God in Captivity, Tanya Erzen. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.
Summary: Explores the role that faith-based, predominantly Evangelical ministries are playing in the U.S. prison system, the hope they offer inmates, and the ways they may reinforce the efforts toward control and maintenance of a retributive justice and prison system.
Tanya Erzen is a university professor at the University of Puget Sound who teaches and is associate director of Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a non-profit organization providing a college education for incarcerated women. Thus she is more than a casual observer of the prison system in the U.S. In this book, she explores the role faith-based prison ministries and seminaries are playing in the U.S. prison system. Beyond the reports of the personal life change these ministries effect, Erzen asks questions about the role these ministries play in maintaining an existing system focusing more on retribution than restoration, and the inordinate presence evangelical Protestant groups in comparison to that of other religious faiths.
On one hand Erzen writes,
“For a woman facing life without the possibility of freedom or a long or even a short sentence, faith-based ministries can be a resource, a practice, a belief system, a sense of authority, and a space of belonging.
Yet she also notes an important question prison reform activist Norris Henderson suggested she ask faith-based ministries: “Why are you here?” Often these ministries are only concerned with saving individual souls without asking why those souls are in prison in the first place. She outlines the questions this raised for her:
“Some of the key questions I explore throughout God in Captivity are how faith-based ministries and the people who live in prison grapple with the meaning of punishment and redemption, and how their daily lives reflect Norris’s question of why the ministry is there and why the prison is there–to punish indefinitely or to reform? How faith-based ministries conceive of punishment and forgiveness as inextricable thus remains a central concern of the book. Another urgent question that emerges is around the legal and ethical issue of predominantly conservative evangelical Christians as the main force inside prisons, and the implications for prisoners of other religions, particularly Muslims.”
Erzen approaches this study through a collection of personal narratives and commentary. She listened to the stories of women and men in prison involved with these ministries, volunteer and ministry leaders, and prison officials. Much of her study was in southern states with the toughest sentencing laws and many prisoners faced either lengthy sentences without parole or life sentences. She also chronicles the rise of faith-based ministries and education programs as prisons expanded with mandatory sentencing laws, and other education programs were curtailed with funding cuts. She gives the many sides of a complex picture–from lives changed where people converted become internal missionaries to others, where those of other faiths sometimes enter Christian programs because of preferences given these prisoners, and where wardens consciously support these programs because they help control the behavior of inmates.
Perhaps the most significant questions she asks have to do with the structural issues of incarceration in this country that the personal focus of these ministries often fail to address. She notes how at times these ministries have been forces for reform, usually conservative reforms, and comes back to the question of the “why” of prisons–are they solely places of retribution and not places of forgiveness and restoration.
I read this book as an evangelical Christian who has friends (including university professors) engaged in some of the ministries she profiles and I have several responses to what she writes. One is appreciation for the structural questions she raises often overlooked in the very individualized approaches that characterize much of evangelicalism. The same “blind spot” hinders conversations about race, economic justice, the environment and other social issues where the faith response is often only personal moral behavior and personal relationships. Such blindness in the nineteenth century helped sustain the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
A second response however is that often the reverse is true in more socially progressive circles, where structures of injustice are addressed without addressing the question of how personal transformation and redemption might be experienced. What is striking is that faith-based ministries mobilize massive numbers of volunteers (the book mentions 20,000 plus) coming alongside prisoners, simply because their faith calls them to “remember those in prison” (Hebrews 13:3). While Erzen notes how significant this personal contact can be, I don’t think she adequately credits what an extraordinary phenomenon this is–that working people give up evenings and weekends to “go to prison.”
Erzen notes the disparity between evangelical groups and other religions and seems to consider this unjust. I would ask why aren’t these other faiths or worldviews mobilizing similar numbers to care for their prisoners? If there is institutional privileging of Christians, that’s one thing and this is unconstitutional, but Erzen doesn’t mention adherents of other faiths wanting to offer similar programming systematically being turned away. Rather, the problem seems to be simply not enough people to go around, and that problem should not be laid at the feet of Evangelical Christians.
I raise this because there could be an undertone to this book, or in the reading of it by many that engenders suspicion of faith-based ministries. I actually don’t think that is what Erzen wants, but rather to provoke a wider conversation between those engaged in such ministries and others concerned about prison reform. The truth is that we need to care both for people as individuals, and for the systems and structures that shape their lives. To ignore either is to care too little. Our incarceration rates are the highest in the world, our prisons are overcrowded, and our system of justice seems to be creating a permanent underclass where prison is part of the life cycle. The challenges are great enough that here, as elsewhere, all those of good will are needed if change for the better is to occur.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.