Nonviolence and Forgiveness in San Quentin Prison

After breakfast I had to walk past Will’s cell to reach my own. Sure enough, he was waiting, watching me as I made my way down the tier. When I got to his cell, I stopped and met him with my eyes. I apologized for insulting his religious views and asked him if we could drop the issue. With a confident smile, he agreed.

The next day, on the way to breakfast, Will stopped me. His eyes were different, softer, and he told me in a mild voice that he was sorry he had struck me. I accepted his apology and gave him a hug. It felt good to resolve our dispute through mutual forgiveness.

It occurred to me that by choosing nonviolence, I had empowered Will’s apology. If we had gone to battle we both would have been wrong. Neither one of us would have regretted our actions. Anger would have begotten anger, leading to retaliation and animosity.

Jesus understood that the way to end violence is to break the cycle of retaliation. He once stood in the way of an angry mob that was intent on stoning an adulterous woman to death. Jesus knew that adulterers were considered criminals; they were harassed and berated, and the public despised them enough to kill them on sight. But Jesus believed that we all deserve a chance for redemption. So he refused to condemn the woman, and instead, he confronted the mob with a simple ethical dilemma that none could honestly resolve: “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone” (John 8:7). Jesus did not invoke God’s will, he did not invoke holy wrath, he simply asked the vigilantes to remember that instead of looking for evil in others, we should seek first to control it in ourselves.

In the end, I wonder what Will thought after I stepped away from our confrontation. Was he thinking that Jesus spoke of love? Did he remember that the language of love is nonviolence? Maybe he remembered that we all deserve a simple chance for forgiveness, regardless of our sins. Maybe that is what being a man of God is truly about.

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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