Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Prison Libraries Purge Christian Books

I've done stories with Laurie Goodstein before, and she is a good reporter. Her most recent story in yesterday's NY Times is both disturbing and not really surprising in view of the shift in the Zeitgeist of our culture. Here is the link and header for the story.

Prisons Purge Books on Faith From Libraries
In federal prisons, chaplains have been quietly carrying
out a systematic purge of religious books and materials
that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.


What is happening in our culture in general has gradually trickled down to prisons in particular. It parallels as well what has happened in other sorts of government run entities, for instance the military. Call it creeping pluralism, call it the purging of the Judeo-Christian tradition of our country, whatever you call it, it effects the work of chaplains in our prisons and what prisoners can read while they are incarcerated. What has happened is that Judeo-Christian religion as the dominate cultural paradigm has been downgraded to one amongst several equals, and the previous lack of restrictions on proselytizing, at least in some contexts, has changed. What is most interesting about this story is the response of some who see the purging of books as an abridgment of the freedom of religion of prisoners. This is an interesting case because of course prisoners have forfeited at least some of their rights by commiting crimes, one of which is the freedom of movement. But should these restrictions include censoring what they can read in the prison library? I think it is right to raise questions about this new pattern of elimination of religious material. One has to ask what is the criteria for inclusion and exclusion. We are told that the authorities had a panel of 'experts' and scholars from the AAR, from seminaries, and some chaplains. I have to say I have never run into anyone who said they were on such a panel in any of these forums or groups, but that may just be a random accident. But the fact that some chaplains are not happy with what is on the approved lists is revealing, and suggests that not enough persons were considered. The two criteria mentioned in the article is that they wanted literature by experts in the field (which would presumably exclude books by lay persons or even pastors on the Bible) and they did not want any literature by fanatics who would promote extremism (Islamic or otherwise).

So what do you think about this trend? Does it violate the prisoner's rights, specifically their freedom of religion? Does it impede the chaplains from doing their job of helping the rehabilitation process? What interests or disturbs you most about all this?


Marc Axelrod said...

Can prisoners utilize the local library loan system and have books mailed to them in the prison?
I know that prisoners can get their GED behind bars, so I would wonder why they couldn't secure desired reading material.

K.W. Leslie said...

What disturbs me is the Bureau of Prisons putting together a list of "approved" religious texts. Sounds to me like a violation of the separation of church and state.

If the prison's own chaplain decides to remove a text from his own religion that he feels does not represent that religion properly -- a Protestant removing a book by radical Protestant fundamentalists -- I have less of a problem with that. Many's the time I've had to correct some bad theology that was developed by bad reading material. But where does one draw the line? I'm an Arminian; does that mean I should purge the library of Calvinist writings? Power corrupts, and the power of the censor can easily and frequently go to one's head.

And what about fiction? Do the censors get to remove Christian fiction? Toss the Left Behind novels? How about Dante, Milton, Dostoyevski, or Lewis? Theology can be developed in many places. Next they'll be shutting the libraries altogether.

James Garth said...

I think a prisoner who protested that his religious rights were being violated would have a pretty strong case of legal precedent, as Brian Levin's article "Radical Religion in Prison" explores:


It seems to me that if it can be reasonably shown that (1) the material in question can be properly categorized as "religious", (2) the material is not published by a "security threat group" officially recognized by the government, and (3) that the prisoner has demonstrated that exposure to such material has not resulted in behavior causing a disproportionate security risk to other inmates, then constitutional rights should hold sway and they should be granted access to such material.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for these responses. James, I hear you on your criteria but consider this--- the book of Joshua in the Bible could be seen as promoting ethnic cleansing, and as such be classed in the same category as some of the more warlike stuff in the Koran. In other words, the Bible itself, from the viewpoint of an unsympathetic reader could make it on the list of books banned for promoting vitriolic responses.

Ben W.

Unknown said...

My chief issue lies with the criteria for what could be included. If only books written by "experts in the field" can be placed in prisons, there is great reason for concern, chiefly because our culture seems to regard an "expert" as one who has obtained an academic degree in a field. Being that an external opbjective approach is typically what is taught in the academic fields dealing with any subject (ie, the self doing the thinking transcends the subject being considered), this suggests that far more reading material published by the Jesus Seminar or secular individuals such as Bart Ehrman would make it through the filters than orthodox material. Though(especially considering the writer of this blog) academic exercises in the name of the faith are vital to both the deepening of that faith and our cultural witness, writings less learned but prepared by one living in radical obedience to his/her best understanding of the scriptures can bear far more weight in terms of the power of the Gospel. True "expertise" in the scriptures seems far more associated with an all out attempt to apply the story of the Gospel to your own life and make that your story. Hence, if academic respectability is a major criteria, the literature left over could well wind up being somewhat denuded of simplicity and life witness, which would be a shame considering that most prisons are usually not filled with miscreant scholars, but rather individuals who have in some way messed up and deserve to see the Word of God's actual effect on real people's lives.

Unknown said...

Ben, I love you and love your blog. But it's DOMINANT, not DOMINATE. I know it's just a blog, but that is one of those mixups that drive me crazy. "Dominate" is a verb.

Sorry to be so anal. Keep up the good work!

Neil said...

Whatever these changes were designed to cure, it sounds like the end result will be worse than the original disease.

I've seen many lives dramatically changed by prison ministries such as Kairos and Chuck Colson's group. The improvements to the recidivism rates are dramatic. I would hate to see books taken out of prison libraries that might have helped changed lives for the better.

ChrisB said...

This isn't that surprising: Some government official makes the reasonable decision that prisons shouldn't provide materials that produce radical Islamists. A subordinate (sensibly) broadens it to all religions, and then, via the law of unintended consequences, some bureaucrat takes things much farther than was ever intended and broadens "radical" to it's most extreme limits.

This is pretty much how it always goes with governments. Keep that in mind next time you want the government to do something.

However, I can see some judge reigning this in a bit, but the general program will probably be found within the government's reasonable interest.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

If government is understood to maintain "order" within society, then, it is understandable how radical fundamentalism of any kind is "forbidden". The problem is...who defines the term "radical"...
What is happening is just a "secular" version of the Protestant Principle in interpreting the Scripture...
So, how do we defy absolute secularization? And is this "bad"? Has this happened because we have allowed "freedom of religion" in the first place? Should we repent over separating from Anglicanism?

I would imagine that even the Civil Liberties Union would concur that this was a breach to "freedom of religion"....that is what we need to do...go back to our Founding Fathers intention and argue alongside the "secularists" for those freedoms...for our country's foundation was based upon a "freedom of religion" and that is still an argument that will sway public opionion...freedom is the theme for Americans...!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

By the way, it is ONLY in a free society that one is free to be educated...for governments that limit education are ones likely to adhere to a propaganda approach to education by limiting access to material or limiting access to education...a public education...

On a sideline, I believe that Church related institutions of higher education should also adhere to these "standards" of equal acess to information...for the Church should not be a means to suppress information to others in an effort to protect their power over them....even in the "name of truth"....But, Christin institutions should teach, and train their "members" to think critically and come to conclusions and commitments that result in a wider view and a broader perspective!

Josh said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly but it has been my experience that the secular-minded university need this call to not suppress knowledge more than Christian universities.

They at least need to notify the public of their presuppositions rather than falsely labeling their worldview "truly objective" (no such thing).

As far as the purge of Christian books goes, I think this is a truly ignorant thing to do as prisons around the country are dealing with over crowding and severe violence.

However, I think the prime reason behind these actions is the fact that prisons are a major target for radical Muslims. In order for the government to prevent this, they have to curb the rights of all religions. I wonder how many civil liberty abuses and terrorist attacks it is going to take before we bring the matter of religion to the public square and honestly declare that it matters and the issues surrounding it must be dealt with.

Leslie said...

I'd hate to see good Christian literature removed from the prisoner. I know it has done a lot of good in the lives of many. I've even heard of guys on death row who became Christians and were even freed later (and began to spread the gospel) all because they were allowed to read the Bible.

But of course, in a world where God is supposedly dead, I don't suppose it matters what effects it has. This really is not a surprise to me though, considering what else is allowed to happen in jails. It is very disappointing though. I've always seen jails as a place for rehabilitation, not simply as a place for the misbehaving. But once you start looking at morality as just a social contract, all you end up caring about is removing those who break the contract from the society, instead of trying to bring them back into the society.

As a side note, are those more warlike passages in the Quran correctly interpreted? When I've read them, they seemed to be quite different from the statements in the Bible, particularly due to the changing covenants and such. Not to say there aren't any violent passages in the Bible, but simply that God called for his people to be peaceable in the NT, whereas in the Quran, it seems timeless.

Ryan said...

leslie wrote... "Not to say there aren't any violent passages in the Bible, but simply that God called for his people to be peaceable in the NT, whereas in the Quran, it seems timeless."

It seems to me that God's principles of being peaceable existed in the Old Testament as well. Let me explain. It seems that God's said that vengeance was His and He will repay:

Deut 32:35 NIV: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them."

So why do we seem to see a stark contrast in the NT then? I believe that it is because when God decided to take His vengeance upon the wicked Canaanites, He did it using His people, the Israelites. This was a long time in coming, and God was very patient and longsuffering up to this point. Similarly, in the NT I think we are in a period of God's patient longsuffering, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. But there will come a day, the day of the Lord, when He takes His vengeance on the nations. And peculiarly, it seems that we will be involved in this.

Hope that helps.

Daniel Davis said...

"What interests or disturbs you most about all of this?"

Naturally, I, too, wonder about the rights of prisoners to read what they want. Is it right to censor their material? Although it does sound like they can receive whatever material they wish to purchase; only the library won't carry it.

The MOST disturbing thing is that the reasoning is attractively stated and carefully crafted, if repulsive: we don't want books that will incite religious violence made available. So, will the next step be the same thing at our public libraries? Then what? A list of "recommended" guidelines for publishers who want to avoid certain taxes? I know it sounds alarmist, but, as you say, this does seem to be the new Zeitgeist. And the magic word "security" may very well be the leverage.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems in Scripture that Jesus circumvented "evil" with "good"...He said he sends us out as lambs among wolves...
But, if anyone know a little "real" hisotry, it seems that there are "other" ways of dealing with "evil"....So, I don't believe that Scripture is complete in revelatory aspects...Should we looke the other way if someone who is given an "evil" hand is undermined and destroyed?

The problem is conflicts of interests...when it comes to national, personal and religious values...these issues must be discussed not only with communities of faith, but also the broader world....The answer is resolved in personal convictions and commitments...

Evangleicalism has sought for too long to hold a unified front on political/religious issues...and I think because the issues have been dissolved to the "conservative, family values" "program"....no one even listens anymore...We only speak to the "choir" and discourse amongst ourselves...we cease to think outside the boxes of our insulated (mine, too!) concerns and don't try to emphathize with others in values and concerns that are unlike ours...We don't want to think....and we don't want to really make a difference, only to be left alone...

What is the real issue about "gay rights"...is it truly a concern for the gays involved? Is it that we "fear God" and fear retribution? We fear because our "nice" society will be differnt for us and our children and possibly destroy our "nice" lives? What do we really care about? These are individual concerns...and they are individual "calls"..and Christians need to stop using the label and be human beings that are concerned for reasons that can be articulated in the reall world...of politics, economics, anthropology, literature, human rights, ETC> I am seeking to develop myself...and I'm not "finished" yet, by no means of the imagination! How about you? Are you "finished" and know everything you need to know to engage the world...and make a difference?

Leslie said...

Ryan, that is a good point and I appreciate that thought. I do tend to forget that God said vengeance was his right and not theirs to begin with, and it's not just the NT. There does seem to be a greater call to peace in the NT though, but this is an area that I need to give deeper study to, and it may well be that peace was always God's desire for man. As it is written, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice."

Still, is the Quran truly warlike? I've heard Muslims who advocate peace on a large scale, so they must not see it as a war inducing book. But, at least from what I have read of it, I'm not sure that is consistent with the text.

James Garth said...

I think the Qur'an is a very tricky one, because having read it, I am reluctantly forced to conclude that a very strong and consistent thread of support exists advocating struggle against the unbelievers, whose destiny for rejecting Allah is an almighty chastisement. Peaceful submission is preferred, but if that fails, conquest by the sword is a very real option.

But how about this one: The Declaration of Independence sanctions the right to revolution, to throw off government if such governments dispose men to suffer.

Surely then, should not this document be banned from our prisons?

The problem with this issue is that it's a case of the 'tail wagging the dog'. People are concerned about what "might" happen in our prisons rather than what actually "is" happening. I for one would like to see more genuine research correlating undesirable behavior with exposure to religion and religious materials, rather than just articulating a vague fear that problems "might" happen.

What is wrong with permitting prisoners to have access to literature in general, but if is observed that negative behavioral changes result, then prison officials may use their discretion? (ie. exercise judicial restraint on the individual by means of a temporary, partial or full ban?)

In other words, access should be "opt-out" rather than "opt-in".


CaptainQuick said...

This whole thing sounds rather like the plot for a "lost" George Orwell novel!

wsk said...

Leslie wrote "Still, is the Quran truly warlike? I've heard Muslims who advocate peace on a large scale, so they must not see it as a war inducing book. But, at least from what I have read of it, I'm not sure that is consistent with the text."

Here are a couple of articles from Islamic scholars on historical interpretations of the passages in question.



They come from the parent site

The arguments, as i understand them, are that the passages calling for violence were originally written in the context of ongoing inter-tribal warfare. According to the authors above, Islamic jurists originally interpreted/employed them to apply only to self-defense, and to maintain peace as much as possible, but that over the centuries, more aggressive interpretations have been adopted by certain factions.

Sad to say, there are a few modern-day Christian fundamentalists who are employing the Bible in similar ways.

wsk said...

that first url got truncated. the correct link ends in html, not ht

Leslie said...

Interesting, thanks for the articles. I'm wondering how consistent this is though ... historically, if I'm correct, Islam took to the sword pretty quickly, not in self defense, but for the propagation of the religion, amongst other things. To me this is one of the strengths with Christianity - it spread so quickly and with such strength, yet there was only persecution awaiting it.

DerekMc said...

Leslie said:
"To me this is one of the strengths with Christianity - it spread so quickly and with such strength, yet there was only persecution awaiting it."

This is true to a point. Christians have engaged in plenty of persecution and sword driven evangelism. Remember the Conquistadors?


Michael Gilley said...

Thank you Captainquick! I was just thinking this sounds like 1984. Or how about the all-too unsubtle warnings of Fahrenheit 451 or its modernized Equilibrium? In the name peace, we must destroy/banish anything that holds the potential to create emotion, which could lead to violence or a compromise of "the equilibrium." You know society is in trouble when certain materials are being withheld to conceal and in their own way, coerce.

Ryan said...

Derek wrote... "This is true to a point. Christians have engaged in plenty of persecution and sword driven evangelism. Remember the Conquistadors?"

Indeed, but not all who name the name of Christ are His.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Y'all:

"This mystery is great, and it calls for wisdom."
One of the issues that few Americans really understand is that there are as many divisions of Islam as there are Protestant denominations-- almost. One of the most fundamental however is the difference between Sufi Moslems, and everyone else. The Sufis' who originated in Konya in Turkey, and still can be found there and elsewhere (look up the whirling dervishes on Google) are the mystics. And the more spiritual or mystical way to interpret 'intifadah' is of the internal struggle against sin and the Devil not the demonizing of other humans whom you then attack for being agents of Satan. Most of the Moslems I know in various Moslem countries (Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Turkey) are either Sufis, or are more secular Moslems, or are pietists who are not interested in radical Islamic politics. I even once heard a Moslem tour guide say in private conversation that America is like the big brother in the world community, and we need his discipline from time to time. He was referring to the action in Iraq. I was surprised to hear this, but it is not atypical of what you might hear from many Moslems. You must remember that the majority of them are indeed fatalists-- 'whatever will be, will be' or as they like to put it 'Ensh'allah' as God wills. This theology actually promotes quietism as much as it promotes anything else. This is why Osma bin Laden is actually such a shock to many Moslems around the world. Does he not trust God? Why would he feel he needed to take matters into his own hands if God will deal with Satan anyway? These are the kinds of questions they ask.

So, long story short, there are various ways to interpret the Koran, and our Prison supervisors need to not lump all religious persons who are devout into the category of fanatics in my view.


Ben W.

Brian said...

chaplaincy has gone they way of liberalism anyways, there are still a few good chaplains, but as a whole it is quite liberal. I just finished up a unit of CPE and my supervisor was admittedly "liberal" and in my evaluation placed me in the conservative evangelical camp - almost as if that were a bad thing. Though the ACPE standards forbid any "prostelysing" of any sort. This is fair but I think chaplains should have libraries that facilitate spiritual expression for a variety of faiths backgrounds, not just Christian ones.

Chaplains are to facilitate spiritual expression to the patient/prisoner without bias - so the systematic removal of religious books simply goes to show how in some instances chaplaincy has been going the way of almost secularism.

seethroughfaith said...