Towards the end of the 1980s, I was part of a fellowship run by the free-church (Methodist) chaplain in a men’s prison.
Every Tuesday we went to share with them in prayer, worship and discussion. It was a luminous and wonderful opportunity, where I made many friends and gained deeper insights than I’d otherwise have had the chance to do.
Today, reading the latest news of our British Prime Minister’s avid inclination to drop bombs on Syria, and the struggle of saner people to stop him, a memory came back to me from those Tuesday evenings at the prison fellowship.
In prison, a grim humour flourishes that arises from familiarity with defeat and despair. ‘Tell us a joke, Pen,’ an inmate would say, coming to sit beside me as the men filed in.
One of the men I knew there, the graduate of a seamless continuum of abusive authoritarian institutions since he was two years old, had a ready store of jokes and funny stories, mostly very politically incorrect, all very funny.
At his most recent arrest, for which he had been sent down on that present stretch, the magistrate had demanded to know, before sentencing him, if he had anything to say for himself. Perhaps unwisely, he had reached into his breast pocket for his packet of cigarettes, flipped open the lid, and muttered into it: ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’
A Star Trek fan, his imagination had been caught by a short dialogue between Captain Kirk and some other staff member of the Starship Enterprise. The two had teleported onto an alien planet, where some of the natives began to approach.
The dialogue went like this:
‘This is life, Jim, but not as we know it.’
‘We come in peace!’ – called out: but, in a sotto voce aside, ‘Shoot to kill.’
And this amused Terry immensely. He recognized in it the pattern of established hypocrisy embedded in authoritarian institutions everywhere. When he first arrived at the prison, he had come to scope out the chaplaincy meeting, ready to mock and cause trouble. But, finding us to be a cheerful and welcoming bunch with a first-class jazz pianist, free-flowing strong tea and plenty of biscuits, he softened towards us. In time, he’d be one of the first in the queue, showered, his hair combed to perfection, wearing a clean shirt, eager to see us.
And often, as he slid into a seat alongside one of us, he’d murmur in greeting: ‘This is life Jim, but not as we know it. We come in peace – shoot to kill.’
Because he knew we’d get the joke; we’d understand that’s how it always is. As he once said to me, ‘You can’t do anything about the government. Nobody can do anything about the government. It was the government that killed Jesus.’
So they did. Good point, Terry. Still at it.