The Discernment Of Spirits, In MDC Brooklyn
July 8, 2021
Friends, loved ones all-
It is impossible to adequately express my gratitude for the hundreds of beautiful letters I’ve received here during the past month… No, really, it’s impossible. You see, my efforts to answer most of them personally have been hamstrung by a frustrating inability to procure more than about two dozen stamps in this god-forsaken dump! (While I’ve yet to visit a jail or prison over the past thirty-nine years that was not rife with corruption and cruelty, this one rivals most for its levels of incompetence, duplicity and disorganization.) My inadequate response, then, in the form of this brief update and reflection, will have to do for now.
After sixteen days of claustrophobic quarantining, with 23 1/2 hour lockdowns in a 12’x8′, doubly-occupied cell, I was abruptly moved to what appears to be the least physically restrictive wing of the facility, the perch from whence I write to you now. Here, it’s a dormitory, about the size of an average church basement, housing upwards of 50 men. There are no windows or access to the outside, but there is a tiny, low-ceilinged gym across the hall with a low basketball hoop (almost dunkable even for the likes of me), an elliptical machine and a ping pong table. The food is consistently edible, though, and best of all, the guards tend to take a non-invasive approach. We must stand in place to be counted twice daily, but so far I’ve not experienced or observed the typical goon-squad tactics that U.S. prisons employ, intended to periodically compound people’s misery under the guise of searching for “contraband”. The reason for this “hands off” approach, as I’m beginning to realize, is probably that the population here is essentially being used as a nifty little pool of very cheap, very compulsory labor. Everyone is required to work; what is not required is that anyone be paid anything resembling a living wage. A good number of the prisoners in this dorm have what is known as a “gate pass”, which enables them to work outside of the building. Many of those outside jobs, as it turns out, involve the upkeep, maintenance and repairs on several condominiums near the prison which serve as housing for- you guessed it- prison personnel. Incidentally, the United States Bureau of Prisons currently scrapes by on an annual budget of $9.3 Billion.
As for yours truly, there were two decisions that Luz and I set in stone before I walked in this place. The first was that I would not be drug-tested. There is nothing in my present case or “criminal history” which indicates a necessity to undergo such an indignity. My body is not to be submitted for voluntary service in the so-called “war on drugs”, nor will I be an accessory to the criminalization of what is a perfectly human behavior- particularly for those forced to suffer the relentless travails that the prison system is designed to inflict. No less important: at almost sixty years of age, I will no longer be undergoing any unnecessary medical procedure unless it figures to improve my longevity or quality of life.
And secondly we decided that, while I’d be happy to work for or alongside my fellow inmates, I will not be employed by the Bureau of Prisons. It is a violent and morally evil institution that functions in part on a slave-labor economy; with its current taxpayer endowment it can get on perfectly well in its dirty business without putting me on the payroll.
Coming in, I was fairly certain that one or the other of these decisions would land me in the Special Housing Unit- “The Shu”- where they put the bad boys like Father Steven Kelly, and be back to 23 1/2 hour lock downs, with the added prospect of a later release date due to loss of credit for “good conduct”. Thank heavens, though, it now appears that these punishments will not come to pass. They don’t drug test anyone on this unit, and, after some careful negotiating with a very accommodating case manager, I’ve been assigned to washing some windows and helping in the G.E.D. and E.S.L. education programs. All of these tasks are performed on a voluntary basis. Assuming this agreement holds, these final two months could quite likely prove to be some of the easiest prison time I’ve ever done. (By the way, if anyone happens to bump into our dear Father Kelly, please tell him that I’d be happy to put in a good word for him here!)
But regardless of the availability or scarcity of creature comforts, the lack or prevalence of overt subjugation or petty humiliations, prison is prison. Whenever I enter one, the counsel of Philip Berrigan (with whom I once had the privilege of sharing a cell block for ten months in southern Maine) echoes through my body like a slamming steel door: For those who choose to follow Jesus in the North American empire, jail is the bottom line. And as far as I’m concerned, the bottom-line task for the resister on this side of that steel door- our obligation to the communities that send us forth- is the holy work of discernment.
“But the pharisees said, ‘He drives out demons by the prince of demons.'” (Matthew 9:34)
From a Christian perspective, while discernment is an intensely personal process centered on prayer and the examination of conscience, it neither begins nor comes to fruition that way. As the New Testament makes clear, the starting point of discernment is a growth in the believer’s awareness of the spiritual reality of evil in the world, and the commitment to do spiritual battle with that evil. An authentic Christian faith practice, in other words, is not centered on doing good works; it is centered on resisting evil. Little wonder, then, that the bulk of the New Testament itself was written either in prison, underground, or from political exile. And on a personal note, no wonder my own discernment seems to become so much clearer when it is undertaken inside the U.S. empire’s hellholes. I guess that’s why I always end up coming back!
The scripture quote cited above is taken from the Catholic Lectionary’s readings of July 6th, and, given what is going on in this country right now, it seems more expedient than ever to follow its implications. The pharisees’ statement here finds them guilty of what Jesus refers to in Mark’s gospel as the unforgivable sin: ascribing the work of the Holy Spirit to that of Satan. “Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin” (Mark 3:28-29). I have always had difficulty with that passage from Mark, because it doesn’t seem to square with the dominant gospel ethic preached by Jesus, that of unconditional love and boundless mercy. Maybe, though, the truth is not that God is unable or unwilling to grant forgiveness for that particular sin, but rather, the commission of it renders a person so morally confused that they are no longer equipped to either repent or to accept forgiveness for it.
Over the past forty months- all of which have been spent incarcerated, either in prison, home confinement or on supervised release- I have watched with all of you the acceleration of a fascist agenda in this country, which has not appreciably abated with the shift of party power in Congress or the changing of the curtains in the White House. I’ve even had the grievous experience of seeing members of my own extended family fall victim to its seductions. What I’ve concluded from this, among other things, is that fascism is the most potent political manifestation of the unforgiveable sin. Fascism, in it’s essence, is not a political system or form of government. It is a moral disorder in which masses of people, through a pervasive combination of trauma and propaganda, succumb to a progressive demonization by the principalities and powers of most or all of the basic human values that enable us to coexist in peace. In the U.S., we need look no further than endless war; mass incarceration; unrelenting systemic racism; impoverishment and scapegoating as official policy; fact-free “news”, and nuclearism as the religion of white supremacy, to see the main vehicles by which this trauma and propaganda are delivered. Perhaps the most frightening and depressing aspect of all of this abomination is the cheerleading it has enjoyed from the the U.S. Christian churches. Here I speak not only of the apostate evangelical theologies and prosperity gospel hucksters, but of my own Church, which has somehow managed to contort its ageless moral teachings in such a way that the only life deemed worthy of a second thought (let alone any kind of defense) automatically loses that designation upon leaving the womb. This blind capitulation to immorality, this muting of the prophetic voice, has in large part been fueled by what has become the Catholic equivalent of Fox News- the EWTN Network.
The New Testament, in my view, should be understood as one of the most effective roadmaps available for resisting both fascism (in the socio-political sphere) and the unforgiveble sin (on the personal/interpersonal level). Gospel faith- which is inseparable from an ethic and praxis of nonviolence both as a personal lifestyle and a method for social change- confers on the believer, in equal measure, the power and the responsibility to discern spirits, without which it is impossible to effectively wrestle with the principalities and powers of this world in a prophetic way. I am convinced that what the New Testament calls the gift of discernment of spirits- the ability to see and articulate with clarity the movement of good and evil in the world- is nothing other than the power of nonviolence. And it is only in our collective wielding of that power, fearlessly and beyond the boundaries that oppression throws up all around us, that a way out of this present darkness will manifest itself.
Well, there’s a bit of light-hearted beach reading for you! Be sure to check out my next homework assignment, coming in September: “What I Did On My Summer Vacation”.
Keep Smiling…. Mark