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.

  • Turgon

    Forgiveness is extremely important. In the context of prisoners in most of the world this tends to centre round them seeking forgiveness for their crimes. This is also the case for many in Northern Ireland.

    Some terrorists in Northern Ireland have also had similar issues with forgiveness.

    A significant group of terrorists on the other hand have had very different analyses of forgiveness centring round their victims’ need to ask their (the terrorists) forgiveness for having caused them psychological distress by “having” to kill them.

    This is not entirely unique to NI as rapists for example sometimes think their victims should ask their forgiveness for “asking for it” etc. Normally this is rejected as the evil self serving nonsense it so clearly is.

    What is unique is that dogooders in NI sometimes indulge the terrorists not by helping them with their guilt nor turning away from crime nor making a new better life (as the accounts above from the USA illustrate) but rather assist them in their dangerous and evil delusion that it was their victims who were at fault.

  • Thomas Barber

    “A significant group of terrorists on the other hand have had very
    different analyses of forgiveness centring round their victims’ need to
    ask their (the terrorists) forgiveness for having caused them
    psychological distress by “having” to kill them”

    That is hard to believe Turgon I’ve never met someone like that but I do know that if someone seeks forgiveness then they must have experienced guilt first. I suppose it depends on the prisoner though, if he/she were short term or long term. I think the point Michael McRay is making is that some individuals do to others what they experienced or witnessed themselves possibly many times during their upbringing that they believed it was normal. Political prisoners are another matter the majority will not experience guilt therefore not seek forgiveness but rather, that society should understand that he/she would not have been in prison had it not been for the political and social conditions they were brought up in. Im sure they feel sorrow and reflect on how the loss of innocent life could have been avoided by different actions but like all soldiers they believed they were acting on behalf of their country.

  • Turgon

    ” Political prisoners are another matter the majority will not experience
    guilt therefore not seek forgiveness but rather, that society should
    understand that he/she would not have been in prison had it not been for
    the political and social conditions they were brought up in.”

    Thank you a perfect illustration of the mentality I was trying to describe. A mentality that allowed mass murder in the likes of Claudy, the Shankill, Enniskillen, La Mon, Greysteel, Loughinisland (almost in Tullyhommon). A perfect illustration of the mentality behind the murders of Jean McConville, the Shankill Butchers victims, Joanne Mathers, Rosemarie Nelson: the list could go on and on.

    The idea that any of those killings were anything other than the brutal wicked murders they assuredly were is exactly the mentality which allows some of the perpetrators to ask that their victims or society at large seek forgiveness for their (the murderers) actions.

    As I said exactly like the rapist saying “She asked for it” and it is instructive that yet another terrorist has been arrested for sex crimes. It seems that the levels of perversion of morality in all its forms was extremely high within the ranks of the terrorists.

    The book Gladys outlines sounds exactly correct. There is another way and quite a number of terrorists here have embarked on it. That is the road of repentance be that secular or religious and having repented and hopefully found forgiveness (though forgiveness is wholly up to the victims whether, when and if to forgive) they can then whether still in gaol or out of it lead a new and useful, productive life.

    Sadly neither our , nor especially the American prison system seems very good at all at reform and rehabilitation – hence, the need to search other models to try to help – though a large part of rehabilitation surely even in the likes of the more liberal systems is recognising that one has done great wrong.

  • Thomas Barber

    “Thank you a perfect illustration of the mentality I was trying to describe. A mentality that allowed mass murder in the likes of Claudy, the Shankill, Enniskillen, La Mon, Greysteel, Loughinislan”

    An unfortunate choice of incidents to emphasise your point Turgon as in all the above cases state agents are believed to have had roles in the murders with British intelligence supplying the weapons in two of them, have the British government asked for forgiveness, rather they use national security as a means to further rub salt into victims wounds by pissing on them and telling them its raining. In relation to the Shankill butchers the Orange order have decided over the victims and victims families heads that Orange order member Eddie McIlwaine a convicted member of the Shankill buthers, and UDR member at the time, has paid his debt to society therefore deserves forgiveness in their eyes, what moral right does the Orange order have to grant forgiveness or to judge others.

    I agree that there is a significant number of paramilitaries either charged, accused or been investigated for sexual crimes including child abuse and rape but suprisingly less than the numbers of supposedly respectacle politicians or tv personalities convicted/accused or been investigated for the same perversion of morality.

    The taking of any life or the use of violence to achieve ones ends is wrong no matter the cause but in this part of the world when those who make the rules break the rules with impunity then there are no rules, judgement and forgiveness are simply further tools used by some sections of the community to promote their own narritive.