The Cross and the Sword

My remarks after reading the Tony Cochran’s newest post-prison writing, Hypocrisy; Or, Reflections with Susie Simpson, Managing Chaplain, HMP/YOI ISIS  (Yes, read it first!)

Most monotheist religions very quickly find affinity with authoritarian secular power. Today we are bombarded with examples concerning Islam, the rise of puritan Protestantism in the US, never-ceased attempts to embed “christian values” into constitutional order in Poland or silent but adamant alliance between the Orthodox Church and the state in Russia or Greece.

Church of England has even clearer pedigree. It was actually invented as a state church, due to strictly personal problem of Henry VIII.  Church of England, supposedly much less authoritarian than the Roman or Orthodox one, still exercises full if soft power over its members (and, mind it here, potential members, somehow available for conversion). And that attracts and promotes specific personalities.

Contemporary prisons, well oiled machines of dominance,are not the places where you may expect mutinous functionaries — the screening and internal control are too elaborated.

Cochran testimony shows us a specific person, prison chaplain, in her interaction with prisoners (starting from Cochran himself) and later in her reflection, expressed in messages they exchanged.

Cochran paints a picture of a seemingly decent and sympathetic person, who — largely thanks to discussions he got her involved into — experiences growing awareness both of the evil she participates in and of the reasons why she doesn’t walk away. She expresses fear, dissonance, more than a bit of despair.  She is not — opposite to the “smiling sadist” Cochran described previously — trying to deny her  situation of complicity, nor the trap she put herself in.

What I see in this story is a person that, after quite a long time of being complicit in the evil, starts, as a result of moral and intellectual reflection, tediously probing her environment for a way out. She is not a revolutionary; she is not a saint. She is not in a — perversely comfortable — position of being forcibly removed from her comfort zone, situation which is both my and Cochrane’s experience (toutes proportions gardees).

But, within her means, she is apparently trying. And trying not for a long time, considering the timeline. Be it half a year, maybe? Not a lot for a radical revision — with all practical consequences — of someone’s life. Life of an established priest, married mother of three, with all thousands of roots embedded firmly in the soil of establishment.

I probably understand Cochrane’s impatience and frustration. Apart from his personal connection with the case, I still remember how impatient I was in my 30s or 40s, trying to make other understand and immediately adopt things that were so obvious to me. How frustrated and angry I was, seeing others raising defenses against my sacred wrath. And in his latest text Cochran turned his wrath against reverend Susie Simpson. Because she is not radical enough for him, not quick enough in walking away from the penitentiary system, not ready enough to accept being compared to Eichmann.

Cochran symbolically punishes her for that, exposing her private messages to the public. There is a significant symmetry there: in his anti-prison writings he strongly shows how immoral acts aren’t punished because they are ruled out to be legal. And act of breaching trust of personal communication he comments “According to legal counsel, I am protected under the public use exceptions.” Certainly he is, but how much good he caused by this decision?

I have no idea whether Rev. Simpson is going to become a powerful dissident, advocating the end of the alliance between the cross and the sword in the Church of England. I do not know know whether her family, her fellow priests, her superiors would manage to quell her budding dissent, or rather her spirit would grow stronger and let her prevail. But surely, I am reluctant to put whole blame on her, rather than the system she was born in, conditioned by and she is now trying to rebel against. And I am not happy about punishing her because she is not radical enough.

We will never know if Cochran’s text helped in this attempted mutiny, or rather hampered it. We may only know what will be the final result. I hope for Susie Simpson, rather than being frustrated by her lack of “development”. But maybe that’s just me.



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