would be alarmed about financial and commodity speculation driving up the cost of food and worsening hunger. (In today's world of high finance, someone would be hedging investments on how quickly Jesus could multiply loaves and fishes.)