The following is taken from Dr. Arthur Sutherland’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, April 22, 2020. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]
As we all know, these are indeed extraordinary times. I want, however, to use caution in how far I go in affirming this idea. I want to be careful with my words. These are extraordinary times for some people, but not for everyone.
Let me explain. Like yours, my life is interrupted. Over the past several months, my routines, my abilities, and my desires have become out of sync with my expectations. My new language includes words and metaphors that I did not plan to use, and some I didn’t know, before March. The COVID-19 virus has brought words like “sheltering in place,” “social distancing,” and “Instacart.”
More disturbing to me is how often I hear people talk about “feeling imprisoned” or “going stir-crazy.” These words, phrases, metaphors, and others like them, trouble me. It is the language of incarceration. When we say, “stir crazy,” we are using a slang term coined by prisoners in the 1850s to describe their feeling of mental imbalance. When we use these words, we are speaking like the condemned. We are protesting our lack of freedom. When we use these words, we are robbing the jailed to pay for our self-pity. In contrast, listen to how an actual prisoner, the Apostle Paul, described his life:
Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Phil. 4:11-12)
In this passage, Paul has not wrapped his face with a crying towel. There is no sense that his imprisonment was going to overturn other ways of viewing his life.
I recently read an article by Jerry Metcalf, a man incarcerated in Michigan who writes for The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. In his essay, “No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being in Prison,” he sets us straight:
For those of you reading this who feel trapped or are going stir-crazy due to your coronavirus-induced confinement, the best advice I can give you—as someone used to suffering in long-term confinement—is to take a pause, inhale a few deep breaths, then look around at all the things you have to be grateful for.
And for some reason if you still find yourself going stir-crazy after all the deep breaths and the journey inwards, then try more straightforwardly considering my situation. I’d give anything to trade places with you right now.
I’m scared to death. I may die all alone in prison without any of my loved ones around to comfort me and send me off. I don’t want the last faces I see to be those of the two cruel prison guards assigned to watch over me while I slip away.
It’s almost as if the coronavirus were specifically designed to kill off those locked away from society. I know this isn’t literally the case. But this is a virus that is airborne and most affects people in confined, overcrowded spaces.
There is no place for us to hide. We have no home to sequester ourselves in. It is physically impossible for us to separate.
In considering Metcalf’s rejoinder to our self-pity, I looked back at my own research and interest in theological hospitality in search of how to rethink my language use during this pandemic.
How do prisoners think about time? As I wrote earlier (before COVID 19 started jumping from cage to cage in Wuhan), the interplay between faith, hope, and time is more heightened for prisoners than for ordinary folk. In fact, next to the concept of space, time is the critical element in understanding the metaphysics of prison life.
Contemporary prisoners have developed their own language for this: they speak of “doing time;” “serving time;” “passing time;” and “hard time.” And then there is “Buck Rodgers Time”– a parole date so far into the next century, a prisoner cannot imagine release.
In the New Testament, Christian prisoners fend off this despair by making use of three perspectives of time: the chronological; the ritualistic; and the imperatival:
- Paul’s request that Timothy “come before winter” indicates an awareness of chronological time (2 Tim. 4:21).
- Paul adopts a ritualistic metaphor for time when he writes, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure” (2 Tim 4:6).
- For those who will remain alive after him, he employs the imperatival, encouraging them to live with a sense of urgency; he wants them to live in the kairos–in the propitious moment–so that they “make the most of the time” (Col. 4:1).
You might pause to think about how you live out these three types of time:
- What does the chronology of your day look like?
- What are your private rituals? What are your public rituals?
- What is kairotic for you? What is it that must be done? What is it that will change yourself or the world?
Let me add here that no amount of binge watching on Netflix is going to stop the terror that domestic abuse victims have of another day at home and no place to get away. My “imprisonment” is not like theirs.
There is a second way to rethink our language. This way is an action that breaks out of self-pity and into the Gospel. “I was in prison,” Jesus said, “and you visited me.” The boredom and tedium of prison life is well-documented. What is less known is how rarely prisoners are visited. A 2014 study published in the journal Crime and Delinquency found that Florida inmates, on average, received only two visits from friends or family during the entire length of their stay behind bars.
As for the ancient world, visiting a prisoner was a difficult and life-threatening risk. Visitors often had to navigate horrid conditions, hold their breath against stench, hear the sounds of executions, recognize that they might not be able to leave once inside, and all people–but especially women, as the 3rd Century document The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas shows–had to protect themselves from abuse and rape.
Craig Wansink, in his book Chained in Christ, points out the one’ s ability to visit a loved one or friend could require bribing a judge or jailer. He quotes a section of Pliny’s Natural History where a woman who, shortly after giving birth, went to visit her imprisoned mother and kept her from starving by breastfeeding her. The most stunning quote is from Chrysostom’s On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, in which he says, “If one wanted to study horrible or unique diseases, one should visit prison.”
It will be difficult, if not impossible during this time of COVID-19, to visit prisoners. However, it is not difficult to visit them through the mail. You might want to investigate how letter-writing can be life-giving.
What all of us can do is to visit those right next to us. Yesterday, I got two phone calls. Both came from friends I had not spoken with for a while. We had great conversations and reconnected, discovering new interests we had in common. In one of the calls, my friend Timothy Cannon issued a challenge: “Make a list of the people that you have not spoken with in two years,” he said, “and then decide to call them.” I think he is right. The fastest exit out of self-pity is through the door marked “self-giving.”
In this time when our language is changing–when we talk about sheltering in place, quarantine, and being imprisoned–let me introduce another word: “propinquity.” The word means “nearness,” and in social psychology it describes how close we are to each other either physically or emotionally. I’d like to hear a little less talk about the troubles of social distancing and a little more about joy of social propinquity. After all, propinquity is just another word for incarnation, and incarnation is God imprisoned in flesh.
 A. Sutherland, I Was A Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Abingdon, 2006).
 J Cochran, et. al, “Who Gets Visited in Prison? Individual-and Community-Level Disparities in Inmate Visitation Experiences,” Crime and Delinquency (July 2014).
 C. Wansink, Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).