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Following Jesus the Incarcerated One: An Interview with Dr. Paul Lim

May 17, 2017
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In my experience of teaching inside the prison, I sometimes felt as if the students who were coming to prison to take the course seemed less free than those who had received maximum sentences

In this interview, Paul Lim discusses the power of prison writings to communicate a potent desire for God, embody spiritual freedom, and provide an arena for deep self-examination.

Paul Lim is an award-winning historian of Reformation and post-Reformation England. He teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School and at Vanderbilt's College of Arts & Science. His Mystery Unveiled: The Crisis of the Trinity in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2012) won the Roland H. Bainton Prize in 2013. His current research interests include the theologies of the Reformation period and the recent surge of interest in social justice among evangelical Christians, particularly in regard to human trafficking. Paul has 15 years of experience in prison ministry. 

Paul will be teaching Prison Writings & Spirituality of Freedom at Regent this summer, July 31–Aug 4.

Why is it important that we read prison writings? What are the prison writings that you think are most essential to read?

So a bit of a background narrative as we talk about this course. I taught Vanderbilt courses at a maximum-security prison in Nashville, Tennessee twice in the past four years, and the most recent course was entitled “Prison Writings and Subversive Spirituality.” There was a poignant juxtaposition of reading and discussing writings that were done within or about prison inside a maximum security prison context. For Christians, we have to be cognizant of the fact that the God incarnate became incarcerated, albeit for one night, en route to being executed as a criminal by the Roman Empire. Of all the myriad and infinite possibilities, the sovereign God chose this path of overnight incarceration and execution for the Son of God, the Lord of all things. We are bound to ask, “What’s the point of all that?”

Put briefly, these prison writings teach us to appreciate the freedom we have as non-incarcerated individuals. But also they raise the ironic question as to what true freedom really entails. Writings written in prison reveal to us these intense longings for freedom, communion with loved ones, and desire for divine presence and forgiveness in ways that other texts might not be capable of doing.

So I think the best way to get at this is to start with Christian Scriptures, both Old and New. From the Old, I love the narrative of Jeremiah’s imprisonment, and from the New, I find the execution narrative of Christ such a gripping overlapping of the message of forgiveness and redemption as well as the cruelty of ending a human life against one’s wish. Then the writings of Paul, especially Philippians and Philemon, are also compelling prison writings. 

Among non-biblical texts, I find Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead one of my favorite works of literature (or theology) ever. Then I have found the letters of Sir Thomas More and John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to be truly arresting readings. I have also found Nelson Mandela’s reflections from prison inspirational. Although it was not written from a specifically Christian vantage point, the effect of common grace on Mr. Mandela is absolutely, undeniably present, so we will be talking about that in class as well. 

What can accounts of physical captivity teach us about the spiritual freedom? 

It’s mentioned briefly above, but perhaps worth elaboration here. When one is not able to move about freely—whether caused by incarceration or, more mundanely, through some illness—then one becomes more acutely aware of the freedom of movement. Here is what’s ironic to me: in my experience of teaching inside the prison, I sometimes felt as if the students who were coming to prison to take the course seemed less free than those who had received maximum sentences and whose freedom in the quotidian sense was far more curtailed than those of the outside students! Precisely because they were locked up, they longed for and often were able to achieve a level of communion with their living and resurrected—yet once imprisoned!—Lord.

Are there ways you think our current social/political climate demands a “subversive spirituality” similar to the spirituality often expressed in prison writing?

Ok, my fault here! The word “subversive” does not mean throwing the status quo overboard, or that the type of spirituality instantiated behind bars was fomenting some type of rebellion or sedition! Far from it: by subversive I mean that the type of piety and spirituality I have witnessed in my years of prison ministry (not too long, but about 15 years) seems to be desperate, desirous, and devoid of superficiality and/or cultural trappings, whereas I feel that a good bit of American Christianity is often marked by a type of calendrical piety, lacking substance and sincerity. I am not romanticizing prison Christianity as better than that of outside in general, but there is some stark contrast there. You have to be there to see it!

What do we learn about how to engage modern North American prison systems from studying Christian prison writings? 

Let’s talk about Dostoevsky’s first-hand experience of a Russian prison system, as encapsulated in this dynamite of prose: “Prison and penal servitude do not, of course, reform the criminal; they only punish him and secure society against his further attempts on its peace. In the criminal himself, prison and the most strenuous forms of hard labour develop only hatred, and thirst for forbidden pleasures, and terrible irresponsibility” [Memoirs from the House of the Dead (Oxford, 2001), p. 16]. What he wrote about in 1862 in Russia: do we find any parallel here in North America? Some will wholeheartedly respond in the positive, denouncing the carceral systems en toto as worthy of complete dismantling. Others will say, no, things have gotten much better from the cruelty and inhumanity witnessed by Dostoevsky. I think the truth is perhaps in the middle, but the crucial question remains: “Are our prison systems not to be more than merely punitive; thus, shouldn’t we move conscientiously toward making the system more restorative?” As Christians we should be champions of a restorative justice system.

What is one particular piece of prison writing that has impacted you? How did it impact you?

I think I’ve already answered it, but it’s Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead. There is a haunting beauty about the absolute depravity we find not only inside the prison systems that Dostoevsky experienced, but also within my own heart and journey. Good writings inexorably force the readers to examine their own moral, spiritual, and psychological status vis-à-vis those within the text. The other has to be the martyrdom accounts of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, who embraced death in spite of powerful pleas by Perpetua’s father and others in Carthage, 203 ad. It depicts in a powerful and inimitable fashion the lot of a mother choosing the less traveled path of martyrdom rather than caving in under enormous pressure. These accounts of facing death have taught me what it means to value all lives, especially those who are often most marginalized, maligned, and misunderstood. 

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