Symposium With Dr. Wesley Stevens:
Doesn’t that sound quite posh and fancy? Symposium With Dr. Wesley Stevens. Imagine me saying it like: “Sym • po • sium with Doctor Wesley Stevens,” with a tinge of haughtiness in my voice, perhaps with a slight British accent. Or maybe I’ll try French…Now high German….
Yes, yes, now I feel quite special! Earlier today I did indeed have a Symposium with a friend of mine, Wesley Stevens, and I jokingly told him that I was going to write about our dialectic session and be particularly sure to mention that he has a Doctorate of Theology degree just so that I could sound quite prestigious and grand. Actually I believe his particular doctorate degree is called a Doctorate of Divinity—you know how these fancy intellectual Christians are: Calling a doctorate degree in the field of Theology simply a “Doctorate of Theology” won’t suffice—They must use distinctions such as “Doctorate of Systematic Theology,” “Doctorate of Divinity,” “Doctorate of Theological Ethics,” “Doctorate of Epistemological Ontologistic Christian Theocentricity.” Yes, I made that last one up.
I’ve know Mr. Stevens for many years now and we’ve been having what amounts to in-depth study sessions, or Symposiums, as I like to call these sessions, but I’ve never written about them. (Just like I’ve never written about the majority of things I do around here.) I first met Mr. S when I was in Harris County Jail awaiting trial. A distant family member of mine who lives in a rural area of Texas spoke to a friend of hers at church about me and the friend said that she knew a good Christian man who lived in Houston who might be willing to visit me at the jail.
That’s how I met Mr. S—he came to see me then and we’ve had visits almost every month since. The first time we met I made it very clear to Mr. S that I was not a Christian and to my surprise that didn’t bother him at all. It’s really rather hilarious to think about the beginning of our interactions—I do believe that I spent an inordinate amount of time subtly interrogating Mr. S. Certainly, I thought, there must be some duplicitous reason why he comes to see me; what are his objectives? Without delving too deeply into this, I’ll just say that his intentions have been—and continue to be—righteous.
So, earlier today Mr. S and I held a Symposium on the book “Living Gently In a Violent World” by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier with Introduction and conclusion by John Swinton. All three of them are Theologians who are also involved in social issues. Mr. S sent me the book and he has previously introduced me to brilliant Christian writers like Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, and Dostoyevsky so I figured I might enjoy the book. I read it and I more than enjoyed it—I love this book!
Living Gently is one book in an ongoing series called Resources For Reconciliation put out by a partnership between the Duke Divinity School: Center For Reconciliation and Intervarsity Press. The mission of this series of books is to “work in the intersection between theology and practice to help professionals, leaders and everyday Christians live as ambassadors of reconciliation.” Before reading this book I had never even heard of such a thing! Perhaps I should quote a few lines from the preface of Living Gently that describe the point of the series a bit better:
Resources For Reconciliation books address what it means to pursue hope in areas of brokenness, including the family, the city, the poor, the disabled, Christianity and Islam, racial and ethnic divisions, violent conflicts and the environment…A divided world needs people with the vision, spiritual maturity and daily skills integral to the journey of reconciliation.
They’re talking about social activism—real deal community organizing that has nothing to do with John 3:16-obsessed, self-righteous proselytizing. At a humble 100 pages Living Gently is a treasure-chest of brilliant ideas. The Introduction and Conclusion by Swinton are essentially short essays. The remainder of the books consists of 2 essays by Vanier and 2 by Hauerwas. To talk about every point raised in me and Mr.Stevens discussion on the book would take far too long but I do want to touch on a few….
You know those little spiritual Christian stories? The type of short stories that Christian folks e-mail around to each other, the type of stories told by preachers and included in religious pamphlets and books? I find most of those stories abhorrent—little perfidious thrusts at the mind whose goal is to push the psyche into a state of labyrinthine dissociation. In his Introduction John Swinton tells a story that I absolutely love, though a story that just brought tears to my eyes and moved me deeply.
Swinton talks about a situation that occurred several years back when he was teaching a course on pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen. At one point in the class Swinton asked people to share their spiritual experiences. A woman named Angela, who was deaf, spoke of a dream she had in which she met Jesus in Heaven. In the dream Angela and Jesus spoke for some time and she said she had never experienced such peace and joy. Then Angela added that “Jesus was everything that I had hoped for and his signing was amazing!”
Being “healed” or “fixed” of her deafness wasn’t even a concept in Angela’s idea of a perfect heaven. Angela’s idea of a perfect state of existence was one in which barriers that restricted her social interrelations no longer existed. As Swinton says: “What had been a ‘disability’ now became the norm; that which had led to exclusion, anxiety, separation and loss of opportunity now became the precise mode in which Jesus addressed her…To recognize one’s own specialness is a gateway to friendship with God. It makes a radical political statement in a world that often forgets who we are and traps us in complex webs of labels, stereotypes, caricatures and false assumptions.”
Now I know my political people out there are thinking, “Similar ideas have been expressed—albeit from a secular perspective—by many progressive political theorists.” Replace “god” with “Humanity” in the above-cited quote by Swinton and…Yes, exactly! Probably the most interesting thing about Living Gently is that discussion around the L’Arche organization that was founded by jean Vanier. L’Archeis an international network of 130 communities where people with and without mental and physical disabilities live together and “experience life together as fellow human beings who share a mutuality of care and need.” I find this concept, this practice, absolutely fascinating!
I’ve always advocated strongly for mentally ill and mentally retarded guys here on Texas Death Row. Believe me, this is a very hard thing to do. It took an immense amount of extremely hard work by myself and a few others to put a stop to the outright malevolent persecution and blatant abuse of the mentally handicapped guys here by officers and other inmates. This was an important part of our plan of restructuring this environment. (A plan that has worked brilliantly I might add.)
Do you know what I realized though from reading Living Gently? I realized that my advocacy for the disabled is done for righteous reasons, but also done from a position of superiority. Vanier talks about how there are three activities that are essential in creation of community: The first is coming together and sharing a meal at the same table. Praying together is the second. The third is celebrating together.
Vanier speaks of Celebration as laughing and giving thanks for life together and more than anything communicating on an equal plane. After vibing on this concept of community I did something interesting. I’ve always held political discussion groups. Well, the topics of discussion aren’t necessarily confined to politics—we may discuss a certain book, philosophy, Art, a particular aspect of psychology, or whatever. Never before had I thought of asking someone intellectually disabled to participate.
I did this recently and it was quite an experience…to be fully engaged in your community you have to communicate with people. To fully embrace Humanity you have to break down the walls that separate and alienate people and groups from one another. Communication between, understanding of, and if necessary reconciliation with, all members of Society is an absolutely integral part of working towards making the whole of society more peaceful and just…
The discussion Mr. Stevens and I had was quite thought provoking. I don’t get visits very often and when I do it is quite an event. I’m stuck in a small cell for 23 or 24 hours a day so in addition to leaving me filled with warmth and happiness visits can also be a bit overwhelming to the senses. I’m about to kick back and let my mind marinate on today’s discussion and then get some rest. I’ll sign off with a quote from Vanier and a thought from me: “Transformation has to do with the way walls separating us from others and from our deepest self begin to disappear.” Look around your community and look within your Self. If you look deeply you will surely see walls of alienation, loneliness, pain, and fear. What are you doing to tear down these walls?
In the Spirit of mass De-Construction,
With Strength & Love