From Prison to Preacher. From Preacher to Prison. Testimony runs both ways.

I’ve been looking up names of Christian preachers who went to prison for doing very crappy things.
It’s for a possible piece of art in response to a tract I pulled from a bus stop yesterday arguing that because one man who had been in prison is now more at peace and a preacher you should turn to Jesus. The reasoning in the tract doesn’t hold up but I’m glad the guy has grown up from being a rebellious and violent man. I just think that he, with the help of community and a belief, has turned himself round and that the influence of an interventionist deity is a logical leap that’s not needed (or correct).  I’m glad there is more peace in his life than when he was a young man looking for some kind of meaning.
I’ve personally known Christians who had been in prison and were now “serving the Lord” with a changed life and new purpose. They were mostly happier and very glad not to be in cell though some of them ended up back in prison.  In one church I found myself in a room with a dozen brothers and I was the only one who hadn’t been to prison. I’ve known people who were converted in prison – unlike the man in the tract who was invited to church by two girls, evangelising on the streets of Newcastle, which is an invitation many young men would accept when girls show an interest and a caring face! 
I wonder how his life would have turned out if the evangelists who targeted him had been from some other organisation.  Would he now be preaching for the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses or some even more extreme sect?  Such sects include men with similar stories.  They all believe the teaching of their group and it is the centre of their life.  But the groups contradict.  Conversion stories like these can never be truth claims no matter how much security and stability the person finds after conversion.
I’ve also known people who went the other way. People who were Christians and ended up in prison. People who were Christians and committed serious crimes and didn’t go to prison because nobody wanted it out in the open – like the youth pastor in a church I was an active member of for a little while in the early 90s who turned out to have been having sex with the youth group. It got covered up. Legally he was guilty of statutory rape of underage girls. No action was taken except stripping him of his role in the church.
Recently I found a website claiming that children in one church I was in were 170 times more likely to be sexually molested than those growing up in the Catholic Church. I’m not sure about the numbers but I know a lot of very difficult truths have come to light in recent years.  Current members and leaders are appalled by it and many wonder how they didn’t see it clearly at the time.  The current head of the church last year publicly talked about how serious allegations had recently come out against the founder of the church.  The church is trying to deal with it and to work differently but a lot happened there that I wasn’t aware of when I was a member for a while in the mid to late 1990s. In a lot of ways I loved that church – there were aspects of community life that I still miss sometimes.  On the other hand I was quite lost and searching hard for happiness, believing it was somewhere within the supposed acceptance found in the Jesus story.  The stories that are coming out – that I can only read in part from outside the church – sadden me.  They don’t shock me though.  In the intervening years I’ve learned not to be shocked that there is abuse in churches and that in radical churches with charismatic leaders and lots of rules there is far more scope for abuse and for the hiding of abuse.
I’ve known Christians “fall away” (as the jargon puts it) into drug abuse – because Jesus wasn’t enough, bank robbery, sexual crime, and much else. Some of them were imprisoned. Others I’ve known converted from a life of crime but Jesus didn’t sort their life out and neither did the influence of the church.
In short, I’m glad the man in the track doesn’t feel a need for crime – violent or otherwise – because of the way he’s found to live. I’m glad that spiritual paths can be such a productive influence. But the conclusions – that God did it and you should follow God – are not tenable.
I’m glad that he isn’t one of the names I can use in a piece of art – although the tract he wrote will be central.
I found plenty of names to use. It didn’t take long. I’ve stuck with Christian churches that have an orthodox faith – Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Bible is the Bible, the Trinity exists, salvation is through Jesus. That kind of thing. If you look outside of orthodox Christianity the list of names expands widely and the range of crimes becomes pretty bizarre in places.
I’ve also limited myself almost entirely to Christian preachers from the UK and USA. A few others have crept in such as David (previously Paul) Yonggi Cho whose church in South Korea used to be the largest in the world. He was imprisoned for embezzlement of millions of dollars. I used to have his books about trusting in Jesus for all your needs. They never mentioned a need to embezzle millions once. Yonggi Cho was a hero to many of us.
What is more obvious than my list of imprisoned ministers is that there are many more names of criminal ministers who haven’t been to prison or faced prosecution. Preachers and ministers who did awful things and didn’t go to prison. Preachers whose “sins” (crimes) were often knowingly covered up by their own churches and denominations. Preachers who are still preachers and have got away with things that anyone else would have been prosecuted for. There’s even a preacher whose church provides “miracle babies” for infertile couples by stealing them from other mothers.
I’m not talking of the usual hypocrisy – of the preacher man having gay or straight affairs or hiring a sex worker while preaching and pretending fidelity and monogamy. I don’t care who sleeps with who in fully consensual relationships as long as there’s honesty between all partners and nobody is being mean. I do care about such a depth of hypocrisy from pulpits. I’m not talking of the clever but evil con merchant ministers who get rich off their flocks while staying within the law. I’m not talking of the things many of us judge abhorrent, such as the homophobia taught by many church groups including ones I see handing out their rubbish every day.
I’m talking paedophilia, child abuse, sexual abuse, physical violence, fraud, and a surprising range of other crimes.
There are horrible things that go on without anyone being convicted or even removed from ministry. Horrible things done by people who preach an all-powerful God whose all powerful Holy Spirit is at work in all Christians to sanctify them. That process often doesn’t work out well and when it does, is it really God or is it faith and community? I know which is the less extraordinary claim.
I can’t use any of these countless preachers and priests in the art because they haven’t been to prison. That’s fine. I have enough names for my purposes, each one representing a tale in which people have suffered terrible things at the hands of supposed “men of God.”
Of course, jailed vicars are a smallish minority and there are Christian preachers too who went to prison for doing nice things. I’ve known several of them. Some have spent many years in prison – a good example is the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan who was the first priest ever to be on the FBI’s “most wanted” list. A very good man as was his brother Philip. Their faith was part of their inspiration to do such brilliant things. I’m sure they had faults but in incredible ways their lives can be examples to what may be possible in our own lives, lived out in our own manner according to our own strengths and weaknesses.
And of course the story says there was a man who went to prison and was sentenced to death. The man called Jesus. Sometimes morality dictates challenging the system and facing prosecution if we are able to. Sometimes.  Not for the sake of a religion.  But for the sake of justice, love, peace, and all the other good things scattered throughout the stories told by religions and secular society.  Sometimes rebellion is a very good thing.
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