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LIFE: A Vigil for the Late Modern World

Author: Richard Goode
Published: August 2012

MD 3.2

Article Type: Text Article

Since 2007, the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) program has invited women at the Tennessee Prison for Women to enroll in the University and take college courses alongside “free-world” Lipscomb students. The LIFE program also offers college courses in partnership with Room in the Inn, which serves Nashville’s unhoused community. At first glance such initiatives may appear as familiar homeless and prison ministries, yet LIFE strives to think and act differently. Instead of a traditional outreach to the incarcerated and unhoused, the goal is to hold vigil with socially disenfranchised neighbors.

An Enduring Question

In To Change the World, author James Davidson Hunter poses the central question: “How do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world?”1 For my money, one of the livelier engagements of this enduring dilemma has been the James Gustafson-Stanley Hauerwas conversation. In this exchange, Gustafson articulates a classically “progressive” perspective, calling Christians to savvy and adaptive political leadership in our pluralist late modern society. The time has passed when Christians can assume that our God-talk will carry much influence in the contemporary secular context. Our witness still has the capacity to transform society’s policies and practices for a greater good, but playing the old “because Jesus says so” trump card will not win the hand. Stated otherwise, simple appeals to a first-century Nazarene have limited applicability in a world where many non-Christian neighbors are unlikely convinced by such claims. If Christians expect to make a difference in this late modern moment, we must employ language and logic that resonates with a wide range of individuals—not just fellow churchgoers. To discuss justice in the public square, for example, requires that we use terms accessible to those neighbors; that we creatively translate our message into a more recognizable, contemporary vernacular (e.g., political and social science).2

Stanley Hauerwas, by contrast, maintains a classically “Radical” perspective.3 With Gustafson he agrees that Christianity has an important message for redressing social injustices, but for Hauerwas this Christian ethic is largely alien to, and incommensurate with, the late modern world. In fact, beyond bewildering, the Christian ethic often attacks and subverts many of society’s principal tenets. In the pluralistic public square, therefore, the Christian kerygma is odd, outlandish, and scandalous.4 Efforts to recast or rephrase the Christian message so as to make it perceptible by, or palatable to, society are unwise and unwarranted because to do so eviscerates the very genius Christianity offers. Christians make a difference in this late modern world, therefore, by faithfully living Christianity’s strange, alien commitments amidst a world that simply cannot appreciate what Christians are offering. Be a colony of the kingdom in a world that cannot fathom such politics, Hauerwas encourages.5

We might view this Gustafson-Hauerwas exchange as a recent riff on the “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem” debate, a dilemma with which the church has wrestled since its earliest days. Notice, no one denies that Christians should address social ills and injustices. Neither side commends the church to hide its ethical candle under a bushel. The central question, however, becomes, how? How do Christians—as Christians—effect needed change in today’s social context? Toward the ends of social change, does the church use means (i.e., public policies, social theories, political practices) that have broad appeal in the late modern world? Or, does the church go it alone and on its own terms?

Understood in this long historical context, Hunter’s “how do believers live out their faith” question quickly becomes more than an academic debate, insofar as it prompts reflection on our interaction with the world (i.e., our lived theology). What in the world are we doing, and why are we doing that? To join this age-old question, consider the following case study—a recent initiative undertaken by Lipscomb University.

The LIFE Programs

In 2006, the University launched the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) program, designed to relocate courses from the campus to the Tennessee Prison for Women (TPW) in west Nashville. Successful applicants from the TPW meet not only standard academic admissions criteria, but Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) behavioral criteria as well. Successful applicants, for example, need to be two years “write-up free” (i.e., without rules violations). In contrast to most college-in-prison programs, “inside” Lipscomb students (i.e., women residing at the TPW) take courses alongside their “outside” Lipscomb peers. Free-world Lipscomb students, therefore, travel to the TPW to take the course with their “inside” colleagues. Far from using the inside students as the subjects of study, the LIFE program replicates at the TPW a typical collegiate experience, where all students—irrespective of where they reside after class—are co-learners, collaborators, and contributors. From the pool of initial applicants in late 2006, the TPW Education staff selected the inaugural cohort of 15 inside students, whom Lipscomb enrolled in the Spring 2007 Judicial Process course.6

The initial plan was to provide inside students with a slate of courses over six semesters, enabling them to earn up to 18 hours on a Lipscomb transcript.7 As inside students quickly illustrated both solid aptitude and enduring interest in higher education, it became obvious that walking away from these students after two years would be irresponsible.

With the support of a grant from Tennessee’s Office of Criminal Justice Programs, in January 2009 the LIFE program continued with its first cohort, while also adding a second cohort of fifteen. Lipscomb University also began crafting an associate of arts degree specifically for the inside students.8 Today, the LIFE program celebrates 42 inside students working toward an accredited associate’s degree. Each term the University schedules three courses at the TPW, ranging from Art, Biology, or Communication to French, Math, or Business. Inside students take one course each term.

The Spring 2012 term saw the LIFE program begin a partnership with Room in the Inn (RITI). Founded in 1986 by Fr. Charlie Strobel, RITI is Nashville’s most storied agency providing a holistic range of services for homeless—from emergency shelter to educational programming—promoting stability and productivity in life. Among RITI’s many commitments, it also strives to transcend the barriers that often separate society’s housed and unhoused communities; to create opportunities for Nashville’s housed and unhoused to be directly involved with one another. It’s about changing people, guests and hosts alike, and serving without prejudice or pride. All serve all.

Because the missions of RITI and the University latch up so well, Lipscomb has started offering courses at the RITI facility in downtown Nashville, admitting academically qualified students from the RITI community to the University. “Street Law” served as the inaugural course in this context.9 More than credit hours, transcripts, or skill sets, the central commitment is community; to be in community with those of our community.

Occasionally individuals ask whether the LIFE effort really matters. Does the relocation of classes from the comfortable suburban campus to locations like a homeless shelter, or the admission of 40-plus felons into the student body, matter? Students often say it best. A participant from RITI confesses:

It has been a lifetime dream of mine to attend college; and thanks to Lipscomb’s generosity I am a student! Our professors and students are of the highest quality; and when it comes to making us feel as equals there is also no lack. The curriculum is challenging and has not made any of us feel less than. My life is changing in just a short time because of this monumental gift to myself and my peers. Thank you for the faith you have placed in us, and the blessings which you have bestowed upon us!

Or an inside student from the TPW explains:

With each class I take through Lipscomb, my confidence and self-worth grow. While I am still somewhat uncomfortable interacting with others, this program allows me to integrate a little at a time. With each paper I write, I find that I have far more to say than I ever dreamed possible. Because of the LIFE program, I am gaining knowledge and insight. More importantly I am finding my voice and learning how to use it. This is a wonderful feeling—knowing that I have a voice. Greater still is that people are willing to listen. I want to use this voice to show that what others meant for evil, God will use for his good. I want to use this voice to reach out to others who have been abused as I have and to help them triumph over their situation.

Explaining why a traditional student would travel from campus to take courses with a non-traditional colleague at the TPW, an outside student conveys:

The LIFE Program is an equalizer, where fellow students are other than convicted criminals. In prison ministry visitors attempt to bring encouragement, news of the outside world, and “hope,” but it is often, unintentionally, coupled with pity, resentment, and misunderstanding. Through the forum of a classroom, however, students are engaged with each other to produce innovative ideas and open their minds to new possibilities. The professors and their assignments are levelers, which initiate a teamwork mindset and a collaborative community. The woman sitting next to you becomes a peer, no longer shackled by her past.

As these voices attest, the LIFE program makes a positive impact.


Universities, however, have many opportunities to impact society. Why this effort? What is the rationale of the LIFE program?10 On one level, research suggests that education is one of the few tried-and-true programs to break the cycle of prison recidivism. Today the US incarcerates about 2.3 million Americans, which means that one in every 100 American adults is locked up. Although 95% of those incarcerated will return to our communities, if recent trends persist the majority of those released will return to prison within a few months. Given such statistics, our prison-industrial complex is already beginning to bankrupt local, state, and federal governments. Multiple studies establish, however, that some college education alone reduces recidivism by 30-50%,11 while an associate’s degree reduces recidivism by nearly two-thirds.12 Thinking in dollars-and-cents terms, college education for the incarcerated is a fiscally responsible (even conservative) policy. In fact, according a 2009 Washington State Institute for Public Policy report, $985 spent on academic education (e.g., university courses) can save taxpayers $6,302 in future criminal justice costs.13

Homelessness is similarly expensive. According to The Key Alliance, an initiative of Nashville’s Homeless Commission, in 2010 the city spent $35,000 per homeless person to “manage” the needs of the unhoused with, at best, “a status quo” outcome.14 Across the nation communities like Nashville spend millions to provide the homeless with medical treatment in hospitals and clinics, and millions more to police and incarcerate some of the local jail’s so-called “frequent flyers.” In this light, higher education could ideally:

  1. Mentor members of our community from a transient life on the streets to a safer, more stable lifestyle, which would;
  2. Decrease budgetary pressures on local governments by moving individuals from welfare to taxpayer rolls.

The LIFE program, therefore, could be an expression of good citizenship, providing the local community needed resources for resolving a couple persistent social problems. In that light, the LIFE program could be a faith-based think tank, envisioning new and improved protocols for offender rehabilitation, or crafting public policies for transient populations. The LIFE program might even be an expression of the emerging “teavangelical” phenomenon, promoting so-called Christian solutions to such expensive public services as corrections and homelessness.15

In fact, however, the intention of the LIFE program is not to bring Christian public policy to bear on society’s flawed prison-industrial complex, or to eradicate homelessness in our cities. We don’t know whether the LIFE program will break the cycle of recidivism and save taxpayers money. Nor do we know whether the LIFE program will get unhoused folks housed and invested in the American Dream. We are offering, therefore, neither a conservative nor a progressive faith-based public policy proposal that will fix the problems of the “least ones”—if only we could get our legislative agenda passed and implemented at the local, state, or federal levels. In fact, we in the LIFE community hope to be chastened by two memories. First, the “white savior industrial complex” will be one of our greatest temptations.16 Advocacy for a down-trodden “other” is often well-intentioned, but in pursuit of solutions we’re inclined to think and act like paternalistic administrators managing “a problem.” Is it possible that the Christian ethic may not warrant our largess, even if we assume to know what the best policy option might be?17 Second, we recall the example of Christ. When tempted to use his power to fix the injustices that marginalized and oppressed in his first-century context, Jesus chose the path of being with, rather than working for, society’s disposed and exiled.18 As we travel to the TPW or RITI, therefore, we are simultaneously chastised and inspired by the wise words of Lila Watson: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.”19

As Randy Spivey, Director of Lipscomb’s Institute of Law, Justice, and Society, notes, the being with starts with confession rather than policy proposals. “Confession, or ‘prophetic ministry,’ to use Walter Brueggemann’s phrase, is not simply criticism that ‘stands against’ the criminal justice system, but a confessed repentance that ‘stands with’ those who are hurt and oppressed by the criminal justice system.” This prophetic ministry “will not indulge the glib demand for quick fixes and cheap change; it demands more.”20 The LIFE program, he explains, is not about “spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation.” It is, rather, about “offering an alternative perception of reality and . . . letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice.” Being with is less about “strategies, tactics, and ministry programs,” and more about presence. “The Christian must be present within the system in order to confess his responsibility for it and to stand with those who suffer at its hands in a confessing community.”21 What’s the LIFE program up to? The short answer is, “not much,” at least nothing much more than a vigil.

Colloquially, we use vigil in a variety of ways. A family may hold vigil at the hospital where a loved one fights for life against a terminal illness. Abolitionists might hold a candlelight vigil outside a prison before an execution. In both cases, those holding vigil confess their fear, frustration, and impotence. They are committed to change, yet they don’t presume to control outcomes.

Historically, the church has practiced faith and expressed hope by holding vigils. In a moment when death, alienation, or injustice appears ascendant and unstoppable, the church holds vigil—witnessing to life, reconciliation, and shalom. Vigils serve as a countersign; that things are not as they appear. Death is not transcendent. Injustice will not triumph. Even at the darkest moment, the vigilant know that the desired, albeit delayed, alternative is coming.22 In the liturgy of the hours, for example, the office of Vigils comes when night is darkest and public awareness is nonexistent. Daily, those at prayer keep watch through the darkness until God provides a new day, which is celebrated with Lauds (praise).23 Vigils are not pep rallies to exert power, or incitement to change the world. In communities of silent compunction, with psalms and prayers, vigils are faithfully kept in abandonment to divine providence.


With the above in mind, let’s return to James Davidson Hunter’s recent version of an age-old question: “How do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world?” Perhaps we start by identifying a couple temptations. First, when we allow the “conditions of the late modern world” to define what constitutes “faithful living,” we’re apt to succumb to such seductive measures as social relevance and political influence. Presuming that those who make the biggest impact are the most faithful, we’re inclined to exert control and impose our program so that we can establish our cultural significance and importance. By contrast, God’s peculiar community operates from its own idiosyncratic times, imprudent accounting, untranslatable concepts, and inimitable rationales (e.g., the last are first, successful living comes through dying, self-abnegation is strength). Christian practices should be incommensurate with social and political science of the late modern world. Second, we should concede that our quest to change the world by our force, our wisdom, or our activism is not our calling. Instead, hold vigil. Away from the accolades of public prominence and the spectacle of social influence, form community with neighbors in need. With eschatological expectation, remain awake and present where God has called us, awaiting God’s liberation and reconciliation.

By convening higher education in some non-traditional settings, the LIFE program may, or may not, save society money by fixing its broken justice system. It may, or may not, solve the homeless problem in Nashville. Such uncertainty is fine because social, economic, and political impact isn’t the telos of the LIFE program. The famous passage in Matthew 25 suggests that our calling—our reason for being—is presence, being with women incarcerated at the TPW and with men transitioning from homelessness. In this way we can be faithful, vigilant witnesses, confident that God makes all things, and all people, new.24

Perhaps an awake, aware, and attentive presence with the dispossessed—a vigil—is how believers live out faith under the conditions of the late modern world.

Dr. Richard C. Goode is professor of history and chair of the Department of History, Politics, and Philosophy at Lipscomb University. He also serves as Coordinator of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) programs. Richard can be contacted at

1 James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), ix.

2 James Gustafson, “The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church, and the University,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society 40 (1985): 83-94.

3 “Radical” as in the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation, or Anabaptist traditions.

4 Jonathan R. Wilson contends that instead of pluralistic, the public square is profoundly fragmented. Consequently the late modern world lacks a vernacular to which Christianity should translate its tenets. See Jonathan R. Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: From After Virtue to a New Monasticism, 2nd ed., New Monastic Library 6 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010).

5 Stanley Hauerwas, “Why the ‘Sectarian Temptation’ is a Misrepresentation: A Response to James Gustafson,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 90-110. Similarly, John Milbank has held that Christians must forego trying to square its religious tenets with contemporary social science, because to do so would be a “denial of theological truth.” John Milbank Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 388. In fact, the incarnation of Christ and the creation of the church is the normative historical event that interprets all other events. Christianity is, therefore, its own, definitive, incomparable social science. Elsewhere Milbank dismisses the effort to dress up “Christian truth” in “contemporary garb” as “the most puerile form of betrayal.” John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 1.

6 The LIFE program selected Judicial Process for its inaugural course for two reasons. First, we needed a course that would attract traditional students to volunteer and drive out to the TPW to take the course with their inside peers. Given the subject matter, Judicial Process seemed like a course that would benefit from this change of venue and attract students from campus. Second, and more importantly, we sought to select a course that would balance any perceived imbalance of power in the classroom between inside and outside students. Inside students expressed reservation about their academic abilities and worth. Would they be at a disadvantage when compared to their outside peers? Selecting a course where inside students had some “expertise” might address any perceived imbalance of ability.

7 Lipscomb University significantly reduced the tuition rate, the remainder of which was covered by scholarships funded by private donors.

8 The design of this Associates degree closely follows that of the Tennessee Board of Regents. Thus, students exiting the TDOC system should find their credits transferable to a number of colleges across the state. Should they choose to attend Lipscomb University, their credits would count toward a bachelor’s degree. As of this writing, three students who started in the LIFE program have taken courses on the Lipscomb campus after their release.

9 The Street Law course investigates the policies and practices used by state and local governments to legislate public space, especially with an eye toward the “criminalization of homelessness.” Again, part of the logic of this offering is to empower the students who come from the RITI.

10 Scores of individuals—students, faculty, administrators, and donors—comprise the LIFE community. Consequently, it is hardly of one mind.

11 Stephen J. Steurer, Alice Tracy, and Linda Smith, “OCE/CEA Three State Recidivism Study,” Office of Correctional Education, United State[sic] Department of Education (September 2001):; and E. J. Lichtenberger and N. Onyewu, Virginia Department of Correctional Education’s Incarcerated Youth Offender Program: A Historical Analysis 9 (Richmond, VA: Department of Correctional Education, 2005).

12 Jeanne B. Contardo and Wendy Erisman, Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy (Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2005), 7-11.

13 Elizabeth K. Drake, Steve Aos, and Marna G. Miller, “Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Crime and Criminal Justice Costs: Implications in Washington State,” Victims and Offenders 4, no. 2 (February 2009): 184,

14 Erik Cole, “Inconvenient People: New Directions in Solving an Inconvenient Issue: Part III,” The Key Alliance, March 2010,

15 David Brody, The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). See also

16 Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” The Atlantic, March 21, 2012,

17 Truly, the wisdom of C. S. Lewis should check our tendencies toward aggressively paternalistic benevolence. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” Lewis cautioned. “It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 292.

18 See Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, Resources for Reconciliation (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2011).

19 Ms. Wilson’s quote comes to us from our colleagues at Atlanta’s Open Door Community.

20 Randy Spivey, “Questioning Society’s Criminal Justice Narratives,” in And the Criminals With Him: Essays in Honor of Will D. Campbell and All the Reconciled, ed. Will D. Campbell and Richard Goode (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 190.

21 Ibid., 191.

22 Robert Taft notes that the night office of Vigils always has an eschatological element. The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, Series is Monastic Wisdom Series 25 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1986), 15-16.

23 “The essence of ‘watching,’” Thomas Merton explains, “is not just in keeping physically awake, but in keeping our minds on spiritual things—the night office is a time when we learn this above all. Our night vigils are also a battle against the spirits of evil. The warlike character of many of the psalms we recite in the night hours is to be understood by the fact that we are the watchmen placed on the walls of the City of God while others sleep.” See Monastic Observances: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 5, ed. Patrick F. O’Connell (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 42-3. Similarly, Charles Cummings describes vigils as a “habit of patient waiting and of calm abiding in the situation where God as placed me. . . . I have no control over the future and do not know exactly what will happen. I am asked only to stay awake and be ready because the light will surely come and will claim its victory over every form of darkness, despair, suffering, and death. Each dawning day, at the end of the night watch, recalls a victory that took place ‘very early, just after sunrise, on the first day of the week’ (Mark 16:2).” Charles Cummings, Monastic Practices, Cistercian Studies Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008), 139.

24 Is this not true of Christian education, no matter where it occurs? Society promotes education as an amassing of skills and powers to achieve our outcomes, to make our lives and our world as we presume it should be. What if Christian education formed disciples to slow and tone down; waiting, listening, becoming aware of God’s liberation—awake to that which public policy paves over, and attentive to those whom political science passes by?

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