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Philosophy & Religion from Jail

Princeton Seminary students study and learn alongside students at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility

Each week, Mark Edwards ’07, PhD ’13 and students in his class “Imprisoned Minds: Philosophy & Religion from Jail” travel to the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility (GSYCF) in Yardville, New Jersey. Princeton Seminary students study and learn alongside students at GSYCF. 


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News Image Mark Edwards Imprisoned Minds

Reflections from Dr. Mark Edwards

 “Jail for us is no jail at all.” Gandhi's discovery from prison has become ours as well. Every week, twelve of us from Princeton Seminary pass through security, go beyond the bars, and study with twelve incarcerated students for “Imprisoned Minds: Philosophy & Religion from Jail.” Though we are inside the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Yardville, New Jersey, it does not feel like jail. Quite the opposite. As we read works produced by imprisoned authors, we are finding the shackles of our minds being loosened, the cages of our souls being opened, and the deep ties of a free community being built.

“…most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” 
—Paul, Philippians 1:14

Socrates, Paul, Boethius, Bunyan, Wiesel, ten Boom, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, King, Mandela, and Suu Kyi. That’s the syllabus. Though the list of theologians and philosophers who’ve been imprisoned is much longer (students pick from the extended list in the final week), this lineup is a barrage on what is important in life, how we can live justly, and, ultimately, who we really are.

As you look at these snapshots from our class in the prison’s chapel, I hope you’ll find, as Corrie ten Boom put it upon her entrance to a WWII prison camp, “…new evidence of the care of Him who was God even of Ravensbruck.” While the prison we enter is vastly different, thankfully the God who has led us there is not. 

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Reflections from students at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility

Frank on reading Plato: “In the end, from reading the Crito I have been reminded that truth is supreme, especially in the realm of ethical and moral behavior, and similar to Socrates, I as a Christian need to hold fast to the moral standards of God—even if it is against my own comfort or pleasure.”

“…the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.”
—Nelson Mandela, Conversations with Myself
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Ethan on Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”: “At that point Lady Philosophy wasn’t only speaking to Boethius, but she was also speaking to me. As Lady Philosophy puts it, we’re ‘led astray by false ideas of the good.’ I’ve realized through my incarceration that I was searching for happiness in the wrong things. The same thing happened to Boethius. Once the things I found false happiness in were stripped from me, I was able to see that my true happiness was in God.”

“A free mind cannot be commanded.”
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
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Antoine on John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”: “I really enjoyed the imagery Bunyan used to convey the dangers. Sometimes our walk of faith can really seem like we are battling otherworldly creatures. I’ve also had similar dangers to Christian. The first one has to be called Despair Mountain. It has stranded many in its clefts by convincing them that their prison sentence spells the end of their potential. Another danger I encountered along the way was Gangland. That was a place that was hailed to be the safest and secure, but was always in a state of war, both within its own borders and against other people’s. One of the subtler snares to threaten anyone on this particular path is that of the Distraction Desert—from TV, football, gambling, mail, or the telephone. Once we are lured there, we are stuck there, chasing to have our thirst quenched in a desert.”

“‘Not everything is in the hands of the Giant Despair,’ said Hopeful”
—John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
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Luis on Elie Wiesel’s “Night”: “I learned that it is very common to lose faith at times of suffering. I have to admit that I lose faith at times. When it doesn’t look like there is anything good or anything good coming. Sometimes I wonder why God is allowing all of this to happen to me. There is a feeling of injustice and disappointment, that frustrates me and drives me to doubt my faith. From my experience here at prison, and from what I read somehow I always get my faith back and come out stronger than before. Then I realize that God was making me strong for a reason, that he had a mission for me. I am currently trying to figure out what my mission is.”

“For God’s sake, where is God? And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’”
—Elie Wiesel, Night

Aljava on Corrie ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place”: “So, the one thing from reading Corrie ten Boom’s book that I learned is: There are no ifs in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of his will is our only safety. Therefore, I will continue to pray God’s will, teach and preach God’s will until his will is finished with me on this earth.”

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I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Jorge on Bonhoeffer’s “Night Voices in Tegel” and “Who Am I?”: “Only these walls see what I keep underneath, A man whose soul is crushed, but which no one sees for he always stands firm on his two feet. The water from the shower mixes with the tears that roll down my face, so that those I love won’t see the pain that lies within this place. The pillow is the shoulder I lean on when I break in tears. The sheet is what covers me from my deepest fears. Time is my enemy as I sit and see the fading fall my years. The mirror is what I look upon to make sure I’m really here. The window is where I look out from, but nothing seems to show up clear. Visits are my comfort, but though close, they are never near. Phone calls are what bring peace to my ears, but once the call is over I come to notice, that peace was an illusion and never real. My neighbor is what surrounds me with steel. My hunger isn’t satisfied by any of these meals. The C.O.s are my masters; they have control of the wheel. The judge, lawyer, and prosecutor are my gods I surrendered to, then deal. These that I speak on aren’t just emotions, but truly how I feel. I am a man with a mask that has removed it so you can see what is true and what is real.”

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Students from the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility and Princeton Seminary share insights from their experience learning and studying together

“Courses like this are important not only for seminarians, but also for our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated. The fusion of study with service, showcases the need for equipping seminarians with the true challenges of a spiritual calling. The curriculum encourages us to gather around a set of authors who not only endured imprisonment, but overcame its rigid structure to make change.”
—David, Princeton Seminary student

“I’ve learned that the true definition of freedom is not a mental, physical, or spiritual state. It is a combination of the three that allows us to truly know freedom.”
—Ian, GSYCF student

“This class offers a taste of a more humanizing kind of education, a pedagogy that takes seriously the stories and experiences of students, and a model that arises out of and leads to love. I have never experienced such a life-giving educational environment, both in terms of the academic caliber and the gratitude that fills the prison walls. I leave class with my heart singing.”
—Jennifer, Princeton Seminary student

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“Being able to study how prison shapes the philosophy and theology of Princeton Seminary students has liberated me in spite of my incarceration. I’ve been able to reflect on how my incarceration has molded and strengthened my own theology. I’ve learned that freedom can be had even behind the walls of a prison.”
—Ethan, GSYCF student

“Garden State Youth Correctional Facility’s chapel is bare, furnished with little more than some chairs, but something about the nature of the community makes it into a sacred space. Sharing texts with students living the same reality as the incarcerated authors we are learning about has had an impact on me far beyond any theology I’ve learned in the classroom. Though at times the diversity of our classmates makes dialogue challenging, it also makes possible conversations that would never have taken place in the classroom.”
—Anonymous, Princeton Seminary student

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“It is within classes like this, where seminarians and inmates study together that hearts are awakened. For the seminarians, learning alongside students that they may never have otherwise been able to meet, brings sensitivity to a plight that has altered communities all throughout this country—incarceration.” 
—Cindy, community volunteer

“As seminarians we often get caught up in the bubble of Stuart Hall, forgetting the people in our community whom we can learn from. I have been incredibly humbled to see the depths of faith that my classmates at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility share with us.”
—Kristen, Princeton Seminary student

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“I’ve realized that those whom I thought were ‘least of these’ are in fact, my fellow brothers, worshippers, truth-seekers and peacemakers in Christ. Each week, their prayers revive me, their Christian conviction to uphold the truth humbles me, and their love and forgiveness for others put me in awe.”
—Taeksoo, Princeton Seminary student

“This class is teaching me about the world around me, and helping me confront profound circumstances in the life of faith in God.” 
—Aljava, GSYCF student
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“I’m thankful for the opportunity to take this class and reflect on some hard questions in a setting that is not a typical Princeton Seminary classroom.”
—Laura, Princeton Seminary student

“In the following pages I should like to try and give some account of what we have experienced and learnt…There is nothing new about them, for they were known long before; but it has been given to us to reach them anew by first-hand experience.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

“This class has enriched my seminary experience. It is an example of what the church is called to do, which is to go into the world and share the gospel. This class provides me with an opportunity to learn, minister, and be ministered to.”
—Alice, Princeton Seminary student

“The value of being in prison while reading about it is hard to adequately express, but it certainly unlocked the material for us unlike anything else. The material also unlocked our hearts to one another—in particular, the struggles of our incarcerated classmates. This class is a weekly moment of contact with God.”
—Peter, Princeton Seminary student

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“They crucified him with the criminals. Do you know what this implies? Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community.”
—Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, Sermons from Basel Prison
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Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Pastor of Scottsboro Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Alabama

Micaiah Tanck, Class of 2015

“The friends, colleagues, and professors I’ve met will continue to be resources for me both personally and professionally. ”