In Jeremiah 29 we have a clipping from a letter that has made it’s way into our Bible, a letter that the prophet Jeremiah wrote to his people who have been taken into Babylonian exile. In the letter Jeremiah tells them to make peace with their situation, to give up on their dreams of return to their homeland and make the best of what they’ve got, to make a home in a foreign land, to build homes and plant gardens—and perhaps the most shocking exhortation, for them to seek the peace of their conqueror’s society, to labor for the wellbeing of Babylon. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).
Our ordinary lives depend on a kind of exile called incarceration.
Prisons maintain the order that make life possible here. If we’re committed to the welfare of this country, to the people around us, to the people exiled from us in prisons, in detention centers—if we find our welfare in their welfare, how do we make sense of the contradictions?
I think about this passage a lot, as I try to sort through life in this society, in this Babylon. To keep this place running, our ordinary lives depend on a kind of exile called incarceration—prisons maintain the order that make life possible here. I’m sure these stats are old news for you now, but as a reminder: The United States imprisons 2.3 million people. That’s about the size of population of Houston, Texas. That’s more people in prison than larger countries, like China and India. That number doesn’t include immigration detention centers, which are harder to track, given ICE’s secrecy. In 2018, we know that they detained almost 400,000 people, and it looks like 42,000 were put in a prison.
If we’re committed to the welfare of this country, to the people around us, to the people exiled from us in prisons, in detention centers—if we find our welfare in their welfare, how do we make sense of the contradictions? The contradiction that to be for the welfare of prisoners involves being against the welfare of the society that builds prisons, a way of life that depends on incarceration. What does it mean for us to be committed to peace, here, in this place where God has put us, when sinister violences hold it all together?
That’s what I wrestled with every week, when I was going into Central Prison, in Raleigh, to teach classes. I’m still working through those experiences, so I thought I’d share them with you here, an invitation to think through seeking peace in a carceral society, a way of life that exiles people into prisons.
On the announcement board in a cellblock in Central Prison there’s a sign for the prisoners who pass by whenever they leave their individual cells, when they walk to the chow hall for meals or to the common area with benches and tables, where they sit with friends and play cards, killing time, trying to endure the days, weeks, months, years separated from loved ones, segregated from their communities, isolated from society, exiled from their homes.
The sign, in big block letters, has the first line of the serenity prayer, a prayer that’s part of 12-step recovery programs. The signs says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote these words as part of a longer prayer, which he used in his sermons in the 1930s. His prayer was picked up by Alcoholics Anonymous, then Narcotics Anonymous, now part of various programs as they empower people to liberate themselves from addiction: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” There, in Central Prison, the sign has just the first part of the prayer, a reminder that they can’t change the reality of their incarceration, so they should just get use to it, to accept the facts that they cannot change, facts like iron bars and concrete walls and fences and razor wire.
I’ve thought about that sign a lot because I saw it every week, back when I taught classes in that prison. The announcement board was outside the classroom, just around the corner from the metal door and reinforced plexiglas windows of the room where I’d introduce the students to spiritual autobiography, where they’d read Malcolm X and Anne Lamott, George Jackson and Jamaica Kincaid, people writing about their lives, with most of the authors having written from prison, like the apostle Paul in the New Testament, like Janneken van Munstdorp, a sixteenth century Anabaptist who wrote a letter to her infant daughter from a jail in Antwerp, days before her martyrdom.
I had chosen these readings to show the prisoners that they aren’t alone, that there’s a long tradition of people writing from imprisonment, writing to loved ones, writing to friends in other facilities, writing to the public about their situation, writing as a way to fight against the isolation of incarceration, writing as an attempt to find solidarity, companionship, to share wisdom.
That was my reasoning for the class. But the prison administration had different reasons for letting me teach in their facility, and that had to do with what they imagined about the nature of spirituality, which had everything to do with that prayer outside the classroom: serenity to accept things as they are, to be peaceful, docile, as Foucault would put it, spirituality as instruction in patience, in submission to control, spirituality as motivation to do the time with purpose, to do the time and not let the time do you, as they say in prison.
Around this same time, an important theologian and priest in Boston, Sarah Coakley, had been leading a prayer group in a prison in Massachusetts. She taught the prisoners contemplative prayer, as part of her own research, instructing them in the ancient Christian traditions of silent prayer. After a session, one of the prisoners came up to her. “I get it,” he said, “This is to make me patient, this is the opposite of drugs.” Coakley talked about the purpose of her class as instilling, “Gentleness, poise, peace and solidarity,” she wrote, “these were indeed manifest ways of ‘bucking the system,’ if only for a short and blessed interval in the prison day.”
To sit in a cell in silent prayer as bucking the system also means that she was helping to teach the prisoners how to be good prisoners, from the perspective of the guards—nondisruptive, compliant, easy to manage as they quietly accepted with serenity their miserable confinement as something that they could not change.
She got me thinking about my own class in prison, if I was doing the same thing, that I was part of a whole network of volunteers who helped keep prisoners subdued. Central Prison prides itself in its reputation of maintaining a highly disciplined, orderly facility, as punitive as necessary to convince prisoners it’s worthless to act out, pointless to organize for reforms—that they should just accept the violence of the facility as their only option for their wellbeing, for a peace starved of life. A student told me that there was a prison riot once, the only prison rebellion in Central Prison’s long history. It happened a few years before the notorious uprising at the Attica prison in New York.
In 1968, at Central Prison, 500 prisoners went on strike from their mandatory work requirement. There was an industries facility, as they called it, built inside of the prison, where the warden took on contracts with the state for license plate manufacturing and printing operation. As you probably already know, the thirteenth amendment of the U.S. constitution abolished slavery in 1865, but it also authorized slave labor in prisons. Forced labor shifted from the plantation to the prison. If this is news to you, the documentary 13th is a good place to start learning about how all of this happened.
Anyhow, on April 17, 1968, in the afternoon, the prisoners at Central Prison stopped working and began a sit-in to protest the living conditions in the old, worn-down facility, a gothic-styled fortress built in 1884 by prison labor. If you’re interested in the timeline here, the NC State Constitution mandated the building of a prison for the state in 1868, three years after the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I assume the U.S. amendment sparked the process in NC to build the prison.
The sit-in lasted through the night, for fourteen hours, until the guards responded with batons and guns. The back and forth lasted the rest of the day, with the incarcerated protestors burning down a wing of the prison and the guards killing six prisoners. Seventy-five people were wounded, including victims on both sides. In the aftermath, the prison administration made changes to address some of the grievances.
Less than ten years later, on June 15 in 1975, the prisoners in the women’s facility down the road protested their working conditions with their own sit-in. Their unpaid labor took place in a laundry facility inside the prison. The women were forced to do the wash for 35 state institutions, including the tuberculosis sanatoriums. The prisoners were getting sick, and they weren’t provided with medical care. So 150 women inside the facility went on strike. The warden called in the guards from the men’s prison, who responded with brutal force. No one died, but many women were wounded, the main organizers were transferred to solitary confinement miles away, in men’s facilities. Ultimately they succeeded in permanently closing the laundry facility in the prison. As the saying goes, “Power concedes nothing without an organized demand.”
Our lives are very different than theirs, their situation seems like a world apart from ours, but the question I’m left with, that I’ve been struggling to answer for these years, is how do we make peace with this world?—this society that includes them and us.
Jeremiah invites us to consider what makes for peace, for mutual welfare, for a world where my life and yours are bound up in goodness, for ourselves, for our neighbors, and even perhaps for our enemies, for the whole of Babylon.
To think of ourselves as in exile, here, in exile with Jeremiah, is to recognize that we aren’t in control of the powers that be, we aren’t the movers and shakers, we aren’t the powerbrokers of Bablylon, of this society, so we have to make do with what we’ve got, with the life we have, with our unfulfilled desire for a redeemed world.
How do we live when we’re not in control, even though we want to be in control, because we love our neighbors, we love this world, we want to build homes and plant gardens, we want a community of peace.
In the middle of the federal prison in Butner, between the housing units, there are tiny patches of garden: white and purple phloxes, baptisias, tulips and daffodils, witch hazel and forsythia—a garden for those in exile. I got to know the gardener, a prisoner in my class. He had been there for over a decade. Over the years he noticed flowing plants sneaking their way through the layers of razor-wire fences, into the compound, and he’d transplant them, making a home for them in the prison, life escaping the grip of concrete and fences and iron gates. He told me he was trying to make a home, despite it all.
 Sarah Coakley, “Jail Break: Meditation as a Subversive Activity,” The Christian Century, 29 June 2004. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2004-06/jail-break
 Charlene A. Carruthers, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018), xiii.