Beyond Good and Evil: Jens Soering

Jens Soering
Jens Soering

Jens Soering, the subject of a profile by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker (“Blood Ties,” November 9, 2015), and a convicted double murderer, is the author of four titles for our publishing company, Lantern Books: The Way of the Prisoner (2003), The Church of the Second Chance (2008), An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse (2004), and One Day in the Life of 179212 (2012).

The first two books are part of our publishing program in centering prayer and Christian spirituality. Jens first came to us through the auspices of another of our authors, Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who lives in St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, and who is known as a pioneer of centering prayer. Jens had found centering prayer to be an effective method for dealing with stress, depression, and violence in prison, and had sent the manuscript of Way to Contemplative Outreach, which had an active prison ministry program. Keating then commended it to our attention.

Not only was The Way of the Prisoner a guide to centering prayer practice, but it, and Jens’ other books, fit into a number of our other programs—particularly on matters of criminal justice, law and order, violence, and trauma. In the last decade and a half, we’ve produced titles from law enforcement professionals attempting to tackle the problem of PTSD in their officers and in controlling potentially life-threatening situations before they get out of hand (Force Under Pressure by Lawrence E. Blum, and Sound Doctrine and Field Command by Charles “Sid” Heal). Lantern published a book on the Columbine school massacre (No Easy Answers by Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt) and has also examined the criminalization of dissent regarding animal and environmental activism (Muzzling a Movement by Dara Lovitz, Burning Rage of a Dying Planet by Craig Rosebraugh, and Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? edited by Anthony J. Nocella II and Steven Best). It has also produced efforts to extend racial justice (Nonviolence Now! by Alycee Lane and Sistah Vegan! edited by A. Breeze Harper) and reduce trauma (Aftershock by pattrice jones).

Jens is far from the only one of our authors to be in prison or who has served time. The Terrorization of Dissent, edited by Anthony Nocella II and Jason Del Gandio, includes interviews with prisoners convicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and earlier legislation. The late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai (author of The Green Belt Movement and the subject of Wangari Maathai) was imprisoned more than once during the regime of Daniel arap Moi, and Hector Aristizábal was tortured in prison in Colombia, an account he writes about in The Blessing Next to the Wound. Our publishing company is actively involved with an organization called Books Through Bars, which sends books to prisoners that they may not otherwise have access to.

But, we hear you say, none of these were convicted of murder, as Jens was. To which our reply is, so what? The literary world has been populated by writers who were, to put it mildly, morally compromised. Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Anne Perry were killers, as was William Burroughs. Norman Mailer (who stabbed his wife), championed the release from prison of author Jack Henry Abbott, only for the latter to commit another murder within weeks. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Céline (to name only a few), were explicit, even vehement, in their anti-Semitism; Knut Hamsun, W. B. Yeats, and Gabriele D’Annunzio were Fascists; Jean Genet was a thief. And, as for the Marquis de Sade. . . .

Indeed, Jens confronts this issue of guilt and innocence in Church of the Second Chance. He describes the numerous criminals, murderers and would-be killers, adulterers, and other sinners who populate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and yet who are all redeemed, even though they may neither confess to their crimes nor even be held accountable by their own for what they did. He then relates stories of those who, like their biblical counterparts, are criminals and yet have not found redemption in a prison-industrial system that is dedicated to punishment and has no interest in mercy.

Is this special pleading? Is Jens trying to cloak his refusal to admit his guilt (having revoked the confession he made before the trial) in these stories of holy men and women who committed crimes? Perhaps. But simply to dismiss what Jens has to say because one assumes his guilt merely draws attention to our blithe and blinkered assumption that only “good” people have valuable lessons to teach us, or, conversely, that “bad” people cannot learn the errors of their ways and offer service to the society as a whole—even if posterity (as with Moses or the writers above) whitewashes or downplays their “crimes.”

We certainly have no qualms about being Jens’ publishers. We’ve learned an enormous amount from him; we’ve read the stories of individuals we’d never have ordinarily encountered; and he’s persuaded us of the prison-industrial complex’s gross inefficiency and numerous cruelties. Like many of the people he writes about in his books, he is merely being warehoused, even though we’re convinced that he (unlike Jack Henry Abbott) poses no threat to the citizenry at large.

We understand the simple attractions of retribution: that life in prison should mean life; that the more Jens proves his worth, the more exquisite and torturous will be his continued and perpetual confinement, and the more profoundly will be understand the consequences of his actions. Such justice has all of the stringency and sharpness of concentrated chlorine on a public washroom’s floor. Yet, after a while, the pungency makes you gag, or fades and the original stench appears.

So, given our intimate knowledge of Jens’ situation and our role in his rehabilitation, what course of action would we recommend? It seems to us logical and compassionate that the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia should be relieved of the burden of keeping this German citizen in prison, and that he should be returned to his home country to serve out the rest of the sentence, which may or may not be curtailed under German penal laws. Even if he were to be freed, Jens wouldn’t pose a threat to the U.S. since he’s indicated he would welcome a ban on ever visiting again the home of the brave and the land of the free. He’s spent more than enough time in the U.S., he says, and has no wish to return. Keeping him in Germany seems to us a reasonable outcome to this three-decades-long story.

The Little Connections in a Small World

Jens Soering
Jens Soering

It’s sometimes hard as a publisher to gauge how your books change or affect people’s lives and how widely they are dispersed. Occasionally, however, you get a glimpse of the potential importance of your work in the surprising connections that your titles make. I received an email from a supporter of Jens Soering, an author of ours who is currently in prison. Jens was the author of four titles—two on faith and Christian prayer (The Way of the Prisoner and The Church of the Second Chance) and two on the prison-industrial complex (An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse and One Day in the Life of 179212). Another supporter had sent Jens a letter detailing that yet another supporter—Fr. James Wiseman, an abbot at St. Anselm’s Abbey, Washington—had recently walked the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. (You may know of this particular pilgrimage through The Way, the movie made by Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez).

Fr. Wiseman had told Pat that at Compostela there was a very small English-language library for pilgrims, in which he found a copy of The Way of the Prisoner. Jens himself speculated that Martin Sheen may have left a copy there himself! What Jens doesn’t know is that Fr. Wiseman is also an author published by Lantern! He was involved in Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) back when Lantern began to publish its bulletins, in the early 2000s, and was the co-editor of volumes on the first and  second of the Gethsemani Encounters—the meetings of Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian monks and nuns that took place at Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky, in the 1990s. These volumes, which were initially published by Continuum and Doubleday respectively, went out of print, and we republished them as The Spiritual Life: A Dialogue of Buddhist and Christian Monastics and Finding Peace in Troubled Times: Buddhist and Christian Monastics on Transforming Suffering.

But the connections don’t stop there. It so happens that I (Martin) was in London in early June, where I attended the third annual Wangari Maathai Memorial Lecture at St. James’ Church, Piccadilly. Lantern and I were deeply involved in the life and work of the late Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts in conservation, democracy, and peace. Lantern had published her first book, The Green Belt Movement (the name of the organization she founded), and a book about her life and work, called Wangari Maathai: Visionary, Environmental Leader, Political Activist by Namulundah Florence, a fellow Kenyan and educator.

At the event, there was a musical interlude by a cellist called Michael Fitzpatrick. He told me that he had met me before: at Benedict’s Dharma, a conference held the week after 9/11 at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, under the auspices of Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, an author at my former company (Continuum) and an author at my current one. That event, so weighty given its proximity to 9/11, had been where I’d been introduced to Ven. Yifa, a Buddhist nun who was to write four books for Lantern. Also present was, of course, Fr. James Wiseman. It seemed especially poignant given how Wangari Maathai had herself been educated by Catholic nuns in Kenya and in the United States that it should be the Catholic faith and the church in general that tied these disparate threads of our publishing program together over such temporal and spatial distances.

We send our books out into the world and they are carried into unlikely places. To that extent, our books are all on pilgrimages, accompanying our life’s journeys, whether in our imagination or with one foot in front of the other. It’s also an example a vibration—the strings of a cello echoing across the distance of a decade and a half—holding these stories together; and at their heart, if you’ll forgive me, a wise man!