Invited to Care
John hurried to the chalkboard at the front of the room as soon as class was dismissed. He had only a minute, but he wouldn’t waste the opportunity to learn something about exponential functions that had confused him in a textbook. As the other students left the classroom, I quickly answered his question and was rewarded with his “Aha” moment. What could be more satisfying to a professor than seeing an eager student finally grasp a difficult concept! In that moment I would have gladly spent hours with John, explaining exponential functions, drawing connections to what we were learning in class, sharing with him the beauty and splendor of mathematics. And then John was gone, hurrying away with the rest of the students, leaving me alone in the windowless classroom with the odd but now familiar smell. I quickly erased the board, collected my belongings and left the room.
My first impression of John was a bit sinister—something about the way he trimmed his beard, I suppose—but he was delightful in class. John was by far the best student. He was tutoring many of his classmates (a role that he relished) and was working through several textbooks that were far more advanced than ours. Those brief questions from John at the end of class always came from these advanced texts. I often had a secret desire to ignore the other students in the room and give a great lecture aimed at John. But I stuck to the curriculum, and eager John was pushed to the margins, those fleeting moments of transition between classes.
Those were the only times I ever interacted with John. As with most students I never saw him outside of class, never got to know him, don’t know where he came from, nor where life has taken him. Well, that last bit, although true for most of my students, is not technically true for John. I know exactly where John is. He is within 200 feet or so of the classroom where I always taught him: somewhere within the state’s maximum security prison. John (that is not his real name) is serving a life sentence for brutally murdering a stranger just for the fun of it.
When I first felt called to teach inside prisons, I assumed that my Christian faith would be what kept me going. Christ’s challenge to love my enemies and to visit the least of his brethren in prison would be the mantras that enabled me to persevere in this difficult calling that would have me interacting with intimidating people in a dangerous place. I assumed that the intellectual knowledge of what Christ called me to do would help me overcome my emotional aversion to the people and situations I would certainly encounter. These assumptions were only partly correct. My faith has kept me going, but not for the reason I expected—in fact, for very nearly the opposite reason. I discovered that higher education inside a prison is, for the most part, just like higher education anywhere else. The men and women that I have taught in prison seem remarkably normal. The variation in personalities and abilities is about the same as in any college classroom. Some are engaged in the material, some are not. Some struggle valiantly, others master the content with ease. Most worry about grades. Many are friendly and appreciative; a few, entitled or adversarial. Many succeed, but some do not. And I discovered that, just like all the other students I have taught, I cared deeply about the ones I was teaching in prison. I wanted them to master the material, to succeed in the course, to grow in intellect and in confidence, to move on to new challenges and new possibilities.
Loving these students was easy. I didn’t need reminders from the Bible that I was supposed to love them. They didn’t feel like my enemies. But I knew they were somebody’s enemy. And that began to torment me.
I had taught John for a month or two before I learned the details of his crime. There is a difference between knowing that someone likely committed a violent crime and reading about the details of the crime—seeing the picture of the beautiful life so senselessly ended. It changed the way I thought about John… until I was back teaching him again. Face to face, discussing math, it didn’t matter. And John was not unique in that way. Ten of his classmates were serving sentences for murder. I cared about each of them. And I began to feel very guilty for caring about them. The victims came from all walks of life: rich, poor, male, female, adults, children. They had families who loved them, who undoubtedly still love them and still grieve daily. I felt ashamed to care about men and women who had caused so much pain. I wondered how I would explain myself to a heartbroken mother: I’m the one teaching and caring about the man who killed your son. I still hope I never have that conversation.
There is a tension in the criminal justice system between punishment and rehabilitation. Is it proper justice to educate murderers? Or is it better to let them languish in prison? What about those convicted of lesser crimes? Shouldn’t we first provide education for everyone else? I struggled greatly with these questions when I first began teaching in prison, particularly as I began to face the stark reality of many of my students’ crimes. I questioned whether it was appropriate for me to be teaching there. Was it even just? I prayed for answers, searched Scripture for answers, read many books, surfed the web, attended talks and panel discussions, had conversations with experts and ex-prisoners, watched movies, even role-played in some image theater. But I found no answers to how society should balance punishment and rehabilitation. I did not figure out if teaching in prison was the best use of my time and talents. I still do not know.
These questions no longer torment me, though. I do not feel guilty or ashamed for caring about my students in prison, even the ones, like John, who have done horrific things. I have found my peace. I found it in my Christian faith, as I had always expected, but not in the way that I expected. I expected it to be difficult to care for these students. It was not. It was easy to care for them. Instead, it was difficult to rationalize caring for them. I expected that Christ’s call to love my enemies would motivate me to try harder. Instead, it liberated me to embrace what came naturally.
Like in the criminal justice system, there is a similar tension in Christianity between justice and mercy, between judgment and forgiveness. But unlike the criminal justice system, where we must collectively struggle to find an impossible balance, in matters of our own hearts Christ does not ask us to find this balance. We are not invited to partake in God’s perfect judgment. In fact, we are expressly forbidden from it. We are, instead, invited to partake in God’s infinite mercy. We are completely free to love and care for the people around us, even those who may not deserve our love. To be clear, I think John should be in prison. There must be consequences for murder. I do not think that putting someone in prison is violating Christ’s prohibition of judgment. Prison is not a judgment of one’s soul. It is a punishment for crime. The great injustices of America’s current criminal justice system notwithstanding, punishment is an integral part of a just society. Jesus did not reproach prison guards or judges or policemen. Jesus did not even reproach prisoners for their crimes. Society had already done that. Instead, Jesus reproached those who refused to care for people at the margins of society, who refused to care for the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned. Jesus reproached those who refused the invitation to partake in God’s infinite mercy.
I do not know why God called me to teach in the prisons. But I do know that God loves the men and women in prison just as God loves me. I also know that I am free to partake in this love. And that has made all the difference.
Matthew Harrison is an assistant professor of Applied Mathematics.academia, beauty, education, justice, mathematics, mercy