Teaching Ethics, Learning Grace
Dr. Lee Hardy
I set my course materials on the counter. “I’m bringing in 20 sheets of paper to hand out to my students. My book and my course folder are coming back out,” I tell the receptionist. A manifest is written. I sign and date it. I sign a daily visitor sheet and note the time of my arrival. I trade my Michigan driver’s license for a special identity card. I get a mark on the back of my left hand that will show up under ultraviolet light. The manifest is approved. I’m given the yellow copy. I step through a sliding metal gate, remove the contents of my pockets and walk through a metal detector. Then I’m frisked. Thoroughly. I am required to take off my shoes and socks and show the bottoms of my feet. I’m cleared. The second gate opens and I pass my left hand under an ultraviolet light at the next station. It lights up with a number. I’m issued a “PPD”—a personal protection device. I sign for it and attach it to my belt. At the next window I press its red button. It registers on a computer screen. “Number 3,” the guard at the computer says. “Right, number 3,” I respond. I meet my escort. I’m on my way to meet my students.
Not my usual routine for class preparation. I’m teaching a course on ethics and the Christian life at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. It’s a medium security prison. Oddly, the prison reminds me of the Calvin College campus, except for the high fence and razor wire on the perimeter. It has a large grassy quad; the three-story brick cellblocks are scattered on the edge like the dorms.
I walk across the quad to the school building. I enter the classroom. My students file in, smiling and cheerful. They shake my hand and greet each other. A mixed group: Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Native American. Some of them are lifers; the rest are looking forward to parole. I really don’t want to know what they are in for. Better to start fresh. I try to ignore their prison uniforms. I try to focus on their faces and voices. They’ve engaged with the reading assignment. They care about the issues up for discussion. They have questions and comments. They share their favorite passages from the readings. They address me and each other with respect. After an hour I ask them if they want to take a break. No, no break. They want to keep at it. From my perspective, this is an ideal class.
I’m teaching this course under the auspices of Calvin Theological Seminary. It’s changed my view of the prison population. On the rare occasion I have driven M21 through Ionia, passing the Handlon facility, the Bellamy facility and the maximum security facility, I can’t say that I had a strong urge to make contact with the residents inside. Felons. Convicts. Hardened criminals all. Best they stay on that side of the fence while I stay on this side.
But I didn’t meet those people in my class. The people before me had indeed harmed others. But many were filled with remorse for what they had done. Like many of us, they had experienced the depths of the corrupting power of sin. But they had also seen the heights of God’s grace and felt the breadth of Christ’s love. They took responsibility for their actions but refused to be defined by them. They hoped for forgiveness from their victims. And they were trying to put their lives back together in circumstances that were designed, it seems, to defeat the human spirit. One tried to describe for me what prison life was like: “I live in a bathroom with another guy and a television at the foot of my bed.” He had studied neurophysiology in order to better understand his addictive tendencies. He worried about what his environment was doing to his brain. But he wasn’t the only one. Each of them was fighting a personal battle between hope and despair.
Jesus came to heal the sick, not the well. Of course, we are all sick. But Jesus will not make much progress with those who think they are well. The prisoners I met were under no illusions regarding their health status. They were well aware of the disease that afflicted their souls. And they were pursing the healing offered by the Physician with a passion I have not witnessed elsewhere. I was their teacher in the field of Christian ethics, but I learned much from them about the grace of God and the transforming power of the Spirit.
Prisons will never look the same to me.
The Nagel Institute at Calvin College and The Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) announce a major, three-year initiative for Chinese scholars to reflect on the relationship between values and virtues. This initiative receives major support from the John Templeton Foundation.
The Philosophy Department at Calvin College and The Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) announce a major, three-year initiative for Chinese scholars to reflect on the relationship between science, philosophy and belief. This initiative also receives major support from the John Templeton Foundation.
This global initiative is
directed by Prof. Christina Van Dyke