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Nonviolence and Forgiveness in San Quentin Prison

In order to get us to the chow hall, the officers ushered us past the old man. Lying in a fetal position on the concrete, he looked up at us while we carefully made our way past. His blue eyes were filled with confusion and terror.

Suddenly Will walked by and his gaze met that of the old man below him. Will’s face contorted with hatred. He yelled violently, “This is God’s revenge, you child molester!”

If indeed the old man had committed such a crime. I think he deserves to be in prison. But I couldn’t believe Will would brazenly condemn someone as he lay helplessly injured on the ground.

I thought that if I spoke in Will’s language, maybe he would understand. I managed to interject that the Bible says only God can judge sin, and that Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness. But Will continued his righteous condemnation.

It was beyond me how this man could take the teachings of Jesus and use them as a weapon. I had never met a militant Christian who held God as a shield and Christ as his sword. This was the type of person who could remorselessly shoot an abortion doctor and claim it was God’s will.

My anxiety growing, I decided to see if logic would work. It seemed to me that everyone in prison is supposed to be guilty of a crime. How could this man think he’s any more righteous than the man on the ground? As far as I could recall, Jesus had not created a hierarchy of sin. There was only one state of sin, and all of us were required to repent equally.

Stumbling over my explanation, I told Will that to condemn the old man for his sins without condemning his own was nothing less than using the Bible for hypocrisy.

All of a sudden a flying fist landed squarely on my nose. I quickly regained my footing, but sure enough, there was Will standing with a grin on his face and his hand coiled in a tight ball. He had hit me!

I was surrounded by inmates, so none of the officers had seen Will’s attack. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I knew that the other inmates expected me to retaliate. In prison, showing disrespect is the worst thing you can do, and if someone disrespects you, you’re expected to take care of business. In their minds there was only one path to follow: fight back and end up in the hole.

My mind was racing. I didn’t want to be labeled a wimp because that might make me a target. Certainly I’d be justified in defending my safety, my honor, my pride: I felt anger and frustration welling inside. This would be an excuse to let it all out. Then I remembered my commitment to nonviolence, so even though I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, I turned and walked away.

Will continued to stare me down. He stood defiantly like a victorious crusader, confident that he was defending God’s wishes.

The other inmates began circling me. They asked why I didn’t strike back. If it were them, they said, the guy would have been paying a visit to the infirmary.

I ignored their words and felt my nose for damage. In my head, I could hear my mother’s voice, worrying, as she has done for many years. But the fist hadn’t really hurt me aside from minor bleeding, and there wasn’t anything broken.

I collected my breakfast and sat down to mull over my options. I thought that I probably should have kept my opinions to myself. Voicing confrontational ideas was not wise inside San Quentin’s walls. I still felt Will was wrong for harassing the old man, and I was certain he was wrong for striking me, but I could accept that I had crossed a line by insulting his understanding of the Bible.

Christopher Huneke is a prisoner of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who spent 15 months based at San Quentin Prison. To beat the crushing isolation, he took up creative nonfiction writing. His last pieces appeared in UUSangha (Fall 2008), in which he wrote about a prisoner's appreciation of melting memories, "Rocky Road," and the relevance of electing a mixed race President to a prisoner who lives in a racially segregated community (American Union'). See <www.christopherhuneke.blog-spot.com >.

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