Preaching to those in Prison


The Readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent (B2)

In quo et his, qui in carcere erant, spiritibus veniens praedicavit : qui increduli fuerant aliquandont”
In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous. 

This passage from St Peter is rather rough, depending on who is doing the parsing out. It seems to say that Jesus preached to those in prison (unbelievers who had been there since the days of Noah).  Or does it say Jesus preached to the unbelievers souls in prison (and then something else about Noah)? Or does it say Jesus preached to the souls in prison (who are somehow connected to those who didn’t believe Noah in his time)? Or does it use those who doubted Noah as a figure for all of those who even now do not believe? And that is my reading here. All those souls in prison.  And even now. This is not “hell” as such, although another name for hell is “Tartarus” which is a “place of restraint”. So preaching to the Souls in restraint… but unbelief is hell. So: all of us (Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.)

I’ve been thinking about things lately. And after the shooting this week I remembered an article, tweeted by my friend, Steve, out there in cyberspace.  Steve asked if you could imagine preaching the gospel in this nation (some highlights):

America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days. That’s one every other day, more or less. That statistic is alarming enough — but it is just a number. Perspective asks us for comparison. So let me put that another way. America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse — it just doesn’t happen in any other country — and that is what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”: a new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society…

…So there is of course also an “opioid epidemic”. We use that phrase too casually, but it much more troubling than it appears on first glance. Here is what is really curious about it. In many countries in the world — most of Asia and Africa — one can buy all the opioids one wants from any local pharmacy, without a prescription. You might suppose then that opioid abuse as a mass epidemic would be a global phenomenon. Yet we don’t see opioid epidemics anywhere but America — especially not ones so vicious and widespread they shrink life expectancy. So the “opioid epidemic” — mass self-medication with the hardest of hard drugs — is again a social pathology of collapse: unique to American life…

These two factoid-heavy paragraphs got me but there are others in the article (go read it, seriously). And of course there was a shooting this week, and there was all the usual US vrs Them political ax-grinding silliness that comes out of it. And I thought of these factoids again. And naturally the shooting happens on Ash Wednesday. Which, if you’re not a Catholic-minded Christian, is like discovering a death metal concert in the basement of a rented space where you’re attending your grandmother’s funeral. It makes you angry and then you realize you’re not supposed to be angry and then you’re angry and then you realize…

There is a lot of Tartarus in America right now – restraint. It’s not caused by Government, or anyone in power: because those folks, too, are suffering from it. I saw hell, once on a recent bus ad: a woman looking like she had a gun to her back and was told to smile getting all excited about a garbage truck coming to take away her junk. We are making this world, ourselves. You can see hell anytime you want by going to the Apple Store: a couple of hundred people waiting to buy the Next Greatest Thing which – you can tell if you look at them – they all know will be useless in 6 months. It’s torture to stand and watch.

Thursday, walking to Mass I passed an honest to goodness Robot on Howard Street. It was carrying a book bag and was followed by a minder looking at his phone as he walked, looking supremely bored. That’s what it’s like to be prepping for the next six month release in the Apple Store. Howard Street: The runway to hell.

Rereading that article, the author gives America too much credit. We have seen these Pathologies before: the greed and predatory indifference that ate up an entire world. It started just before Cicero laments at the passing of the Republic and climaxed with Caligula. And that was when the 400 year long collapse was just starting. Augustine was still mourning it. Or think of Egypt, passing from Pharaoh to the Ptolemies, ending up with the drug-addled princess Cleopatra.

And in that world of decline, death, and darkness, comes Jesus preaching to the souls in prison. We’ve totally been here before. And we get here every time we turn from God and start amassing metric tons of useless disposable trash in the centers of our personal global empires

A famous San Franciscan, Harvey Milk, once gave a speech where, to be honest, he’d probably be angry I’m quoting it, but anyway, he pitted all the “us” folks against the “them” folks. And since I have deeply loved friends on both sides of Harvey’s divide (now and in 1977), I take it personal that he divided the world that way and I refuse to do so. But he said:

The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope… the “us-es” will give up….  I know that you can’t live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you… have got to give them hope.

Where is there hope in this world of robots and disposable thousand dollar toys? Can you not divide the world into Us and Them? Can we remember that every “them” once was an “us” to their parents and can we love them back home? Can you remember that Every Last Them – even the most deplorable – is a deeply loved and terribly important “us” to God? Refusal to do so makes you the “them” here and so God loves you all the more.

If hope is built on other humans building new things, then there’s no hope because all humans fail. We’ll next be excited about the garbage truck coming and of America is just the Empire waiting to fall, I live in Rome. 

And still there’s Jesus, speaking to the Souls “In Prison”. Those who waited for God incredulously. That’s the entire world today. Harvey classed himself and a lot of his “Us-es” into those exact incredulous chains, although unintentionally.

Christian: what are we going to do about this? Lent is here. Our 40 days of fast and prayer. What are we doing to weave real, honest-to-God hope into the fabric of our daily life – hope so strong that others catch it? How is your fasting from chocolate or coffee going to help with all this mess? Is this loving your neighbor? Is this making your loving more real, more present today than it was yesterday?

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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