Category Archives: Chaplain

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Katy Dickinson Master's Thesis, Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners, 23 Jan 2021
Katy Dickinson Master’s Thesis, Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners, 23 Jan 2021

My Graduate Theological Union Master’s – Theology thesis is called “Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners.” I finished writing it at the end of January, successfully defended it at the start of February and am now working through minor edits with my GTU committee. (Hooray!) In parallel, I am continuing to take classes for GTU’s Interreligious Chaplaincy Certificate program. I am honored to have been accepted into a CPE (clinical pastoral education) program at Stanford Health Care later this year.

I finished a two-part January Intersession class in “Introduction to Pastoral Care and Theology,” and am now taking three GTU classes, “Diversity in Counseling,” “Pediatric Chaplaincy,” and “A Good Death.” Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all classes are online. Professors have to make up for the lack of in-person class time and meet the nine-hours-per-week / per class requirement. In addition to assigned reading and papers, my graduate classes meet by Zoom once or twice a week, plus posting 250 to 500 word reflections to Moodle (learning management system). Each class has a different schedule, so I created a table to remember when I need to post and when replies are due to other students’ posts. Every time I log into Moodle, it tells me how many more reflection posts I need to read. I end up posting to Moodle twelve to fourteen times a week. I will be happy when we can get back inside a real classroom.

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Wissa Wassef Tapestry from Egypt

Katy Dickinson with Reda Ahmed’s tapestry

To celebrate my finishing writing my Master’s thesis, John surprised me with a large tapestry from the Wissa Wassef Art Center, Giza, Egypt. Normally for a big family celebration, we would go out to dinner or maybe on a trip, but during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, that is not possible.

The title of my Graduate Theological Union MA thesis is “Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners” and I will defend it before my committee next month. I finished the last of my required classes in December 2020 and if all goes well, I will graduate in May 2021 with the GTU – MA and a Certificate in Spirituality and Social Change from Pacific School of Religion. I will continue my studies at GTU in the Interreligious Chaplaincy Certificate program.

In 2010, our family visited the Wissa Wassef Art Center outside of Cairo (in Harrania Village, near Giza) where we bought a small tapestry and two books. I am glad to have a second of these lovely works of fabric art!

Our first Wissa Wassef tapestry is a small master work called “Around the Pond,” woven in cotton by Mohamed Achour in 2010. It presents fish and birds with palms and flowering plants around a small body of water.

Our new Wissa Wassef tapestry is undated but is probably much older than the first, even though John just bought it from a store in France. It was woven by Reda Ahmed in wool and cotton. Looking at our 2010 pictures, I realized we saw Reda Ahmed weaving during our Wissa Wassef visit. We hung the tapestry last night and it may take months for the textile to settle into its new home above the stairs. The weaving presents a large blue tree with red flowers, with a smaller tree and bushes as well as birds, weasels, and a lizard. I am thankful for this lovely and generous gift. The lively images and cheerful colors make me happy!

Note: Nothing pictured is for sale. Please do not ask.

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Interfaith Work

Jewish and Muslim interfaith studies books, Dec 2020

This semester at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), I took a pair of half-semester classes, “Judaism and its Interreligious Context” (taught by Dr. Yehezkel Landau) and “Islam and its Interreligious Context” (taught by Dr. Mahjabeen Dhala). Both were excellent classes with inspiring professors. Together, these two classes met the GTU Master’s requirement for Interreligious Studies. I combined the term papers to create a final paper called “Getting Closer to God Through Interfaith Work.”

I have finished the major writing for my Master’s thesis, titled “Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners,” and am waiting for my thesis committee’s feedback on the last few chapters. I have to defend my thesis in early February 2021, which means spending two or more hours answering questions by my review committee about the 100+ page document and my research. I officially graduate in May 2021 with my Master of Arts – Christian Theology, with a Certificate in Spirituality and Social Change. I will continue my studies in the GTU Interreligious Chaplaincy Certificate program but I am happy to be done with my Master’s classes.

Getting Closer to God Through Interfaith Work


This paper presents reflections on interreligious dialogue from the lived experience of two notable leaders. Based on conversations with Maha Elgenaidi and Rabbi Melanie Aron, and considering related scholarly material, I examine my next steps with regard to interfaith engagement in my work and ministry. The title of this paper comes from Maha Elgenaidi but I find it rings true for me as well. Interfaith work makes me feel closer to God. I am using this paper not only to document the accomplishments and views of two remarkable women but also to emphasize the benefits of interfaith work to the community. 

Please read the remainder of the paper at “Getting Closer to God Through Interfaith Work.”

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Theodicy Meme

camper Jesus meme 5 June 2020
I love a good meme, so finding one on theodicy is a special treat. (“Theodicy means vindication of God. It is to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.” – Theodicy in Wikipedia) The image base of Jesus sitting on a park bench, talking with a young man has been used for two memes I particularly like:

  • 24 March 2020: Man: “Facebook?” Jesus: “No, I literally want you to follow me.” Man: “So… Twitter?” Jesus: “I’m going to start over again and you can let me know where I lose you.”
  • 5 June 2020: Man: “So why do you allow things like hate, famine, war, suffering, disease, crime, homelessness, despair, etc. to exist in our world?” Jesus: “Interesting that you should ask because I was about to ask you the exact same question.”

The blank image can be found on imgflip if you want to make a meme yourself.

I have studied Christian Theology for two years at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and hope to finish my Master’s thesis by the end of this year. I also start work on my Certificate in Interreligious Chaplaincy in September, with a focus on Islamic Studies. My thesis topic is jail chaplaincy, so theodicy is of particular interest. Although theology has not been considered the “Queen of the Sciences” since the High Middle Ages, having the opportunity to gain understanding and inspiration from classes such as “God and Suffering” and “Christian Theology and Natural Science” has been an honor and privilege. Still, I appreciate a little levity on these weighty subjects.

camper Jesus meme 24 March 2020

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Congratulations on EfM Graduation, Joel Martinez!

EfM Education for Ministry seminar online 30 March2020EfM Class Meeting Online, April 2020

Since we could not honor Joel Martinez in-person while under COVID-19 quarantine, we celebrated online. Congratulations to Joel Martinez for his graduation after four years of study from Education for Ministry – so proud of him! In addition to taking the regular EfM program, Joel was my Co-Mentor for three years at Elmwood Jail. To do this work, he became an accredited EfM Mentor and volunteer for the Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy. Joel took Year-1 at our home church (with me and my Co-Mentor, Karen LeBlanc), Year-2 and Year-3 in jail while serving as a volunteer chaplain with me as his Mentor, and Year-4 back at our home church (with Karen and me as Mentors).

2017 Bishop Mary, Peggy Bryan, Joel Martinez, Katy Dickinson at Elmwood Jail 2017 Elmwood Jail: Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, Rev. Peggy Bryan, Joel and Katy

As his EfM Administrative Mentor, I would usually make this presentation in front of the whole congregation of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church but thanks to technology and my geek husband, John Plocher, we were able to celebrate together in a video segment during the regular weekly service. John even created this stand-alone video.

Contact me if you want to learn more about the EfM class that starts in September. More about EfM in the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real. Our 2019-2020 EfM class held its closing session last night but we are taking signups for the seminar that starts in September 2020. We will meet in person or online as appropriate. More about EfM:

Education for Ministry (EfM) is a program of the University of the South – School of Theology, a unique four-year distance learning certificate program in theological education based upon small-group study and practice. Since its founding in 1975, this international program has assisted more than 100,000 participants in discovering and nurturing their call to Christian service. EfM helps the faithful encounter the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition and bring it into conversation with their experiences of the world as they study, worship, and engage in theological reflection together.

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Images Copyright 2017 – 2020 by Katy Dickinson.

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Accepted in GTU Interreligious Chaplaincy

Mashallah - God has willed it - on cedar from Lebanon 2013 Mashallah – God has willed it (from Lebanon)

I am glad to report that I was just accepted into the new Interreligious Chaplaincy certificate program of the Graduate Theological Union! I am finishing my Master of Arts – Theology program at GTU this year. I just turned in my last two papers for Spring semester and I am approved to begin thesis research this summer. I start my chaplaincy studies this Fall.

Interreligious Chaplaincy: Program Overview
Welcoming first cohort of students in Fall 2020
The first of its kind, the GTU’s interreligious chaplaincy program equips leaders to practice spiritual care among diverse populations. The program offers students the opportunity to earn a Certificate in Interreligious Chaplaincy, as well as an MA in Islamic, Jewish or Hindu Studies–religious traditions underrepresented among institutional chaplains. The certificate will also be open to students who have previously earned a qualifying master’s degree. The program is scheduled to welcome its first cohort of students in Fall 2020.

My  Interreligious Chaplaincy focus will be Islamic Studies. As a TechWomen mentor for emerging STEM leaders in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia (since 2010), Christian volunteer jail chaplain with the Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy (since 2015), and Islamic Networks Group Interfaith Speaker (since 2017), I have found many opportunities to discuss and learn about Christianity and Islam. I am eager to gain a more academic understanding of Islamic Studies and chaplaincy.

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Image Copyright 2020 by Katy Dickinson.

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Liberation Theology and Jail

Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology (DSPT) God and Suffering texts, Spring 2020

Earlier, I wrote a post on the “God and Suffering” class at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology (DSPT), in Berkeley. The class is inspiring and life-affirming despite the title. Our inspiring professor is Father Michael, also known as Michael J. Dodds, OP, Professor of Philosophy and Theology. I just turned in my final paper (hooray!) presenting readings from (among others), Augustine, Boethius, Dostoyevsky, Hume, Ireneus, John Paul II, Dorothy Doelle, Eleanore Stump, Desmond Tutu, Simone Weil, and Elie Wiesel, in the context of an additional book, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and with reference to my volunteer chaplaincy in the Santa Clara County jail. It is long (16 pages with 3 pages of Bibliography) but I am proud of it.

Final Assignment
By Katy Dickinson
STPH-2209-1: GOD AND SUFFERING (Spring 2020)
22 May 2020


This essay presents selected assigned readings in this semester’s “God and Suffering” course in the context of an additional book, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, and with reference to my volunteer chaplaincy in the Santa Clara County jail.[1] It is also a conversation with ideas presented in my “Initial Assignment” dated 13 February 2020, and subsequent weekly reflection papers. I assert that the study of theology, no matter how ancient or abstruse the theologian, has a strong place in inspiring discussions with the incarcerated. In my “Initial Assignment,” I wrote, “a big part of what I want to learn in this class is additional ways to approach some of the questions raised by inmates, both so that I can better support my students and bring more resources and understanding in this area to my GTU thesis.” This semester, the corona virus lockdown has disrupted my jail ministry because no volunteer chaplains have been able to go into county jail since 11 March 2020. In an ironic reversal, we are locked out of jail. In addition, Canon Barnwell, my mentor, died from corona virus in March 2020.[2] I miss him, and I miss my students inside. I hope that our many “God and Suffering” readings, role models, and insights will encourage and inspire the inmates once I can start leading jail classes again.

What Does it Mean to Suffer?

The question I have considered most often in this class is, what does it mean to suffer? In hundreds of jail seminars over five years, I have never heard my incarcerated students explicitly tell me that they are suffering. Objectively, I would say that they are indeed suffering because of how often I hear them speak about missing their families and freedom, and how frightened they are to be at the dubious mercy of our unjust system of justice. However, they do not use the word suffering to describe what they are experiencing, as Jesus and Paul do. It may be that in contemporary American society, we only use suffering when speaking about other people. One of the few succinct definitions of evil and suffering from our “God and Suffering” reading was from Pope John Paul II,

Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he “ought”—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.[3]

In our discussions in jail, some of the most difficult student questions have to do with why they or their friends are being punished out of proportion to their offenses (like the 990-years-to-life sentence one of my students was given in February). I was delighted to read in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s On Job a similar sentiment, “The question for Job is not whether or not he is a sinner; he knows well that as a human being he is indeed a sinner. The question rather is whether he deserves the torments he is suffering.”[4] Gutiérrez’s analysis of Job’s circumstances aligns with my own observation of my incarcerated students. Few are innocent, but most are over-punished. I assert that many inmates are greatly over-punished because they are too poor to pay bail or hire a capable lawyer. Many of my jail students are incarcerated for years un-convicted, awaiting trial, as are about 65% of jail inmates.[5] When I next lead a discussion on the Book of Job in jail, Gustavo Gutiérrez is going to be prominently featured.

In the Bible, suffering seems to be used to indicate a condition that is temporary, versus affliction which implies more of an ongoing state. I base this observation on searching the New Revised Standard Version text on the website[6] The Old Testament uses suffer / suffers / suffering, etc. 54 times; however, the much shorter New Testament uses those words 92 times. Based on these statistics, it seems that the word translated as suffering is a more important word in Christian scriptures. The Old Testament uses variants of the word affliction more often (61 times) than does the New Testament (19 times total, 15 of them in the Apocrypha). Perhaps, this word usage represents a shift in the theology of the New Testament?

Theology and Suffering

Gutiérrez writes a great deal about what theology means. He opens On Job with, “Theology is talk about God,”[7] and the first part of A Theology of Liberation is a “reflection on the theological meaning of the process of human liberation.”[8] However, although he uses variations of the word over forty times in A Theology of Liberation, and over 250 times in On Job, Gutiérrez does not define suffering. Words he uses in association with suffering include, poverty, oppression, neglect, hunger, poor living conditions, despoliation, mistreatment, violence, injustice, exploitation, anguish, domination, despised, victims, marginalized, and evil. Gutiérrez is more likely to use poverty as a stand-in for what others might call anguish or suffering. He writes,

The world of the poor is a universe in which the socio-economic aspect is basic but not all-inclusive. In the final analysis, poverty means death: lack of food and housing, the inability to attend properly to health and education needs, the exploitation of workers, permanent unemployment, the lack of respect for one’s human dignity, and unjust limitations placed on personal freedom in the areas of self-expression, politics, and religion. Poverty is a situation that destroys peoples, families, and individuals.[9]

The personal experience of Gutiérrez not only with the pain of physical disability as a young man, but also working in a pastoral ministry among Lima’s poor, gives force to his assertion, “Job’s words are a criticism of every theology that lacks human compassion and contact with reality; the one-directional movement from theological principles to life really goes nowhere.”[10] It seems clear that Gutiérrez has fought most of his life to help the poor directly, as well as to promote and institutionalize the preferential option for the poor and liberation theology. That he has been largely successful is reflected in the quote from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, “Liberation theology more than any other kind of theology issues out of the crucible of human suffering and anguish.”[11]

“Ambiguities in the Term ‘Poverty’” is important enough to be one of Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation subheadings.[12] It seems to me that the ambiguity of poverty addressed by Gutiérrez is similar to what others call the mystery of suffering. Three big poverty categories Gutiérrez addresses are, material poverty (defined in the negative, as a subhuman situation, a scandalous condition), spiritual poverty (defined in the positive, as an attitude of openness to God and spiritual childhood), and Christian poverty or solidarity with the poor (defined in the positive, as an expression of love and a protest against poverty).[13] Toward the end of Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez comments in surprise, “poverty is a notion which has received very little theological treatment and in spite of everything is still quite unclear.”[14] Perhaps in 1973 when Theology of Liberation was first published, there had been less theological consideration of poverty because it was often conflated with suffering? Gutiérrez’s work was initially controversial, so he was investigated repeatedly by the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Peruvian bishops, who were looking for unorthodoxy in Gutiérrez’s writings and concerned about the methodology and content of liberation theology.[15] However, the continuing importance of Gutiérrez’s ideas in Theology of Liberation is demonstrated in that many were addressed by Pope John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern), including, lack of development of poor countries, freedom and solidarity based on the dignity of the human person, liberation, and the preferential option for the poor.[16] In recent years, Pope Francis has become an advocate for the preferential option for the poor, and for Gutiérrez.[17]

In God and the Mystery of Human Suffering, Robin Ryan writes, “Theology involves a ‘conversation’ between present experience (which is always culturally situated) and the tradition of faith.”[18] Ryan leaves both theology and suffering open to interpretation, as when he opens Chapter 1 with, “The Bible as a whole, and the Hebrew scriptures in particular, do not offer a single, uniform perspective on the reality of suffering and God’s relation to suffering people.”[19] These varied perspectives are expanded on by Ryan when he lists six key themes of engaging and experiencing suffering in the Hebrew scriptures: 1) lament; 2) the law of retribution; 3) suffering as mystery (Book of Job); 4) suffering and sacrifice; 5) the apocalyptic solution; 6) the suffering of God.[20] In Chapter 2 on the New Testament, Ryan goes on to present at least five additional interpretations of suffering, 1) evidence of the presence of evil in creation;[21] 2) Evidence that Paul participated in the suffering of Jesus – evidence of engagement that helped Paul spread the Gospel (also in Romans 5:3);[22] 3) A vocational process for Jesus to become high priest (also in Hebrews 5:8-10);[23] 4) Evidence that Jesus was human;[24] 5) A rite of passage for Christian believers (also in 2 Timothy 1:8).[25] Ryan offers a spectrum of valid interpretations of suffering in the Bible; however, they seem intellectual and abstract when compared to Gutiérrez’s visceral engagement with the actuality of poverty and degradation.

Gutiérrez can be scornful of those whose engagement of poverty and suffering is primarily in the abstract. He writes of Job’s friends, “Theirs is the wasted energy of intellectuals who get excited but do not actually do anything.”[26] Gutiérrez also calls Job’s friends conceited, mistaken, untouched, foolish theologians, and says that Job is blazing a trail “that will permit theologians not to become ‘worthless doctors’ and ‘sorry comforters’ to those who are suffering.”[27] For Gutiérrez, there is a need for action and engagement, “It is for all these reasons that the theology of liberation offers us not so much a new theme for reflection as a new way to do theology… This is a theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed.”[28]

I am glad we started “God and Suffering” with the Book of Job and that Job was a touchstone for suffering throughout the course. Whenever my jail class reads Job, the men’s first response is always “that’s not fair!” with questions about why God lets so many bad things to happen to such a good person. I do not have good answers. My best approach has been to point out that in Job 38-42, God spends a great deal of time presenting his creation, power, and glory to Job in compelling and beautiful word images. In so doing, God is not slapping down Job’s questioning but treats Job as a beloved young son, explaining who they are to each other through concrete examples that a man can understand. God’s context and understanding of suffering is infinitely greater than Job’s. In my view, God demonstrates Job’s importance by the length of his response and supports their relationship while also showing how different they are. In On Job, Gutiérrez added depth to my understanding. I was not expecting Gutiérrez to be so charming in characterizing God as sarcastic and amused as well as loving and reassuring, as when he writes, “Job, like the ostrich, may have lacked wisdom in his life, but he is still pleasing to God the creator.”[29] Gutiérrez’s interpretation adds depth and personality to God by presenting animals in Job 39 not just as an illustration of God’s power but also to show, “Utility is not the primary reason for God’s action; the creative breath of God is inspired by beauty and joy.”[30]

Ancient and Modern

Many of our class readings were new to me or works I had not studied for years. While I very much enjoyed re-reading Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, parts of it were painful in the context of my jail ministry. In Book IV, the personification of Wisdom makes dated pronouncements about evil, wickedness, vice, crime, and punishment that seem extremely ill considered based on what we know now. I understand that The Consolation of Philosophy is from a time (c. 524 CE) when it was normal to say vicious men are changed into beasts (that is non-humans).[31] However, after years of spending many hours each week in the company of jail inmates trying to improve their lives, it seems to me that criminal acts (and resulting severe judicial punishment) are more often associated with poverty, low social and class standing, poor education, addiction, family trauma, and / or mental illness than they are with moral evil. Regrettably, privileged pontificating, grim moral judgements, and legal punishments upon the marginalized, and calling them non-humans, is normal in our time too. I was particularly frustrated by Boethius writing, “These guilty men ought to be brought, by accusers kindly rather than angry, to justice, as patients to a doctor, that their disease of crime may be checked by punishment.”[32] Today, we know that doctors are often the answer to mental illness, trauma, and addiction, but not so that they can prescribe punishment.

In addition to discussing suffering, our class has sometimes considered associated subjects, including evil, sin, and the Devil. In jail, inmates often assume that they are inside because God is testing them, or the Devil has them in his power, or that they have done something so evil that even God will not forgive them. Some of this is in response to evangelical preachers holding forth on the unforgiveable sin (as specified in Mark 3:28–29, Matthew 12:31–32, and Luke 12:10). In class readings from St. Augustine and St. Irenaeus, I was particularly interested in the development of Augustine’s ideas in his Confessions, in Book VII, Chapters I-XIV (397-400 CE).[33] Through intense and personal analysis, he considers the Manichees, astrology, and the Platonists, but keeps coming back to basic questions about good, evil, and free will. Augustine seems to have come to a firm understanding of God long before he reasons through his thinking about evil. Book IV, Chapter III is the only part of our assigned reading in which Augustine considers the devil as a personification. He does not seem to question that the devil (or angels, or dragons) exist but wants to know if an evil will transformed a good angel into the devil, where that evil will came from. Many of Augustine’s reflections are fascinating but may be too abstruse to inspire inmates.

Like St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus in Against Heresies (180 CE) presents God’s long-term plan for human power and capacity for good or evil but Irenaeus seems more positive and easier to understand. He writes that people are created with the power and choice to do good or evil but that God has planned for their evolution, “…He knew the infirmity of human beings, and the consequences which would flow from it; but through [His] love and [His] power, He shall overcome the substance of created nature. That is, that man’s human nature should not prevent him from becoming a partaker of the divine.”[34] This feels like a more modern, relational, view of the interaction of God with those made in His image. St. Irenaeus allows for the potential of people to grow toward God despite their sins. Sharing this ancient saint’s perspective will be very helpful to the inmates who feel unforgiveable.

Another line of thought that I will work into the jail seminars is in Michael Dodds’s article “Thomas Aquinas, Human Suffering, and the Unchanging God of Love.” Dodds writes of God and suffering and mystery, “God is mystery: the mystery of infinite being, of infinite life, the eternal triune dance of wisdom and love. And suffering is also mystery: the mystery of lack of being, privation of goodness, the surd of nothingness in the bounty of creation.”[35] (Gutiérrez also opens On Job with the mystery of God, but he does not say that suffering is a mystery.) Dodds writes that the attractive but imperfect concept of God suffering with us is incompatible with the nature of God, asking, “whether it is possible for a fellow sufferer to be a truly loving God and whether a God who merely suffers with us is not already too remote from us to be the revealed God of the Christian tradition.”[36] Dodds responds to his own question, “Only an entirely perfect being, subject to no defect and lacking in nothing, is able to love with a fully gratuitous love.”[37] He goes on to present Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the mystery of God intimately and compassionately identifying with our suffering, “because the head and members are one body.”[38] When our jail classes discuss the nature of God and his relationship to us, Aquinas’s reasoning will deepen the discussion. It is a particularly good rebuttal to the insipid “Jesus is my best friend” meme. I was inspired by Dodds’s closing description of the role of theologians because it feels like my goals as a teacher, “not to give easy answers to difficult questions… rather to lead them into the mystery of God and so help them learn to speak of God for themselves.”[39]

Some of the topics we studied in “God and Suffering” were interesting in themselves but only contained small bits that might support or inspire inmate discussions. For example, during our week reading Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, in David Hume’s “Evil and the God of Religion,” the part that seemed most pertinent was his vibrant list of the ills of this world, “a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strewed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence.”[40] That same week offered a gem by Eleonore Stump. She gives serious consideration to the matter of choice (which word she uses 23 times) and summarizes Swinburne’s argument, “Men cannot make serious and effective choices between good and evil unless they know which of their actions will result in good and which in evil.”[41] Hume’s list and Stump’s summary will each make an engaging focus for a theological reflection in class.

Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor

Unlike our readings in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, the material we discussed from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov has already been the subject of many jail discussions. Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” is assigned reading for my seminar; we read it aloud after reading Luke 1-4. It is the longest literary selection in our Transforming Literature of the Bible (TLB) jail study materials and always stimulates and energetic class discussion about how free we really want to be. Dostoyevsky is particularly credible to the inmates because of his personal experience with the law. He was sentenced to death for reading banned books and but later his sentence was commuted to four years in exile with hard labor in a Siberian prison camp, followed by six years of compulsory military service.

In re-reading “The Grand Inquisitor” for “God and Suffering,” I reflected for the first time on the relationship of the character the Grand Inquisitor to the Devil in Ivan Karamazov’s story and how it could engage inmates who believe that the Devil has them in his power. Ivan says that the cardinal loved humanity and thought that the best way to help them was to turn away from Jesus and to use his power to make people’s choices for them, to take away their freedom.[42] Taking this new path seems partly to be motivated by the cardinal’s admiration for the Devil, or at least for his counsel. The cardinal does not name the Devil but refers to the “wise and dread spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence” and “the wise and mighty spirit.”[43] Ivan in his closing analysis also calls the Devil “the great dread spirit” and says that the cardinal feels he must follow “the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction, and therefore accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction.”[44] It seems that Ivan’s story-poem is intended to show how twisted humans can become when given power, even when motivated by a love of humanity. So twisted is the cardinal by his love that he willingly becomes an agent of the Devil. When we chaplains are allowed to go back into jail, I plan to introduce this interpretation in our discussions of “The Grand Inquisitor.” I look forward to hearing what the inmates think about it.

Role Models

Elie Wiesel’s stark life experiences, like those of Dostoyevsky, will give him credibility with the inmates. Many of the circumstances of incarceration in a concentration camp are very similar to what I see in county jail. I am considering how to introduce a section of Night to the jail seminar readings. When Wiesel entered the concentration camp Auschwitz, the man in charge of their barracks gives a short speech,

Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t lose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever…[45]

This feels very like jail where inmates do not know what will happen next, they may be released to their families or kept inside for years, awaiting slow justice or never-going-to-arrive mercy. Men of faith among the inmates already in the dorm reach out to new arrivals, giving them talks like the one Wiesel heard entering Auschwitz. Even if they do not know if what they say is true, the men want new inmates to have an early connection in the dorm community. Hearing a message of hope may reduce the potential for despair and suicide that are all-too-common in jail.

Wiesel wrote of Auschwitz, “We did not know, as yet, which was the better side, right or left, which road led to a prison and which to the crematoria.”[46] Selection is a recurring theme in Night, where the word is used over twenty times as prisoners are sorted again and again by the Nazis. The criteria for selection vary or are unknown – sometimes skills, or health, or age, or to be an experimental subject of the notorious Dr. Mengele. Like Job, who because of his righteousness is picked by the Lord for torture by Satan, Wiesel and the Jews were selected by the Nazis. In Night, Wiesel only mentions Job once[47] but Ryan writes, “The protest against innocent suffering that is evident in Night is found throughout Wiesel’s writings. He holds up Job as a biblical character who exemplifies this stance of protest from within faith.”[48] Ryan quotes Wiesel, “’Thus he did not suffer in vain; thanks to him, we know that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion.’”[49] Like Job, Wiesel rejects the selection and the torture but continues to speak to God.

Dorothee Soelle writes of Simone Weil that her “theme is suffering”[50] and says that in her short life, Weil in “went the way of solidarity through sharing the suffering,” by choosing to work in a factory and living like the poor and most helpless despite her physical disabilities.[51] I think Weil would serve as a good role model for some inmates because her actions are consistent with Gutiérrez’s third category of poverty, what he calls solidarity with the poor. Like Gutiérrez sometimes using poverty as an understanding of suffering, Weil offers a special interpretation for affliction within the realm of suffering.[52] She does not define it just as a continuing state of suffering, as in the Old Testament discussed above, but rather writes, “Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain.”[53] She continues, “The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction. It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, driven from their country, made destitute or reduced to slavery, put in concentration camps or prison cells, since there are criminals to perform such actions.”[54]

Although jail and prison are a regular theme in scripture, mentioned 120 times in the Bible,[55] it is surprising that Gutiérrez rarely mentions prison or jail despite his long advocacy for the poor. The Prison Policy Initiative reports, “People in prison and jail are disproportionately poor compared to the overall U.S. population.”[56] Perhaps because of Weil’s own experience being from a Jewish family working for the resistance against the Nazis, and because she lived and worked with the poor, she addresses crime directly, mentioning it over thirty times in the writings, “Evil,”[57] “Affliction,”[58] and “The Love of God and Affliction.” While her comments on crime are not cohesive, Weil is remarkably sensitive to the evil inherent (and very present) in the prison system when she writes,

The apparatus of penal justice has been so contaminated… that a condemnation is very often a transference of evil from the penal apparatus itself to the condemned man; and that is possible even when he is guilty, and the punishment is not out of proportion. Hardened criminals are the only people to whom the penal apparatus can do no harm. It does terrible harm to the innocent.[59]

I was inspired by the potential for faith to change the systemic evil of incarceration when reading Weil, “Nothing is pure enough to bring purity to the places reserved for crime and punishment except Christ, who was himself condemned by the law.”[60] I plan to present Weil’s life along with some of her thoughts and writings on crime in my thesis, and to share them with my jail class.

The last readings I will address are by Desmond Mpilo Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, Nobel Prize winner, and one of my personal heroes. Like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Tutu grew up with physical disabilities, and has long been a controversial advocate for solidarity with the poor, liberation theology, and developing new theologies based on unique context and experience. He writes, “African and Black Theology are a sharp critique of how theology has tended to be done mostly in the North Atlantic world… Western theology is no more universal than another brand of theology can ever hope to be.”[61] Gutiérrez also writes in favor of new theologies arising from experience,

Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers.[62]

In his 1982 testimony before the Eloff Commission of Inquiry of the oppressive South African apartheid government, Tutu showed himself to be a brave advocate for engagement with the poor. He said, “the Christian Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ Our Lord is subversive of all injustice and evil, oppression and exploitation… God is on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden.”[63] He continues later, “Our God does not permit us to dwell in a kind of spiritual ghetto, insulated from real life out there.”[64] It is no wonder that Gutiérrez shows his admiration for Tutu by quoting him at length in the Introduction to On Job.[65]


I have met the goal stated in my first paper because many “God and Suffering” readings have indeed brought me new insights. Even though it now seems like chaplains may not be able to re-enter jail until late 2020, I am looking forward to getting back to the inmates with whom I can share what I have learned. The study of theology, no matter how old or difficult to understand, is important in discussions with the incarcerated. In addition appreciating more ways to interpret suffering, being introduced to new readings, and gaining a deeper understanding of well-known readings, I have discovered role models whose lives can inspire the inmates. These include Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Elie Wiesel, Simone Weil, and Desmond Tutu.


Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Translated by Edward B. Pusey. Project Gutenberg, 2002.

[Bible Keyword, Passage, or Topic Search]. Biblegateway. Accessed 21 May 2020,

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by W.V. Cooper. Ex-Classics Project, 2009.

Dodds, Michael. “Thomas Aquinas, Human Suffering, and the Unchanging God of Love.” Theological Studies 52 (1991): 330-344.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett. New York: The Lowell Press. Project Gutenberg, 2009.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History Politics, and Salvation. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll. NY: Orbis Books, 1987.

Horne, Jed. “Community Organizer, Author The Rev. William Barnwell Dies at 81.” The Lens. 29 March 2020,

Hume, David. “Evil and the God of Religion.” In The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings. Edited by Michael L. Peterson. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, 39-56.

Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Translated by Philip Schaff. Christian Classics Ethereal Library, The Early Church Fathers – Ante Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers: Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Chapter XXIX, 1885.

John Paul II. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. In David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016, 424-470.

John Paul II. Salvifici Doloris. The Holy See, John Paul II, Apostolic Letters, 1984,

Ryan, Robin. God and the Mystery of Human Suffering: A Theological Conversation Across the Ages. New York: Paulist Press, 2011.

Sawyer, Wendy and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020.” Prison Policy Initiative, 24 March 2020.

Soelle, Dorothee. “The Religion of Slaves.” In Suffering. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, 151-178.

Stump, Eleanore. “Knowledge, Freedom, and the Problem of Evil.” In The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings. Edited by Michael L. Peterson. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992, 317-329.

Tutu, Desmond. “The Divine Intention.” In Hope and Suffering. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983, 153-189.

Tutu, Desmond. “The Role of the Church in South Africa.” In Hope and Suffering. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983, 74-87.

Weil, Simone. “Affliction.” In Gravity and Grace. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952.

Weil, Simone. “Evil.” In Simone Weil Reader. New York: David McKay Company, 1977, 381-390.

Weil, Simone. “The Love of God and Affliction.” In Simone Weil Reader. New York: David McKay Company, 1977, 439-468.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958.

Wooden, Cindy. “Pope Reflects on Changed Attitudes Toward Liberation Theology.” Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, 14 February 2019.


[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History Politics, and Salvation, Rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

[2] Jed Horne, “Community Organizer, Author The Rev. William Barnwell Dies at 81,” The Lens, 29 March 2020,

[3] John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, The Holy See, John Paul II, Apostolic Letters, 1984, 4,

[4] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll. NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 24.

[5] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020” (Prison Policy Initiative, 24 March 2020),

[6] [Bible Keyword, Passage, or Topic Search], Biblegateway, accessed 21 May 2020,

[7] Gutiérrez, On Job, xi.

[8] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, xiv.

[9] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, xxi.

[10] Gutiérrez, On Job, 30.

[11] Gutiérrez, On Job, xiv.

[12] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 163-165.

[13] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 171-173.

[14] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 163.

[15] Robin Ryan, God and the Mystery of Human Suffering: A Theological Conversation Across the Ages (New York: Paulist Press, 2011), 245.

[16] John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, in David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 424-470.

[17] Cindy Wooden, “Pope Reflects on Changed Attitudes Toward Liberation Theology,” Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, 14 February 2019,

[18] Ryan, 16.

[19] Ryan, 19.

[20] Ryan, 20.

[21] Ryan, 52, 80.

[22] Ryan, 65-66.

[23] Ryan, 68.

[24] Ryan, 71.

[25] Ryan, 78, 80.

[26] Gutiérrez, On Job, 29.

[27] Gutiérrez, On Job, 12, 27, 30, 39.

[28] Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, 12.

[29] Gutiérrez, On Job, 74.

[30] Gutiérrez, On Job, 75.

[31] Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. W.V. Cooper (Ex-Classics Project, 2009), 51,

[32] Boethius, 53.

[33] Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. Edward B. Pusey (Project Gutenberg, 2002),

[34] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, trans. Philip Schaff (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, The Early Church Fathers – Ante Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers: Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Chapter XXIX, 1885), 5,

[35] Michael Dodds, “Thomas Aquinas, Human Suffering, and the Unchanging God of Love,” Theological Studies 52 (1991), 330,

[36] Dodds, 332.

[37] Dodds, 333.

[38] Dodds, 341.

[39] Dodds, 343.

[40] David Hume, “Evil and the God of Religion,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 42.

[41] Eleanore Stump, “Knowledge, Freedom, and the Problem of Evil,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 319.

[42] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Project Gutenberg, 2009), 329,

[43] Dostoyevsky, 316.

[44] Dostoyevsky, 329.

[45] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958), 41.

[46] Wiesel, 32.

[47] Wiesel, 45.

[48] Ryan, 174.

[49] Ryan, 177.

[50] Dorothee Soelle, “The Religion of Slaves,” in Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 154.

[51] Soelle, 152-154.

[52] Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” in Simone Weil Reader (New York: David McKay Company, 1977), 439.

[53] Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 440.

[54] Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 441.

[55] [Bible Keyword, Passage, or Topic Search], Biblegateway, accessed 21 May 2020,

[56] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020.”

[57] Simone Weil, “Evil,” in Simone Weil Reader (New York: David McKay Company, 1977).

[58] Simone Weil, “Affliction,” in Gravity and Grace (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952).

[59] Weil, “Evil,” 384.

[60] Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” 465.

[61] Desmond Tutu, “The Role of the Church in South Africa”, in Hope and Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 74-75.

[62] Gutiérrez, On Job, xiv.

[63] Desmond Tutu, “The Divine Intention”, in Hope and Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 155.

[64] Tutu, “The Divine Intention,” 175.

[65] Gutiérrez, On Job, xiv.

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