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What I Learned in Prison: Denying the Will to Power

August 12, 2013

As I mentioned in last week’s article my wife and I recently visited South Africa and visited a Bible Study at Drakenstein Correctional Centre run by a lifelong friend of mine. This article series (What I Learned in Prison) reflects on that experience and the surprising realization that the inmates I spoke with often had a better grasp on some fundamentals of Christian character than many people I know in America. Last week I discussed how these prisoners understood the connection between the world “in our heads” and the world “out there”. This week I want to reflect a bit on one reason these men seemed to connect better to some elements of the faith.

As I’ve mentioned before Christianity can be a hard sell in the West because it insists that people are sinful. I’ve discussed how this might push us towards evangelism techniques that don’t start off by hoping that people feel desperately awful and trying to answer that unasked question but this difficulty is not nearly as prominent in prison. Prisoners tend to have more reason than most of us to believe that they are bad people. After all, society has judged them and declared them to be bad people who should spend time in prison! For the men I spoke to this was not a technicality. They were not embezzlers who could pretend that they were stealing from some faceless entity or pot-smokers who could argue that pot should be legal anyway. Instead, these men were murderers and rapists for the most part. It was clear that they were bad people.

However, this also gave these men an advantage. They could see themselves in a way that did not allow for the pretense of goodness. If you know that you once made the decision to stab a man to death (and I believe two of the men I spoke to had made exactly that decision) you can’t pretend to yourself that you’re basically a nice person who would never hurt a fly. However, our society is based around hiding people’s evil from them.

That sounds like a radical claim but let me walk you through it. Take William, a rather unpleasant individual. What William really wants in life is for everyone to treat him like a king and for his wishes to have automatic preference over everyone else’s even if his wishes are small and theirs are large (for instance, he wishes to have a nicer view from the window and someone else wishes he wouldn’t bulldoze their house to make the view nicer). In the ancient world if William ever attained power he could freely use it like this. There would be lower class people to be abused and as long as William made sure to treat his equals and betters correctly he could be horrible to a huge number of people without repercussion. This might also set William up for a realization of his own depravity – he could have a moment of insight in which he realized that beating the cook nearly to death for burning a pie, taxing families into starvation, and raping the chambermaid made him an awful person. In our society William might act terribly as well. However, the essence of a democratic society structured by careful laws and without legally-recognized social classes is that William would be incentivized to act in a very different way. To gain and keep power he would need to find some large portion of the electorate who would grant him power in exchange for serving their interests. (We can argue whether these interests are their real interests or merely what they’ve been hoodwinked into believing are their interests. Suffice to say, William could not decide his policies entirely on his own, they would be dictated by what people would vote for.) If he was caught beating the cook or sexually harassing a underling his career would be in jeopardy and so he would probably avoid or reduce those behaviors. In fact, William’s biggest challenge would be to constantly present himself as an ordinary guy who was here to serve the interests of the electorate and not someone who believed his every whim must be treated like a divine command. If at some point William examined his life he probably wouldn’t see a string of broken lives behind him and so he wouldn’t suddenly realize his depravity. But William’s character wouldn’t be any different. This doesn’t only apply to political power. William might become the CEO of some large company but if he started acting horribly towards his employees labor laws might catch him, the fact that we don’t allow even CEOs to own people might strip him of any skilled employees who could find other work, or the legal liability his actions might entail could cause his board of directors to get rid of him before he brought a bad name to the company.

We routinely set up laws which, if they acted perfectly, would prevent even the most immoral (or at least amoral) of persons from doing harm to others. In a modern society what prevents murder? The fact that you’ll be punished if you murder someone and get caught. This is why murder rates are highest in communities where catching murderers is hard or is not given much effort. In a lawless society Bob might decide that James is a hindrance to his goals and kill him. In a law-abiding society James might be a hindrance but a life sentence would be a much bigger one and so Bob will not kill James (most of the time). All of this lets us trick ourselves: we believe that we act properly because we’re such good people. We’re not. Our society is still just as full of awful people as ever but we have structured society so that they will not find themselves in situations in which being awful looks like the right decision nearly so often.

Let’s circle back to our South African inmates. These men once lived out lives that were excellent examples of what Nietzsche called “the will to power”. They did what they wanted and what made them more powerful. They stole from people to fulfill their desires. They hurt people who got in their way. They stole from people to get guns to get more power (ironically, a lot of house-breaking in South Africa is aimed at getting guns and so if people know you have a gun you can become more of a target for crime and not less). Most of these men were macho men who expressed their dominance repeatedly and used whatever powers were at their disposal to maintain it. There is a much longer tangent here but at its heart this is what opposes Christ in most of us, a worship of our own self and a desire to place ourselves in God’s place with His powers. The burning desire to be in total control no matter the cost to other people is at the heart of most of our sin and these men lived that out. For them to turn to Christ actually required a major shift. To say, “I will lay down my ability to be the baddest dude on the block, to take what isn’t mine, to demand respect by threat of force,” was a change for these men in a way it isn’t for most of us. The way of the cross, of self-denial, of others-first, of moral goodness before benefit to self, was all very foreign and it must have seemed obviously so. But does it in our society?

In reality the way of Christ is very far from us (and the closer you get the more clearly you see how huge that gap is). However, our society allows us to pretend otherwise. Do we think of others first? No, but we all have extra and most of us give some of that to charities and so we can pretend that we’re there or pretty close. Do we deny ourselves? No, but we live in a society where rules come in and make us back down to make room for others and so in serving our own interests (avoiding lawsuits, for instance) we do engage in acts that look a lot like denying ourselves. When we see the way of Christ we can pretend that we’re basically on board. We can avoid even seeing that it is a river running in a different direction than the one we want to swim in. We are not forced to see the disjunction between who we are and who we are claiming we want to be.

I doubt that the prisoners I talked to were all perfect, model Christians. I suspect many of them are very rough around many edges. However, in many of them I saw the transforming power of Christ in a way that I rarely do amongst middle-class first-worlders. Is this because Jesus loves South Africa more than the United States? No. Is it because South African prisoners are actually all wonderful people waiting to be freed from oppressive forces that make them act contrary to their natures? No. I believe that it is simply that they have better access to some real information about themselves. The very things that make suburbia in the USA so much nicer than a township in South Africa are things that also conspire to make suburbanites in the USA blind to the reality of their characters and the disconnect between the way they wish to act and the way God wishes them to act. Now, I don’t claim to see this gap with any great clarity (and, to my sorrow, I actually feel that I once saw the gap between God’s ways and my own more clearly and have lost ground) but I do think that awareness of this disconnect in a real and living way is vital for Christian transformation.

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