“Orange is Beautiful”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 25, 2015
University Baptist Church
We continue our color-based worship services this Sunday with a focus on orange. Orange is one of many colors of fall foliage. It’s the color of pumpkins and candy corn. It’s what my backyard looks like covered in leaves. Even leaf bags are orange: tricking us to thinking that raking is fun. Still, there is nothing like the abandon and joy of a child jumping into a nice dry orange pile of leaves. Orange is beautiful at this time of year.
But orange is also the required dress of too many of our neighbors who are incarcerated. It used to be that people wore distinguishing stripes in prison to make them stand out as outlaws. But the bright orange one-piece, one size ill-fits all jump suits are now the standard for prisoners. Too many of our people spend time behind bars wearing those outfits to say that orange is beautiful. For many it’s a temporary dress code. For others it’s permanent or it feels permanent. No wonder orange is considered scary.
I haven’t watched one episode of Orange is the New Black. I’m such a Luddite. Don’t really know how to use Netflix. My daughters would call me old. Guilty (although I prefer to call myself “vintage”). But I did go to the library this week and checked out the memoir of the same title that gave inspiration to the Netflix series. In the book and as I understand in the series, we see a different view of life on the other side of the locked gates and barbed wire. You see the stories of the people behind the prison walls. Their hopes, their dreams, their community that they form within the sorority of orange. They have similar problems as we do outside, but the difference is that they will always be judged by those on the outside. Even if and when they are set free. Orange will always be suspect. If you wore orange at one time, it needs to go on your job applications, your school history. In some cases you are on the neighborhood watch list. It’s no wonder that recidivism is so high. No one seems to know or care what happens to an ex con. They are always suspect. At least in prison, they all wear orange and you know where you stand. And you can embrace the comfort and even the relative beauty of that comfort.
Today’s scripture reading tells the story of how Joseph made his way to prison. It’s kind of an absurd story, but you can see how power and corruption can skew the process against someone who might have been innocent.
At no time was Joseph given a lawyer. There was no cross-examination. There was no jury of his peers. There was flimsy circumstantial evidence. There were no character witnesses. And there was prison as a result. We should also point out that Joseph was of a different class, a different country of origin and perhaps even a different race than his accusers. He probably didn’t even speak Egyptian very well. Hebrew was his first language. Like many of our orange-wearing neighbors in prison, he had several strikes against him even before he got in trouble.
Trouble seemed to follow Joseph. We might remember how he was the apple of daddy Jacob’s eye. His eleven other brothers shared one father but had four mothers between them. Joseph’s mom was the fave of the four, securing Joseph and his little full brother Benjamin as the ones who got the most attention. Joseph was gifted in dream interpretation. The attention that gave him was one of many reasons his brothers disliked him. They disliked him so much that they staged his death and sold him as a slave to Egypt.
In Egypt, he prospered and did well. So well that he managed the affairs of one of the guards named Potiphar. The scripture says that whatever Joseph did , he succeeded. And he garnered the attention of many in Egypt. Including the unnamed wife of Potiphar. Ms. Potiphar is written to appear as one of the desperate housewives of the Nile. When Ms. Potiphar sets her designs on Joseph, she’s painted as a bad girl of the Bible. When David sets his sights on Bathsheba and has his husband killed, he’s rewarded with the Kingdom of Israel. Double standard, much?
What did she see in him? The Bible says that Joseph was handsome and good looking. Not sure why you would need two descriptors that say the same thing, but maybe it was to accentuate a point. We also know that Joseph was a person who had the favor of God and as a result, everything that he touched seemed to prosper: Potiphar’s land, his economic affairs, the countenance of all that were around him. Joseph had the praise of Potiphar and the respect of the community. Everyone seemed satisfied with Joseph except Ms. Potiphar. Maybe she was jealous of the attention her husband gave him. Maybe she wanted to bring him down a notch. Maybe she was lonely and wanted some of that forbidden fruit which always seems so much better when it’s forbidden. Maybe it was the chase that she desired. We don’t know whether Joseph liked her, spent time with her, led her on or what.
Anyhow, righteous Joseph spurned her advances not once, not twice, but multiple times. This was a desperate woman. Maybe he befriended her and interpreted her dreams. He drew the line at sexual intimacy. Crossing that line might have elicited joy for a moment, but it wasn’t worth the world of hurt that most likely would follow. Joseph could lose everything. Turns out, he was damned either way. The last time, Ms. Potiphar grabbed his cloak while Joseph fled. Good Joseph, bad Ms. Potiphar. Here’s where the story gets sinister. Like the characters in The Crucible, she makes up a story about Joseph to get back at him for spurning her advances. She was protecting herself from the madman Joseph. “He wanted to have his way with me sexually, but I screamed. He fled my bedchamber. See, here’s his cloak as proof.” Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But it gets even worse. Ms. Potiphar deals the race card. “My husband has brought a Hebrew slave to insult us.” Who were they going to believe, The wife of the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, or some foreign slave who was sold out by his own brothers?
So Joseph ends up in prison. It’s a common tale. He was a political prisoner, suspect because of his race, maybe a sorcerer, certainly a foreigner. And he joined his comrades behind bars. I’m sure they told stories about what they had done, what they had not done. Some of them embellished, I’m sure. He does well there, like he does well everywhere. He interprets dreams and curries favor with people in powerful places.
A couple of times people promise to get him released in exchange for them interpreting their dreams. Joseph does so, and the people forget about him. One step forward and two steps back. This story must be familiar to people behind bars. There’s a famous line in the film the Shawshank Redemption. Andy keeps hope alive for decades. His best friend Red chastises him for having hope. “Hope is a dangerous thing in here. It’ll drive a man insane.”
He made friends inside and was eventually freed. Even though it took a very long time.
Orange is beautiful, so says the title of the sermon in the bulletin. What beauty is there behind prison walls? Maybe not much looking from the outside. But prison is a place where people learn how to survive. It doesn’t always translate to the outside world, but there is solidarity and structure behind the walls of the prison. There is competition, sure—and even violence and madness. But it is any worse than the violence and madness that put the people there in the first place?
We need to not paint the entire prison population with one brush stroke. One of the challenges of the Gospel is that we need to remember the prisoner. We need to remember that we are broken as long as we are separated from those whom we love that are behind bars. The devil wins when prisoners, or we, forget to recognize the beauty within each person, even if they wear orange for a large portion of their lives.
The challenge for the people imprisoned is to find beauty instead of believing what the system tells them, that they are worthless or ignored. How many people are forgotten once they are locked up? How do we help people who are returning from being imprisoned? Can we be compassionate with people regardless of their criminal record?
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has captured the imaginations of many in our land since its publication three years ago. It is her thesis that there is a consistent and persistent and egregious system at work in our society that has replaced the racism of the past with a new racism sanctioned by the so-called War on Drugs that has resulted in the mass incarceration of a major segment of the African American community in such an unequal way that it is as bad as or even worse that the Jim Crow and slavery laws that we had hoped we had recovered from as a country.
She writes, “The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The US imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all of those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.” (pp. 6, 7)
Mandatory minimum sentences put people behind bars and label them felons and criminals for life. Convicted felons can’t get financial aid, they can’t vote and they often can’t work.
“Imprisonment…now creates far more crimes than it prevents, by ripping apart fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables. Although it is common to the think of poverty and joblessness as leading to crime and imprisonment…research shows that the War on Drugs is the major CAUSE of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families and crime today.” (pp. 236, 7)
This is how the Josephs of the world are treated.
There is a bipartisan move to set prisoners free who are non-violent drug offenders. This is great news. My question is, what will they see on the other side of the prison walls. Will the people view them as the orange cloaked ones, perpetually getting ready to reoffend and get sent back to where they belong?
There’s another move in Minnesota to restore the vote to people who are off paper, who have served their time. It hasn’t passed yet, but it ought to next session. Think about this, if you arrest inordinate amounts of racial minorities and then expunge them from the voting rolls, or not even let them register in the first place, is it any wonder that people take to the streets to say “black lives matter”? The ballot box doesn’t work. Electoral politics don’t work. Network news ignores their struggles. And everywhere it seems to say that if someone has worn prison orange they are not beautiful. They are a threat.
Sisters and brothers, we are admonished by scripture to set the prisoner free. But it is more than simply loosening the bars of prison walls. We must struggle to open our minds and hearts to the cries of the people behind bars. Sister Helen Prejean has made it her mission to recognize the dignity of prisoners on death row. I had the honor of meeting her in San Francisco many years ago. Her witness still challenges me.
How are we imprisoned by our judgmentalism, our shortsightedness, our fear?
The good news is that we are given the capacity and the Spirit to do something about it. We have a community of smart and caring people who are not content with the discontent of a class of people. So, pray, educate yourselves and then start to imagine a world where prisoners are set free and we welcome them. It’s revolutionary thinking and acting. It’s Good News. It’s Gospel. And it’s our sacred responsibility. The Josephs of the world are counting on us. The orange-clad fraternities and sororities are right to distrust us on the outside. But we must see everyone, even the orange-clad prisoners as people of worth, wisdom and value. They may scare us, like so many Halloween pumpkins. But beneath that hardened shell is a child of God.
Maybe we can even say that orange is beautiful. That would be truly revolutionary. Maybe we can join the Quaker song:
“In prison cell and dungeons vile our thoughts to them are winging.
When Friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?”