Essay: Insights, 17 Years in Prison


by Matthew B. Harper Different Shoes

A month ago I met with two wonderful clergy, and our conversation meandered into fruitful territory. An important conversation, it was also the kind you can’t prepare for. So when our wandering words brought us to an important precipice, and I was invited to jump off, I quailed. Seventeen years of incarceration and over thinking about my crimes has led me to an untold number of insights and revelations so imagine my regret when, after being invited to share some, I failed at the task.

Over the past month I have often relived that conversation. While washing my hair or walking the yard I have pondered, and distilled it to four essential things.

Here, in abbreviated words, is how I wish I had answered:

1. People are broken

When I came to prison I expected to find not just criminals, but truly evil and monstrous people. I had watched all the movies, read a few books, and seen enough stories on the local news that I just knew what evil people were like. I knew the horror of my own crimes, and feared I was just as evil.

What I found on those first few days in the basement of the Fairfax Jail, and what I have found a thousand upon thousand times since is that prison is full simply of people. Not all good, not all bad, simply all human. You can’t imagine the goodness of many people in prison. I haven’t learned that they are innocent, they aren’t. It is just that I have learned what good and evil really look and feel like, and it is both horrible and horribly mundane.

Because evil seldom looks like evil, and otherwise good people can do horrible, evil, malicious things. Almost every act of evil in our world, every action that rejects God, rejects love, and puts aside compassion for the sake of selfish pride always has a rationale. It always starts small, and always makes good sense to the people doing it. Almost nobody sets out to do what they know to be evil.

From an initial starting point fear can become a desperate violence to control. Depression and unhappiness can lead to selfish self-fulfillment. Almost all drug use, and the commensurate crimes, is done by hurting people who just want to feel good. The outcomes are no less terrible, but the perpetrators are more complex, more… human.

Why do we do what is wrong? Why do we allow ourselves to be so prideful, arrogant, and unfeeling that we overcome our sense of compassion? Simply because we are broken. We don’t set out to hurt people and we will lie to protect ourselves from the guilt and awful knowledge that we have. We know we are not truly or totally evil, just broken, but in that brokenness, if we are not vigilant, if we are not compassionate and loving, we do evil things.

2. Redemption and Forgiveness are expensive

I am guilty of horrible things, and I am forgiven. I am redeemed. I will be in prison for what feels like an impossibly long time, but it isn’t forever. I will one day be free. That’s unfair. It’s grace and grace is inherently unfair. It can be unfair not because it’s cheap, but because it is very, very, expensive.

To forgive is never to cheapen the magnitude of the wrong, or to minimize the damage sin causes. Forgiveness instead stands at the very gates of hell and proclaims that love is greater. Love is so much greater that we can hardly grasp it.

The love of God is free, and free things may appear cheap, but that would be the greatest lie. God’s love is free because it is so far beyond price that we can never even create a frame of reference.

I have murdered my sister, and I am loved and supported by my parents. When the ridiculous magnitude of God’s love blows my minds I try only to comprehend that of my parents. It levels me. Deep in my soul that kind of love just knocks me on my ass.

My parents did not, could not, and will never love Anne any less. Neither can I. She was amazing. She was human, and therefore not perfect, but she was simply amazing. Somehow my parents have found a way to live beside the grief of losing her, the horror that it was I who killed her, and the grief of losing me for 35 years to incarceration – and to boldly declare that their love is greater. We have walked this path together for 17 years now, and I can only barely comprehend their struggles, or their bravery. Their love is a free gift I receive, but loving me has not been free for them, It cost them something. It cost them a lot.

They learned that love from God. It is, simply put, divine. This is the God who looks down upon our brokenness and weeps. A God who cries not in condemnation, but with the love and hope that we can and will be better. A God who loves both the victim and the sinner. God who will reach out to us over, and over, and over, and over again. Not a God of second chances, a God of as many chances as it takes. God who will live with us, die for us, and then live with us again.

That kind of love is paid for in grief, because grief is the cost of love. We are broken; we will hurt each other and let one another down. I have broken every promise I ever made to God, yet God remains faithful. I have hurt or let down everyone I love. I am, after all, human.

That kind of love cost something, something beyond imagining.

3. This is a gift, and it creates in us a deep responsibility.

I grew up a good kid, with good parents, and with lots of opportunities. Somehow I got the twisted idea that I deserved it all, that either by divine right or dumb luck that the world was mine only to claim. I was an arrogant jerk. All our sins, all our pain, it’s always all about pride.

I had to lose everything in the world, starting with my pride, before I could open my eyes. I had lied for years, foremost to myself, to protect my delusions. Those scales had to be pried away, with crowbars if necessary, from my eyes and my heart.

I am a smart and capable man, and through the gifts of friendship and support of family I have access to resources beyond most prisoners, and I know I deserve none of it. It’s all grace. Every single last bit is a gift of the grace of God amongst us.

So what will I do? I hope I will find ways to honor it. You complement me when you say my life and ministry is now very diaconal. I hope so, for to be a deacon is, by its very definition, to serve.

What I have now is not mine by right, never by right, but instead a free gift. It is a responsibility and, I believe, comes with a plan and a purpose. I hope I spend the rest of my life serving.

At the end of the end, when my life is weighed in the balance, I know the scales are forever against me. I can never pay my debts; I can never atone. If I am ever allowed in heaven it will be at the end of the line, and only by the grace of God. I’ll take it.

I want to be free, and I pray beyond all else that I will have the chance to be a father and husband one day. But never, even should I serve a thousand years, could I say I deserved it. Instead I can only pray that I am worthy of it.

4. There is so much work left to do

Perhaps the most arrogant of my insights, but for me the bottom line is that most people don’t get it, and we need to help. If you get it, show someone else. Christianity is sometimes said to be one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. I feel like I found the bread, and am called to shout it from the rooftops.

Inside prison or out, we all struggle to face our sins and the consequences of our actions. We minimize forgiveness, underestimate grace, and would deny each other the mercy we horde for ourselves. We are still broken, and we need those among us who will proclaim the year of jubilee, who will be the first to hug the unhuggable and love the unlovable. Because at some point we all feel unhuggable.

In our world there are peacemakers and reconcilers. We have warriors who pick up guns, and warriors who put them down. We hold hands in the emergency rooms and on the frontlines. We place flags on graves, and send our sons and daughters off to war. We change our children’s diapers, and then our parents. We are broken people in a broken world desperate for the community of one another, yearning for grace.

In this place, at this time, I simply try to do the next right things. I have never felt more right than when preaching, teaching, and leading our congregation; but those are acts no more important than giving out soup or toothpaste.

We need the mediators, mentors, guides, teachers, and reconcilers—and we call them our priests. And they need every grace of God ordained upon them. To hear confession, and proclaim forgiveness; to offer the body and blood of Christ – ‘food for your journey’ Fletcher says – can there be a more needed role?

Our vision is too small, and our pride is a great as our loneliness and fear. We are offered a homecoming, a loving acceptance, and while it is free it is also priceless. What will we do in response? For my part I will minister. I will encourage and cajole, I will teach and listen, laugh and cry, comfort and be comforted. I will hug and be hugged.

Which is to say I will love, and in doing so I will learn how to be loved. At the end of the day, as was said so eloquently this month, love, is love, is love, is love, is love… I would add only that God is love, and we are God’s.

That isn’t everything I’ve learned over these years, but it’s some of the important stuff.

God Bless You

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