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Implications for Community Engagement within Christian Higher Education

We learn from the efforts being made within the walls of the Handion Correctional Facility, or Calvin’s Handion campus, that the freedom suggested in the root word liber of liberal arts has application in hearts and minds as well as in bodies. One does not have to be free in one’s body to be free in one’s mind and spirit. The imago dei as a rationale for setting out to teach students the skills of critical thinking and appreciating beauty functions as well inside a prison as it does on any bucolic traditional residential campus in America. The creativity of the students in the CPI testifies to the importance of seeing the field of Christian higher education as much wider than has traditionally been assumed. In an essay titled “Teaching for lustice,” Nicholas Woltcrstorff (2004) links suffering, Christian hope, and the teaching and learning project with the following conclusive quote.

I end where I began. Christians exist under a binding requirement to engage in a specific uprising. The goal and nature of that uprising can be fully understood only from a standpoint of redemption, only in the messianic light. That is true in part, I have come to think, because only in the messianic light do the tears of God over the world’s injustice show up. One of the greatest challenges for us today in the Reformed tradition of Christianity is to recover that sacramental consciousness that was so deep in Calvin’s thought—the consciousness that as we wind our way through this world we meet God blessing us, chastising us, speaking to us, nourishing us, empowering us, forgiving us. Part of that recovery must involve recovering that bold and haunting theme in Calvin, that as we wind our way through this world and come across injustice, we meet a wounded God. Beneath and behind the injustice of this world arc the tears of God. We live in the presence of suffering Love. Were this teaching deeply fixed in our minds and hearts, says Calvin, that to perpetrate injustice is to wound God, we would be much more reluctant than we are to inflict injuries on our fellow human beings, or even to tolerate injuries inflicted.

(p. 154)

The CPI is an example of a “specific uprising” of creative academic engagement within a prison community that is bringing the freedom promised in the liberal arts tradition. Further, it serves as one embodied example of higher education upholding its end of its historical social compact in the contemporary age. Higher education—particularly Christian higher education—would do well to practice reflexivity by interrogating contemporary social issues and considering its unique capacity to address society’s ills. Indeed, our social compact and our Christian faith compel us to use our capital not to build isolated locales of scholarship and pedagogy; but instead to extend, in partnership, into our local communities, embarking on a shared pilgrimage toward the transformational and redemptive power of embodied kingdom citizenship.


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