Editor’s Note: Part One of this essay was published earlier this week.

Theological Anthropology on Death Row

Because particular conceptions of the body and the soul have long been encoded in the development of the prison system, and because on death row one’s body is always already outside one’s control, I also asked my interviewees about the theological concepts that guide their own understandings of the body, the soul, and the relationship between the two. On the question of the body, Paul spoke up first, and his answer was met with instantaneous and conclusive agreement: “The body is the temple of God.” On the subject of the soul (or the mind or the spirit),1 my interviewees had significantly more to say. Paul responded, “The spirit is a traveling vehicle—not bound by the laws of man.” Dan said that “The spirit is God breathing the breath of life into you. It’s the living, breathing part of you.”

When I asked my interviewees about the relation between the body and the soul, their views became more complicated. “The body is an enemy to my spirit,” Paul said. “The body is where depression, low self-esteem, hopelessness happens. You have to crucify—you have to kill the body so the soul can be free from the bondage of earth and man.” Kurt resonated with this perspective: “My soul battles with my body. I have to take charge, tell my body ‘no.’” When I asked if the soul, then, has preeminence over the body, my respondents answered that it does. Dan refined the others’ perspective slightly by referencing Ephesians 6:12: “Our battle is against sin, though, not flesh.” Likewise, Thomas said that “The Holy Spirit lives within me—in my body.”

After asking my interviewees about their views on the body and the soul, I asked them to ponder how the prison itself might view the body and the soul. On the prison’s views of the body, Paul said, “For them, it’s a piece of property. It belongs to them—you’re a number.” Dan substantiated Paul’s claim with an example: “The state will literally write you up if you mutilate your body. Because it’s their property, and you can’t mutilate their property.” When asked if the prison has any notion of the prisoner’s soul, they each thought for a moment and then together agreed that the prison does not take into consideration the spiritual souls of its inmates.2

Theologian Colleen Griffith points to the complexity of Western Christian thought on human bodies: “Throughout the tradition, diverse judgments have existed concerning the meaning of the body and its function. Bodies have been revered and held suspect, problematized and anathematized.”3 As Griffith suggests, one prominent view of the relationship between the body and the soul in Christian thought has been that of “hierarchical ordering.” Exemplified most in the writings of Augustine, this view holds that the right relationship between the body and the soul is one of “domination.” As Griffith summarizes, because, according to Augustine, the soul is of greater value than the vice-consumed body, the “soul must rule the body.” Griffith also highlights the philosophical development under Descartes of mind-body dualism. Represented most succinctly in the legendary cogito formulation, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes’s thought posits the self in “pure,” disembodied knowing, thus rendering the body of secondary importance.4

Judging from my interviewees’ responses to my inquiries regarding the body and the soul, it would seem that the influences of both Augustine (from Plato) and Descartes live on. As Kurt, echoing Augustine, said, while the body is the temple of God, one ultimately has to tell the body no in order to free the soul from bondage so that it may retain its proper preeminence. Indeed, much like Descartes, Kurt locates his I some place separate from his body when he says that “I have to take charge, tell my body ‘no.’” As Griffith points out, such a view implies that the relation of soul to body is fundamentally one of “domination.”5

It might be easy to criticize what might in another context be deemed an unhelpful and even dangerous theological and philosophical dualism that hierarchizes the body and the soul in a relationship of domination, but the material, spatial, and relational realities of life on Unit 2 make forms of mind-body dualism particularly difficult to overcome. As philosopher Drew Leder argues, mind-body dualism “resonates with and illuminates aspects of human experience,” which means that dualism can only be overcome if we first acknowledge the truth it articulates.6 And as the men on Unit 2 illustrate, mind-body dualism is indeed one way to make sense out of a particularly fragmenting material context. When one’s body is thoroughly confined both by one’s material surroundings and by the multitude of other mechanisms and guidelines that limit freedom of movement, spontaneity, and relationality, and particularly because corporeal resistance would be met with severe punishment, one is hardly able to opt for anything other than the seemingly dualistic negation of the body forced upon it by its environment. As Dan put it, “We’ve had to condition ourselves in this environment. You have to make the best of your situation.” Thus, regardless of whether an Augustinian or Cartesian concept of the relationship between the body and soul/spirit/mind is specifically and intentionally opted for, we might well argue that the institution of prison, at the very least, creates a condition in which its subjects have few other options for conceptualizing what is an always already dominated body. Is it possible, then, to discern in my interviewees’ dualistic theological anthropologies something beyond a merely negative byproduct of the prison’s material coercions upon the body—something, perhaps, that gives us insight into what human personhood and agency in such a dehumanizing and fragmenting environment look like?

Soulful Resistance on Death Row

Utilizing the work of Merleau-Ponty and Frantz Fanon, philosopher and theorist Gayle Salamon suggests that in situations of racial- and gender-based oppression—oppressions that are particularly inscribed on the bodies of those who experience them—bodied subjects must find means of resistance that deploy corporeality in ways that include both the surface of one’s body, as it were, as well as the dimensions of the body’s interiority. Salamon thus seeks to develop an account of “bodily being” that provides “a way of understanding the retreat into the body as a difficult but necessary achievement that paradoxically both is born of social relations and opens the way for a body and a subject to exist in the world.”7 For Salamon, interiority provides a final remaining space where subjects may resist the manipulation carried out upon their bodies. As she writes, “Bodily interiority . . . functions as a way to withdraw from a form of social constitution that would constitute us simply as exterior and exposed surfaces for the play of social power.”8

Similarly, Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panther movement, reflecting on his time in solitary confinement, writes: “In deprivation, you have to somehow replace the stimuli, provide an interior environment for yourself.”9 For Newton, that interior environment has the potential to become the space from which a person can acquire the means to overpower the institution that confines her or him: “when I resolved that they would not conquer my will, I became stronger than they were. I understood them better than they understood me. No longer dependent on the things of the world, I felt really free for the first time in my life.”10 Out of his experiences in solitary confinement, Newton learned that prisons are incapable of taking into account the full dimensionality of human beings: “The prison cannot have a victory over the prisoner because those in charge . . . assume if they have the whole body in a cell that they have contained all that makes up the person. But a prisoner is not a geometrical figure, and an approach that is successful in mathematics is wholly unsuccessful when dealing with human beings.”11 In other words, a human being confined by concrete, steel, and razor wire is more than the material body confined by concrete, steel, and razor wire.

During our conversation, Thomas articulated what I perceive to be something of the sort of subversive interiority that Salamon and Newton envision. “There’s very little that remains yours in here,” he said. “They have me captured. I know they want to kill me. I know these things—they’re obvious. They may have me physically, but I’m never gonna let them have my mind.” Similarly, Paul told me that he spends 85 percent of each and every day in a meditative state. “When I’m in that place,” he said, “I’m in touch with freedom.” In these ways, both Thomas and Paul demonstrate, on the one hand, the dualism that is made unavoidable in such a context and, on the other hand, the means by which such forced dualism may be deployed to resist the forced fragmentation of life.

Additionally, considering the strict time-and-space structure of every day on Unit 2, and particularly the almost certain direction in which time, for each of my interviewees, is inevitably moving (execution), I asked my interviewees how they conceive of time and the future, and the impact it has on each day. Dan said that “Time passes quickly—but only if you don’t think about it too much. You have to think about the quality, not the quantity, of time here. Stress affects your lifespan negatively, so it’s important not to let time get to you.” Kurt responded similarly, saying that “Staying active makes time move more quickly. Thinking about time is like torturing yourself.” As for the future, Dan said, “One day, I will leave here—either up [pointing upward] or through the front door.” Kurt agreed with Dan, but only in part: “I know I’m going to be delivered from this place—and I mean through the front door. I know I’m going to get out. I have a life to live out there.” Similarly, Paul, who has been in prison for twenty-five years, said, “God has something better for me than this. I think about it everyday. I say to my future, ‘I’ll be with you soon,’ either on the outside or in heaven. This too shall pass.”

My interviewees’ descriptions of the experience of time, of the manifold material and relational delimitations of life on death row, and of their discerning interior freedom and a vision of a future somewhere outside the prison’s walls, call to mind the religious frameworks through which enslaved Africans in the American diaspora discerned and obtained their own sense of freedom. In his book Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs, religious ethicist Riggins Earl Jr. describes the ways in which enslaved Africans used the logic and rhetoric of religious conversion, deployed first by their slave masters as a form of dehumanization, to formulate a language and framework that served to rehumanize their existence. In the stories, songs, and symbols of slave religion that some scholars flatly characterize as merely otherworldly or “escapist,”12 Earl perceives what he calls “element[s] of radical dissociation” in which “the convert has to be radically disengaged from the everyday world by the power of God in order to be commissioned for a radically new kind of moral engagement of it.”13 Through a redeployment of the master’s language, Earl suggests, enslaved Africans were enabled “to make the transition from the status of being the master’s property to that of being authentic members of the family of God. . . . in a world that refused to recognize them as being authentic selves,” thus enabling them to rise above, to transcend, the realities of dehumanization.14 Moreover, as James Cone argues, enslaved Africans’ visions and hopes for a liberated, heavenly future constitute a religious posture that is more than merely “an opium of the people,” as some suggest, but is rather “a radical judgment which black people are making upon the society that enslaved them.”15

Just as it is insufficient, as Earl, Cone, and others suggest,16 to perceive in slave religion nothing more than a body- and world-denying escapism, so too it is insufficient to perceive in the religiosity of my interviewees on Tennessee’s death row nothing more than a body-denying escapism. Rather, in a context of extreme delimitation and confinement, seemingly simple acts and gestures that lay hold of dignity and freedom function both as acts of self-assertion over against dehumanization and as what Cone might call a radical judgment of the structure that imprisons (enslaves) them. Moreover, in drawing a parallel between the religiosity of enslaved Africans and that of men on Tennessee’s death row, I am making a connection that is more than merely abstract. As Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and others point out, the institution of slavery, once officially abolished, resurrected itself, in part, in the creation of codes and laws that were part of the development of today’s prison system.17 Consider, for example, that the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, includes one significant exception: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” meaning that slavery has been abolished for all but the more than two million people currently confined in US prisons, including the men on Tennessee’s death row.18 Thus, in naming the forms of religiosity of men on Tennessee’s death row as contiguous with that of enslaved Africans in the Americas, I am also naming, with Davis and others, today’s prison system as an actual evolution of the institution of slavery, thereby enabling us to discern in the religiosity of my interviewees’ an even more significant trajectory.

When I asked my interviewees to consider what the prison communicates to their bodies, and how it communicates it, I also asked them to reflect on what they communicate to the institution through their bodies—What do you want this institution to know? How do you tell it? And how does it hear it? Instantly, Kurt tightened his body, sat forward in his chair, and pointed in the direction of the nearest wall, proclaiming with intensity, “I am not who you try to make me to be!” Respecting the space created by Kurt’s vehemence, the others quietly nodded in agreement. When I asked how he communicates this message, Kurt said, “I smile, shake hands, ask guards how they’re doing. I pay people respect, tell them I’m praying for them.” Paul echoed Kurt, “You tell ‘em by acting like a human, by being civil, being intelligent.” Dan added, “After a while, when they see all the hugging, and we shake their hands every day, we’re breaking down preconceived barriers.” Jacob summed it up: “The only way to deal with an uncivilized surrounding is to be civil.” Thus, for my interviewees, showing respect through physical touch, prayerfulness, and civility functions not as a mere subservient assent to the system but as a concrete means of nonviolent resistance to the power that would otherwise define them, in Thomas’s words, as mere “captured flesh.”

In the context of incarceration on death row—an environment in which one is moving perpetually toward death at the hands of the state—one is essentially left with few options but to concede, in effect, absolute control over one’s body. After all, purely physical resistance to the prison’s power will only summon more severe violence in response. And yet, despite the prison’s coercive mechanisms of power over prisoners’ corporeal, spatial, and relational existence, my interviewees demonstrate that there remain means of resisting such coercion through what they understand to be the interior dimension of the soul or the mind. This dimension is composed not only of states of meditative or mental interiority, as with Thomas and Paul, but is also embodied in the collective corporeal practices that they understand as emanating from that interior life: practices of communal embrace, shaking hands with and praying for officers, showing respect to all persons, and being dignified, intelligent human beings.

Moreover, given that my interviewees explicitly articulated a sense that the prison controls their bodies in manifold ways while not paying attention to their spiritual selves, it would also seem that they invest themselves so heavily in the interior dimension of the soul, in part, because it is perceived to be the only place the prison does not look and cannot see.19 As the last bastion of freedom and dignity, the soul/mind/spirit thus functions powerfully as the site from which imprisoned subjects assert themselves over against the material, spatial, and relational inscriptions on the body that would seek to define them as little more than irredeemable pieces of property. And though for my interviewees such resistance may seem, in part, to deny the body, it nevertheless requires the body in order to take concrete shape through the body-based practices they employ on a daily basis, practices that serve to rehumanize an otherwise dehumanizing environment.20

When the body’s knowledge is formed through strict material, spatial, and relational delimitation, one has little option but to root one’s sense of self beyond a strict materiality of the body alone, seeking postures and practices, rather, that allow the body to transcend its corporeal confinement by embodying that part of oneself that cannot be contained by concrete walls, steel doors, and razor wire. And as my interviewees demonstrate, this embodiment of the transcendent aspects of one’s selfhood can serve to transform spaces that might otherwise fragment and dissolve one’s sense of self and one’s community. By cultivating and living from a deeply rooted interiority, my interviewees on Tennessee’s death row creatively and soulfully resist those mechanisms of control that would otherwise dehumanize and fragment them to the point of death—quite literally. By creatively transcending their subjugated immanence—in the sense of both “moving beyond” and “deploying transcendentally”—they demonstrate the capacity of confined peoples to articulate and embody real freedom, even in the confines of an eight-by-ten cell.

Postscript: On the Current State of Executions in Tennessee

The state of Tennessee executed Cecil Johnson Jr. on December 2, 2009. He was pronounced dead at 1:34 in the morning. In the months and years following Cecil’s execution, sodium thiopental, one of the ingredients comprising the three-drug protocol theretofore used for executions in the state, became unavailable. As a result, there have been no executions in Tennessee since Mr. Johnson’s four years ago. However, in late September 2013, the state announced that it had procured a new drug to carry out executions: pentobarbital, a drug typically used for euthanizing animals. Tennessee, along with other states, has had trouble securing a legal supply of the drug, and so has looked to so-called compounding pharmacies in order to obtain it. Last year, Tennessee’s state legislature amended a law guaranteeing that the identity of the compounding pharmacies that provide the state’s supply of execution drugs will be kept a secret.

On October 3, 2013, the attorney general of the state of Tennessee requested execution dates for ten prisoners on the state’s death row—almost twice as many men as the state has executed since 1976. One of those ten prisoners, “Dan,” was interviewed for this essay. When I saw Dan about two weeks after the Attorney General’s request, I asked him how he was feeling. “They think they know when my life will end,” he said. “But only God knows that.” To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. And I still don’t. After we spoke, a group of us—men on death row and their friends and advocates—sat in a circle, held hands, and took turns praying for the death machine to be dismantled. Another friend, “Kurt,” also interviewed in this story, squeezed my hand until it turned purple as he near-shouted in prayer, within earshot of a corrections officer, imploring God to stop the state’s march toward the death of men sitting among us. Soulful resistance, you might say. And though I didn’t—and still don’t—know what to say, I too raised my voice, petitioning the God of life to bring life where death pervades. A feeble word, perhaps, but what else did I have in that moment? Having seen and heard and touched the depth of humanity and dignity and love embodied by men on Unit 2, and having been seen and addressed and embraced by such men, and being convinced that God does not desire that people made in God’s own image should die—even for inflicting great harm upon others—if I close my eyes, as if in prayer, I can imagine a power like the power embodied in Kurt’s grip (which almost matches that of his hug) welling up like the mighty waters the prophet Amos imagined to flatten that institution which thinks it carries out justice when it alienates, fragments, and extinguishes life.

Extending from my prayers, and under the guidance of others more experienced in this work, I am doing what little I can to slow the state’s sprint toward the death of the men on Unit 2. If they should succeed in ending Dan’s life, or the life of any of the other men on Unit 2, I will be there outside the walls to bear collective witness with others, to embody my own no in accordance with what I understand to be God’s yes to life, to its restoration, even in the wake of violence and death. As of the writing of this postscript, due to a legal challenge to the state’s new lethal injection protocol, executions have been postponed until October 2014. To keep apprised of updates regarding the death penalty in Tennessee, visit www.tennesseedeathpenalty.org, tnsocialjustice.wordpress.com, or reachcoalition.wordpress.com.


1. While I recognize there are important historical, philosophical, and theological differences between soul, spirit, and mind, for the purposes of this essay, I felt it most amenable to the interview process to simply allow them to function interchangeably as signifiers of an individual’s interiority, as it seems they do in the general, colloquial religious-speak employed by my interviewees.

2. For Michel Foucault’s notion of the prisoner’s “soul” as a kind of byproduct of the prison’s disciplinary power over bodies, see Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995), 3–31. Although Foucault’s text is essential reading on this subject, I would argue that by conceptualizing the creation and function of what he calls the prisoner’s soul in strictly negative terms, Foucault forecloses upon the opportunity to ascertain in the interior soul space of the prisoner—even if produced, as it were, through the prison’s totalizing power over bodies—a means of potential resistance to the subordination of the prisoner’s body, as I explore in the final section.

3. Griffith, “Spirituality and the Body,” in Bodies of Worship: Explorations in Theory and Practice, Bruce Morrill, ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 70. Although Augustine does not go so far as to curse the body as many gnostics and later ascetics would, even calling it “good,” he nevertheless posits the soul as the higher good in the human.

4. Ibid., 71–74.

5. Ibid., 71.

6. Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 155.

7. Salamon, “‘The Place Where Life Hides Away’: Merleau-Ponty, Fanon, and the Location of Bodily Being,” A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17, no. 2 (2006): 98.

8. Ibid., 110.

9. Newton, “Freedom,” in The Huey P. Newton Reader, David Hilliard and Donald Weise, eds. (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 3.

10. Ibid., 4.

11. Newton, “Prison, Where Is Thy Victory?: January 3, 1970,” in The Huey P. Newton Reader, 154.

12. Earl, Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave Mind (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 52.

13. Ibid., 65.

14. Ibid., 52–53.

15. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 120.

16. See also Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004).

17. See Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 22–39; Davis, “From the Convict Lease System to the Super-Max Prison,” in States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons, Joy James, ed.  (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2000); Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: The New Press, 2012), 20–58. See also, Adam Jay Hirsch, The Rise of the Penitentiary Prisons and Punishment in Early America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

18. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, 28–29.

19. Upon review of my previous draft of this essay, Kurt responded to this sentence by saying that he does not resort to states of interiority because the prison does not look and cannot see that part of himself; rather, he told me, he does it out of a love for God. In other words, his “resistance” doesn’t have anything, at first, to do with the prison itself; it has to do with his love of God because of what he understands God has done for him.

20. It is important to note that the kind of resistance I am describing is a resistance at the level of basic orientation toward one’s world, a kind of first-order resistance, which, as such, by no means exhausts what might be called resistance inside a prison. There is, for instance, the Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971, the organized resistance of Black Panthers inside prisons throughout the 1970s and up to today, the many strategic inside-outside partnerships that advocate for changes inside prisons, and the series of recent hunger strikes at Pelican Bay Prison in California. Even in Tennessee, there is the REACH Coalition, which, through what it calls “reciprocal education,” helps create collaborative opportunities for activism, learning, and creativity, including cofacilitation of a number of highly provocative and moving art exhibits organized primarily by men on Unit 2. The art accompanying this essay, by Derrick Quintero, stands as one example of this partnership. Art, writing, and education, too, can and do function as profound forms of resistance on Tennessee’s death row. For more on the REACH Coalition, visit http://reachcoalition.wordpress.com.