My Dear One,
Half the people who live in Eden are in prison.
At least that was the case during the 2010 census, when it was found that the population of the town of Eden, TX was nearly 3,000 and that half of them were inmates of the prison that sits just inside the eastern city limits.
Last week as I drove through Eden, near the geographic center of Texas, I pulled over to take the above photo. It is a sign for the private, for-profit prison run by a company called CoreCivic (more on them later). The name of the prison is gut-wrenching to read: Eden Detention Center.
What does it mean that we built a prison in Eden?
It is far more than irony. The fact that there’s a prison in Eden reveals a fundamental misunderstanding the American enterprise has about what it means to Love. We are at a crossroads that literally runs right through Eden, both literally and metaphorically.
The Story of Eden’s Prison
In the early 1980s, Eden was a dying small town in mid-America, a lot like the places I grew up. As agriculture became consolidated by large corporations and many family farmers could no longer make a living, these towns lost hope. I know. My own grandfather lost our family farm in the collapse of the hog market in the 1980s.
For Eden, it was cotton. People who wanted a future were moving away to bigger towns. So in 1985, when the nearby town of Brady passed on the possibility of a prison to house undocumented immigrants and other minimum-security inmates, a narrow majority of the citizens of Eden saw their chance and grabbed it. The prison was built and it provided stable employment to the town for decades. I know. My father retired as an employee of a state correctional facility. I am well aware that his hard-earned paycheck put food in my mouth.
I do not fault them. The employees of Eden Detention Center were trying to find a way to feed their families. As it was noted in an article in the Sept. 2004 edition of Texas Monthly: “It’s both obvious and ironic that many detention center inmates were at some point just hoping for a better economic life—which they now give to folks in Eden.”
And herein lies the fundamental misunderstanding we must correct: love of self is not truly Love unless it is rooted primarily in Love for God and others.
The nature of Love (and since God is Love, the nature of God) is really quite straightforward. The Great Commandment calls us to Love God with all our Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength and to Love our neighbors as ourselves.
Love all three, but learn to Love in that order: God, others, self.
But that’s not the order we usually employ. We prefer the reverse instead: self, others, God.
This order reversal, seemingly minor as it is, insidiously corrupts Love altogether until it ceases to be Love at all.
love for Self
If we first seek to love ourselves, we place ourselves at the pinnacle, the place of primary importance that should properly be occupied by God. We do this in all the ways we seek to build up our self: our standing, our power, our wealth, our security. If self is the main recipient of care and concern, then all of our actions will eventually prove to be selfish. And for much of the time, that is exactly the case. We build a town, call it Eden and when times get tough we will gladly accept $11 an hour, paid to us by people of vastly more “worth,” to imprison others poorer than us.
love for Others
Some will go further and extend their sense of love beyond themselves to others. They will seek to also care for their family, friends and their immediate community, perhaps going as far as loving their nation or people of their own religion. This would seem to be an extension of love, but it is instead a further corruption. The same selfishness, insularity, and isolationism that exists in building up our self gets pushed out into the community on a massive scale. The end result is naturally that we should go to war with those who threaten us or build walls to “defend ourselves” from “others” with little care whether they are actually criminals or a sick child from Guatemala coming to us for help. Everything that is “other” is a perceived threat and we treat such “threats” to our own security the same: we defeat them, thereby restoring our own (false) sense of security and fortune.
love for God
By the time we get around to thinking about loving God, our concept of love has become so corrupt, there is no Love for God operable at all. We simply continue the same simplistic pattern of self-protection. We think the way to love God is by “defending our faith” from “others,” be they Muslims, gays, liberals, etc. But it’s all just an outgrowth of the cancerous “love” of self: which proves to simply be “protecting what is mine.” God has nothing to do with it really. Neither does Love. Yet we commit all kinds of atrocities in God’s most holy name.
If love begins at lower levels, it invariably becomes corrupt: love of self corrupts love of others, love of others corrupts love of God. Love must instead begin at the highest level if it is ever to truly become Love.
When Love finds its primacy at the highest level, Love for God, it learns to become true Love, gaining the power to welcome, incorporate and transform all the levels below. In this proper order, we learn:
Love for God
When God is placed at the pinnacle of our care and concern, we learn to see the world from a holistic and holy perspective. We acknowledge from the very beginning that “I am not the center of the universe.” This defeats all egotism, isolationism, and phobia of “others.” In our dedication to loving God with all four spheres of the human self: Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength; there is no sphere left to become primarily occupied with loving in selfish ways.
Leads to Love for Others
We then Love others because God Loves them. God’s concern for others becomes our concern. They owe us nothing to deserve or earn our Love. They are already beloved, of equal worth to us, to me, inherently by their very existence. They are not a threat, they are a part. There is no need to defend anything and we welcome them as the sisters and brothers in God’s family they truly are. This undercuts the paradigm of competition on which our entire society, education systems and capitalist economy are built. Love of this nature is a threat to those in power who both consciously and subconsciously seek to subvert it.
Leads to Love for Self
Loving first God and then others finally allows us to experience true and proper Love for our self. Already being in Love with God and with others, we are able to Love ourselves not through a denial of self-interest but through proper placement of care and concern. We reach our fulfillment not by hoarding for ourselves but by serving and giving freely to others. In this we find true security and a personal fulfillment that no amount of wealth can provide.
Jesus made this abundantly clear through his teaching and public ministry, death and resurrection. If we Love him, we are commissioned to Love others. In the resurrection, at the end of John’s gospel, Jesus puts it this way:
Jesus said to Peter the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” John 21:17
Sheep: the vulnerable, the defenseless, the followers. But instead we operate inside of a system that feeds the wolf. The owner of that private prison, CoreCivic, as you might already have guessed are fairly good examples of the wolf. They started out in 1983 with a plan to become wealthy as the first company in the world to operate a for-profit prison, putting up a wire fence around an old hotel and detaining immigrants for the U.S. government. Their company is now worth billions of dollars.
And that prison in Eden, it closed in 2017. But due to the recent need for increased beds in detention facilities in Texas, it is set to open up again soon, once more to be heralded as the saviors of Eden. I find it hard to have anything but pity, pity for the people who will be detained there for trying to make a better life for themselves and their families and pity for the people who will work there trying to do the exact same thing. Both groups are victims of a corruption of our understanding of the true nature of Love. We were created for a different kind of Eden.
This is the true prison we build in the center of our own Edens. Time and again, we seem bent on taking what is good and blessed and holy in our lives and constructing within it instruments of our own degradation and oppression. This is how people are convinced to vote against their own self-interests. This is how people are convinced to treat others as less worthy, less human. This is how God ceases to be God in our lives and becomes a placeholder name for nothing more than our own ugly self-interests.
This is how Eden becomes a prison. We’ve been at it from the very beginning, our lot. We reject the free gift of Love offered to us by God. We seek power from another source. It corrupts us and realizing we are naked we feel shame. It robs us of our own dignity. It is not Love.
In these days when fathers and daughters are drowning on our southern border, trying to get into the country they’ve been told is Eden, will we continue to detain them and lock them inside the prisons we’ve constructed for our own distorted sense of self-protection, self-love? If we do this, if we continue to allow them to die so that we might live a tiny bit more comfortably, then we know nothing of the true nature of Love, the nature of God.
In the Genesis creation story, when Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden for their corruption of the gift of Love, an angel stood at its eastern border with a flaming sword “to guard the way to the tree of life.” Now all of humanity stands at the border of Eden, wishing to re-enter. Sadly, we live in a prison of our own making.
We don’t need God to keep us out of Eden. We do that very well on our own. If we ever hope to be get back into Eden, we must first learn to Love those who stand at our own gates, looking in at us, asking for the Love and compassion we still deny, even to ourselves.
“Forgive us our trespasses. As we forgive those who trespass against us.”
following The Way,