The Prison Church of the Good Thief

The Church of the Good Thief, Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, NY

The Church of the Good Thief, Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, NY

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Dannemora, New York, home of Clinton Correctional Facility

Within the forbiddingly high walls of the NY State Prison in Dannemora, New York stands a remarkable structure: The Church of St. Dismas (the Good Thief).

The prison is now known as “Clinton Correctional Facility” but to the inmates across the state of New York it is known as “the Hell Hole” of the New York prison system – “New York’s Siberia” – because it is cold in the northeast corner of New York. The inmates of Attica think of Dannemora the way people on the outside the system think of Attica – the most dreaded place in the New York prison system.

The Church of St. Dismas was built by the prisoners between the years of 1939 and 1941 as a witness to God’s presence within the walls of prison. It bears witness to the thief whom the crucified Jesus, also condemned by the State as a criminal, pardoned and promised Paradise.

On the Wednesday evenings between 1974 and 1977 I drove across the Adirondacks from our home in Canton, New York to Dennemora where a group of churches, college students, and university faculty put on programs and visited with prisoners. The times with the inmates confirmed what I had read in Kai Erickson’s incisive book, Wayward Puritans: a Study in the Sociology of Deviance , in which he argued that society creates and maintains deviance as a means to identifying itself as the opposite of “the other”.

I often found among the prisoners in the Hell Hole the voice of “the good thief” next to Jesus on his cross and gave thanks for a greater encompassing mercy.

The two-hour treks across the mountains to and from Dannemora became times of clarified perception about the folly of the presumption of righteousness among the free and the essential oneness between the prison “yard” and the yards we mowed back home in Canton where the walls were invisible.

Later I learned the Taize Community (France) chanted prayer of “the penitent thief’ set to music: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom”.

April 16, 2012

FOX and the Scapegoat Mechanism

Today’s post on FOX News is inspired by Rene Girard’s “Mimetic” theory and an Aesop’s fable. First the fable.

THE FOX AND THE CROW

A Fox (read FOX) saw a Crow (the American people) fly off with a piece of cheese (real information) in its beak and settle on a branch in a tree.

“That’s for me, as I am a Fox,” said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree.

“Good day, Mistress Crow,” he cried. “How well you are looking today: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds (parties, races, countries), just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of all Birds.”

The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth, the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox.

“That will do,” said he. “That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese, I will give you a piece of advice for the future: ‘Do not trust flatterers.'”

THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AND SOCIAL CONTROL

Rene Girard’s theory of “mimetic” desire, mimetic rivalry, and the scapegoat mechanism explains the secret of the appeal and success of FOX News. The Fox takes the cheese it extols by flattering its viewers as the true patriots, the lovers of goodness and truth.

FOX News is the 21st Century voice of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). Joe McCarthy and what came to be known as “McCarthyism” scared the American public in a search for neighbors who might be closeted communists or communist sympathizers until news anchor Edward R. Murrow ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt with a single newscast.

As in that sordid history of the Salem Witch Trials in which the Puritans were summoned by their magistrates and clergy to rid themselves of evil (see Kai Erickson’s The Wayward Puritans: a Study in the Sociology of Deviance), McCarthy’s hunt was a convention of social control to maintain the old fraying religious, political, cultural consensus. FOX resurrects those shameful chapters of the American experience.

There is no quicker way to rally people than to create a scapegoat (a shared enemy, the embodiment of evil). All it takes is a FOX to flatter the “Queen of all Birds” into dropping the Cheese.