You Have Watched Me Safe In Your Anonymity

For deeply personal reasons, I have long found that I greatly enjoy many of the songs by British synth pop artist Howard Jones [1].  Among those songs is “The Prisoner,” where the singer/songwriter compares being photographed to being imprisoned within the pictures that are taken.  My father was an amateur photographer, and whenever I visited Pennsylvania or whenever we were at the same Feast site, it would be a common habit for my father to snap some photographs of my brother and I, particularly when we were children and in our preteens.  Just as I tend to record my thoughts and reflections on many things through my prolific writing, my father’s prolific photography was born out of a similar desire to capture for all time an instant, to imprison that moment within memory with an external aid so that it could last at least theoretically forever.  For a long time I thought that I had escaped the phenomenon of naked baby photos, something I find more than a bit uncomfortable as a concept, and I can still remember to this day the feeling of loathing that I felt when I saw some photos of “Nathan’s first bath” as a teenager.  For a variety of reasons, I have long disliked to have lots of photos taken of me, and in general I have been able to escape at least a great many attempts at photography because the people with the cameras have tended not to find me to be a particularly interesting person to photograph, mercifully enough.

Much of my life has been spent around prisons, as I have noted from time to time.  As a child, I remember occasionally visiting a minimum-security prison near Polk City, Florida, where our church had a couple of incarcerated members.  During my time spent living in East Tampa and Thailand, I lived very close to prisons that I saw regularly from the outside but (thankfully) have never seen from the inside.  Even my travels have regularly involved prisons, whether it was visiting the famous Chateau of Chillion in Montreux, where a Protestant prisoner was freed by invading Bernese troops who put the area under their rule until it was made its own canton after the French Revolution.  A visit to Ghana to help teach some local Ghanaian young adults and ministry about computers led to a visit to a slave fort at Elmina where the presence of evil from centuries ago could still be felt.  And it is likely that given my fondness for noticing prisons and visiting fortresses and castles that I have quite a few visits to prisons in my future even if I avoid the cruel fate of being imprisoned in one.  For whatever reason, I have always tended to find prisons in my consciousness and to be involved in the legal system in some odd and peripheral fashion.

My recent slate of reading books about prisons was prompted by a very odd reference I picked up in a book I was reading on Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson, being an Enlightenment thinker himself, greatly enjoyed visiting prisons and thinking about the reforms that were being made at the time, and probably unaware that prisons would always be reformed and in a state of crisis, as they remain to this day.  What alarmed me so much was the fact that Thomas Jefferson took from these visits to prison the desire to create in his own plantation at Monticello a system where he could be the panopticon, the all-seeing eye in the middle watching over his slaves and ensuring that they were working and not escaping, even to the extent where he called the telescope outside his bedroom a panopticon, and even to the extent that some of his slaves knew what he called his telescope and had some idea of what he was trying to do with it.  (I’m guessing he was probably a bit of a creeper about his all-seeing gaze.)  What struck me was the permeability between slavery and imprisonment where someone who had an intellectual interest in prison reform saw the practical insights in how to better imprison his own slave population, whose freedom was denied for the crime of having been born or kidnapped into the status of movable property, some of whom were his own children and their blood relatives.  I wondered if it was common for people to draw links between slavery and imprisonment or if only a few of us have tended to think of these problems as related.

I noted earlier that prison has long been at the periphery of my thinking and that I have long been involved in the legal system in peripheral ways.  For example, I am currently a court-appointed special advocate for an adorable and bright child whose father is in prison and whose mother has been in and out of jail for the past few months because of her own legal troubles.  As a teenager I was a volunteer for teen court where young people served as various court officers for those who had admitted to first-time minor offenses in front of a jury of peers who decided how many hours of community service and what additional punishments (including house arrests) fit the crimes that had been done for those who were to avoid time spent in juvenile detention because their offenses were minor.  Additionally, I have known at least a few friends and acquaintances who found themselves in prison for one reason or another.  At least among my circle of acquaintances, problems with alcohol, trouble with vehicles (sometimes involving alcohol), and issues involving sex and violence have generally been at the bottom of the problems with the law, and I have seen people seemingly stuck in cycles where they have been unable to escape returns to jail or patterns of behavior that break the rules and could easily lead to further trouble by violating one’s probation or one’s parole.  My frustration with such patterns has been tempered by my own awareness that many of us have not lived or may not live in the future very far away from such places ourselves, where our beliefs or our politics or our behavior may put us on the other side of the prison bars to be viewed with contempt and hostility by people who think of us as enemies of our society, and I am reminded again of the complexities of freedom and imprisonment.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to You Have Watched Me Safe In Your Anonymity

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Yes, it is a truth that we are all prisoners within the walls of our own selves, for we push against the bars of our minds to gain the freedom of our hearts. But is that really freedom? Is this the righteous choice? We are told by society to follow our hearts, but ignoring our minds in the process leads to searing our conscience. That prison has invisible walls but holds us captive in an even darker dungeon.

    The biggest mistake we make is judging the past by the morality of the present. When Thomas Jefferson was the Ambassador to France, Sally Hemmings served as hostess for every formal dinner and performed all duties accorded to the wife of an Ambassador. It was illegal for a white man to marry a black woman, and vice versa. He gave her and their children freedom upon birth (counting them as equivalent to white in their society as he could) and granted freedom to all his slaves upon his death. Although we find him deficient and even weird in areas, he was not the blackheart that revisionists are painting him to be.

    The mindset of slave owners, and often their behavior, is reprehensible to us, but what about those of the first century church? Is it easier to forgive them of the same things because they became converted? They struggled against a cultural mindset much like the antebellum South. It must have been a life-long process for Philemon to totally change his mental and emotional viewpoint toward Onesimus. Paul’s letter explains the spiritual lesson of Onesimus, the slave’s equality to his owner. Although we are left hanging, Paul’s exhortative and encouraging tone leaves us hopeful.

    • I think the fact that we have Philemon’s personal letter in the Bible gives us all the indication we need about the response of Philemon to the letter. The fact that this piece of personal mail, itself very small, has managed to endure in the scriptures, suggests that its recipient took the matter to heart and responded to its message and its gracious tone in a favorable way. As far as Thomas Jefferson being a blackheart, I do think that revisionists have gone too far in painting him as a portrait of evil. Nevertheless, his example ought to remind us that just as we judge others by our own standards, so too we will be judged in the future by the standards of the future, and we of course will be judged by God by His standards as well. It is an easy thing to poke at the past, but a harder thing to be aware that our generation has its own societal sins that are overlooked by the contemporary zeitgeist but that will not be viewed charitably in the future.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    I agree with you completely. You are referring to judgments of persons by other persons which are flawed by the very fact that we judge by our own standards. I was happy to see in your response that your comments regarding Jefferson were placed in the context of how we will be judged by those who live after us. When we judge our predecessors by our own standards, we do not appreciate the times in which they lived. This gives us a warped perception and perspective of the past–and we suffer the costs of that mistake, for our worldview is affected by it. It does not matter how others judge us–present or future–but it does matter how we judge others–past or present–because that is how God judges us. His standards must be upheld always and, while we apply those to ourselves, we must apply the weightier matters of mercy and compassion toward others while not neglecting the issue of righteous judgment.

    • Yes, that context is very important. By the standard we judge we will be judged, and judgment will be without mercy to those who have no mercy. It is easy to forget that when we feel we operate the moral high ground. Recognizing that we will be in the same place as those in the past are now, unable to defend ourselves and subject to anachronistic standards of judgment is one of the ways that we become more kind judges through the development of empathy and seeing ourselves from the outside. From such steps we can become more just judges.

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