When we launched Religion and Incarceration, we aimed to build an interactive forum for engaging with the resources religious traditions have to interrogate and oppose mass incarceration, knowing that such explorations unfold most productively through partnerships of academics and activists.
Today, we are grateful to be able to share a series of critical reflections from Andrew Krinks on his collaborative work with men on Tennessee’s death row. In the blog post below, Krinks discusses how together they revisited the familiar critiques of mind-body dualism from the context of confinement – asking what it means to be human on the way to death and positing a complex theology of soulful resistance.
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Soulful Resistance on Tennessee’s Death Row
by Andrew Krinks
Throughout 2012 and 2013, I had the opportunity to spend time with men on Tennessee’s death row here in Nashville, where I’m also a doctoral student in theological studies at Vanderbilt. Prior to these visits, I had the pleasure of interacting with a few of these guys during unrelated gatherings, so it was a gift to spend more extended and intentional time among men whose magnanimity continues to surprise and enlighten me. The original purpose of these visits was related to an assignment for a class in which students were assigned to conduct field interviews about experiences of embodiment in a particular environment. But after the class ended, the paper took on a life of its own, and the fruit of those interactions was published a few weeks ago at The Other Journal under the title “Soulful Resistance: Theological Body Knowledge on Tennessee’s Death Row.” You can read it at the links below (it was published in two parts).
I share this project here with scholars of incarceration and religion because the essay consists of interviews with men facing execution in Tennessee about their experiences of embodiment in the context of confinement, and about the theological frameworks through which they find meaning in a seemingly horizonless and futureless environment. More specifically, my questions had to do with their material surroundings, the nature of touch and relationality on death row, and their conceptions of body and soul and the relationship between the two. As a student of theology familiar and at home with critiques of so-called mind-body dualism, I faced what was for me an unanticipated challenge when my interviewees articulated what seemed to me to be rather extreme descriptions of the body’s lowliness and the soul’s preeminence, descriptions of the way one must negate the body in order for the soul to be free. I knew that it would not suffice to simply frame their responses as bad theology or to psychologize their perspectives from the comfort and freedom of movement I enjoy outside those concrete walls and razor wire fences. So the task was to make some sense of their articulated theologies in light of their material and relational realities in a way that did justice to their experiences and that presented and synthesized those experiences in a way that might constructively challenge fellow critics of traditional dualisms.
There is no question that I did not fully capture the depth of the experience of life as experienced by my friends on Tennessee’s death row; that would be impossible. But I hope I have done some justice here, by providing a small glimpse into what it looks like to be human in the context of confinement on the way to death. And I hope that these reflections are of some use to you, my colleagues and fellow engaged scholars of incarceration and religion. Thanks, and be well.
Andrew Krinks is a doctoral student in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. His research engages theological frameworks operative in systems of incarceration and constructions of criminality. He also studies the theological dynamics of personhood, agency, and encounter in situations of suffering and oppression.