THE SOUL KNOWS NO BARS: an excerpt

The book alternates between the voice of the inmates and that of Drew Leder, the primary author. What follows here is a brief and representative excerpt from one of the prisoner dialogues, the topic here being "Violence and the Soul" (chapter 20). We are reading and discussing a text by Thomas Moore.

Violent Life
The word violence comes from the Latin word, vis meaning "life force." Its very roots suggest that in violence the thrust of life is making itself visible....It would be a mistake to approach violence with any simple idea of getting rid of it. Chances are, if we try to eradicate our violence, we will also cut ourselves off from the deep power that sustains creative life.
Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, pp. 126-127.

Donald: I agree with Moore that there's constructive violence. A good example could be the childbirth process. There's a lot of violence and pain associated with birth.

Charles: I think violence is in every form of life, everything. I have an uncle who's a shoe repair man and it takes violence to use the hammer and beat the shoe, take the knife and cut the leather. Once he put the shoe on the finishing machine he has a beautiful pair of shoes, but it takes violence to make it.

John: In Project Turnaround when we're counseling kids, we talk very violent. Our tone of voice, our mannerisms, and our words are rough--but to get a message across that if you follow this path you'll end up in here.

Tray: And when one of them Project T kids gets me angry, that's when I give the best presentation. It's like the same intensity I have when I'm doing something negative--it's got to be there when I'm doing something positive or I won't do it right. I need that anger that makes me able to kick somebody else's butt. If you ever take that violent streak out of me it will reduce me to nothing.

John: But it's a force that has to have some degree of control. My bad temper was my downfall. I don't really think I'm a bad person, but I had the tendency to react when I would feel like I was being threatened. And I'm better at handling that reaction now than when I was out on the street. Because I didn't have any thought about how to control or direct it--just to react, and react as strongly as possible. That's the way I learned on the street. If you're going to be violent, you're going to be all the way violent. There's no "a little violent"--you go the whole nine yards or you're not going at all.

Wayne: I liked the reading because it helped me understand a particular scripture. In Matthew 11:12 it says that "From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force." I never really knew what that meant. Then I realized that when I come to the knowledge that what I did was wrong, it takes as much violence not to do it, an opposite violence going in the opposite direction. Now I use that same energy to redirect the anger. I come up with creative ideas to keep from doing a drastic thing I'll later regret. It's funny, really funny--the same energy that you use to do something, like commit a murder, you have to use to not commit a murder.

John: When I was thinking about rechanneling energy and violence, they had a special on last week about rap music; how the message is violent, and rappers are perceived as role models, and this might be creating more violence in the street. But in my opinion, this is an example of someone who has taken the potential for violence and channelled it into a constructive force. They could be guys like us sitting in the penitentiary. They could sell drugs, end up killing somebody, do stickups, car-jackings, whatever. Instead, they chose to express what they know. And they're not harming anyone--there's no causal relationship between what they say and violence on the street.

Tray: I beg to differ. Before any violence can be kicked off, somebody always writes something that's going to inflame people. In the nineteenth century, all you had to do was write that a black man raped a white girl and paint it up and glorify it, and you're going to have a black man lynched. And now the rappers get kids pulling out guns, shooting people for no apparent reason. That pen is real mighty but when it goes into a violent person's hand and he's real talented with it, a great many people get killed.

John: When they would lynch a black man, it had nothing to with writing. It was just something they were wanting to do anyway. And it's the same thing now with a lot of African Americans. Because our living conditions are so frustrating, and we have a lot of hostility, we just wait for a direction to express that. There wasn't no rap music when we committed crimes!

Tony: Yeah, but when we were growing up, most of the time if you had a beef with somebody, at the most you had a knife. Maybe a chain, a baseball bat. And if you got your butt whupped you accepted it.

John: Yeah, I think the difference now is the accessibility of guns, especially to younger kids. When I was coming up, say thirteen or fourteen, getting a gun was out of this world! Get a gun from where? Maybe if you beat somebody for one, but usually if you did it was an old ragged revolver that had a rubber band on it and you had to tape it together. But now they're not pulling out old ragged guns, they're pulling out brand new fresh pretty-looking big spanking new guns. Where does a little boy like that get a gun from? And they got four or five of them! When I was growing up there might be one gun in the whole neighborhood. Say I had it. If you had a beef you had to come looking for me, and I had to duck past my mother and go up in the attic, and by the time I get it to you, you might have calmed down or the other guy might've left. Now everybody's got the gun right in hand. It don't give people the opportunity to think. Got a problem--go grab a gun and solve it.

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