Where the River Bends – Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners by Michael McRay, Book Review

McRayRiverWhat do we do with uncomfortable stories?

Uncomfortable stories about ourselves? Uncomfortable stories about our ‘enemies’ or rivals? Or uncomfortable stories about people we may never think about at all – like prisoners.

In Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade Books, 2016), Michael McRay takes us behind the walls of prisons in Tennessee to hear the uncomfortable stories of the men and women there.

These are the uncomfortable stories of what they did to end up in prison. These are the uncomfortable stories of how they were abused before they became perpetrators. These are the uncomfortable stories of how the American prison system dehumanizes those it ostensibly aims to rehabilitate, pushing some to the edge of madness.

McRay has Belfast connections, having spent a year in the city doing a Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. (Disclaimer: McRay was one of my students.) Indeed, many of the interviews on which Where the River Bends is based were conducted for his Master’s dissertation.

McRay had served as a prison volunteer in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville and returned there during his studies to ask the prisoners about forgiveness. Had their victims forgiven them? Had they forgiven themselves? Had they forgiven those who had abused and victimized them before they became perpetrators?

McRay draws on those interviews, as well as additional interviews with prisoners in a women’s prison and ‘mental health’ prisoners in Riverbend’s maximum security unit when he returned after his studies and began to serve as a chaplain. (The mental health unit has since shut down.)

As McRay recorded these uncomfortable stories, and became involved with the No Exceptions Prisons Collective in Nashville, he found himself banned from his chaplaincy work for organizing on behalf of the prisoners.

McRay’s banishment is proof enough, to me, that the stories of these prisoners are so uncomfortable that those with the power to do so wish to silence them.

Where the River Bends seems to be McRay’s way of jolting people on the ‘outside’ outside of their comfortable lives, in the hope that these stories can mobilize them to reform prisons in ways that truly rehabilitate and rehumanize individuals.

It’s one matter to present the stories of abuse and victimization – inside and outside of the prison walls. The American prison system can be particularly draconian and McRay has an American audience in mind, though what he writes will resonate with the experiences of some prisoners here, especially those incarcerated during the Troubles.

It’s another matter to convince the reader that we can learn from prisoners – indeed, even learn how to become better human beings ourselves – by listening to their thoughts on forgiveness, or observing their actions.

Again, we might ask ourselves: Can we learn from Northern Ireland’s prisoners? (This is an especially apt question today, given Pat Sheehan’s interview on the Stephen Nolan Show …)

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu captures this idea well in the Foreword of the book when he writes:

This book offers you the stories of numerous men and women to whom most of us would rather not listen. For this reason, this book is important, and I invite you into the humility necessary to read it. Prisoners are perhaps the most marginalized people in our Western societies. They are non-existent to us during their incarceration, and pariah upon their return. Depriving them of their freedom does not seem to be enough for us; we often try to deprive them of their dignity and voices as well. Michael McRay has sought to help us in this regard. He has entered the prisons and received the stories and perspectives of fourteen imprisoned children of God. But they do not offer us their stories for the sake of justification. Instead, they speak for the sake of confession, accountability, truth-telling, and forgiveness.

As a Christian and one who has worked as a chaplain, McRay is frank throughout the book about how his faith impacted on his work. Yet he also hopes to appeal to secular readers who share his humanitarian concerns.

The stories of the prisoners should resonate with readers from a variety of faith backgrounds and none – the prisoners themselves have varying perceptions of God and God’s forgiveness.

I could share multiple examples of the stories McRay has collected, but two stick with me. Perhaps it is because of the way that McRay manages to convey that all these prisoners should be thought of as Christ, as per the gospel commendation of those ‘who visited me’ [Christ] by visiting prisoners.

One is the story of David, a prisoner who cares for a fellow prisoner who is dying, tending to him daily in their cell as he loses control of his physical faculties, cleaning up his waste and blood from internal bleeding. When the prisoner died in his cell, prison protocol meant the cell must be declared a ‘crime scene’ and David was placed in solitary confinement. McRay writes (160-161):

When David finished telling his story, I placed my hand on the thin glass window in the door, pointing at him. “I am inspired by you David. You have done exactly as I suspect Jesus would have”.

In retrospect, that statement seems obvious, since it was in fact Christ with whom I spoke, God-in-the-flesh. His hair was grayer than most religious paintings depict, and his skin much lighter than the Middle Eastern Jew of the first century.

Nevertheless, I talked with Jesus in prison that day. His name was David, and the prison had him under lockdown.

The other is of a mental health prisoner who slices an artery while cutting himself with a razor and is taken to the emergency room. McRay’s reflections on this event come in the form of a prayer (167):

Jesus, you said that when we encountered the least of these in prison, we encountered you. I try to believe that.

But was that really you in there? Was that really you the officers carried out of the unit to the ambulance? I didn’t expect you to look like that. I didn’t think you would have a razor in your hand. I didn’t think you would smear blood on your face while I talked with you. Have the principalities and powers really broken you so brutally that even you can’t resist the demons of despair, fury, and self-hatred? I knew you would be in prison, Lord. That’s why I came. But I didn’t think you would be in hell.

(You can read a fuller account of this story on the ‘Red Letter Christians’ blog.)

The book also includes theoretical and theological reflections on forgiveness. In a chapter titled ‘Understanding Forgiveness’, McRay reviews the major academic writing on forgiveness in a clear and accessible style, summarizing the many ways writers have conceived of forgiveness.  He outlines the many ‘strands’ of forgiveness, including forgiveness as release, forgiveness as transcendence, forgiveness as goodwill, forgiveness as absolution, and forgiveness as reinterpretation.

His review of this literature provides general insights on how we might think about forgiveness, which are relevant not just to McRay’s work with prisoners but also to Northern Ireland as it ‘deals with’ its recent violent past.

McRay concludes that ‘forgiveness as reinterpretation’ summarizes all the other strands, defining it this way:

Forgiveness is the attempt to reinterpret the past, the present and the future – to reimagine ourselves, the other, and our stories. Forgiveness prevents the story written by pain and violation from becoming the final words; instead, it re-visions life and its characters in the context of a new story. Granting mercy, pursuing empathy, overcoming hatred, extending goodwill, and absolving are all essential to this reinterpretation: they each orient toward it and are encompassed by it.

Reading Where the River Bends is both an intellectual and emotional experience. McRay appeals to the intellect by writing cogently about forgiveness, and identifying the shortcomings and injustices of the prison system. The prisoners’ stories provoke righteous anger and empathy, pricking the conscience.