Finding God Imprisoning: Religious Identity and Exclusion in Orange is the New Black

CFZK8E5UUAI8kpn.jpg-largeRegular readers know by now that any time I see Christian iconography mixed with pop culture, I immediately want to pick out some grand meaning which ultimately suggests that said icons aren’t as sacrilegious as they seem.

In the weeks leading up to season 3 of Orange is the New Black, these new promotional images appeared rendering Litchfield’s inmates on Jesus candles. This piqued my interest, though I didn’t expect the show to deal with religion in any substantial way. Season 1 gives us two versions of Christianity and season 2 doesn’t explore religion at all. So, I chalked these “sacred inmate candles” up to nothing more than a cheeky ad and didn’t think this season would give us much in the way of religious narratives.

But I was pleasantly proven wrong.

Though Tucky has left behind her fundamentalist convictions (while retaining much of the rhetoric in her daily speech) and Sophia only has one scene with Sister Ingalis, this season spends a good amount of time telling other religious narratives. There’s Leanne’s Amish background, Gloria’s voodoo, Black Cindy’s journey from fire and brimstone Protestantism to Judaism, the Wiccan group, the New Age Norma cult, and Watson’s Islamic background.

None of the characters depicted in the candles above have a religious arc this season, though there may be other candles with other characters floating around somewhere. The most immediate connection I can make to the candles is that perhaps their individuality represents each character’s own conception of sacredness, which would match the spectrum of religious journeys that this season presents. None of the characters strike me as particularly Jesus-like (except for Norma, since she’s worshipped), so the connections to Sacred Heart images themselves aren’t that strong; however, one could make a general connection between each character being a despised inmate and Jesus being despised and aligning himself with the marginalized.

So while I don’t see much in a 1:1 connection between the characters and sacred candles, I do see a lot in the spectrum of ways they experience or participate in religious faith. Three narratives that stood out most to me are Leanne’s exclusion from her Amish family, Black Cindy’s conversion to Judaism, and the cult that forms around Norma.

When Structure Doesn’t Love You Back

orange-is-the-new-black-season-3-9-where-my-dreidel-at-leanne-taylor-amish-emma-myles-review-episode-guide-listI have a lot of respect and even admiration for religious structures, especially Christian ones. Mostly, I feel a soft-spot for them since it sometimes feels like contemporary Christianity has no desire to learn about its various branches or reach back into its own history of traditions and sacraments due to some notion that becoming relevant again means eschewing all of that (when in reality it means radically reexamining theology and values, but that’s a separate rant).

So while I’m not sailing the flagship for adopting Pennsylvania Dutch beliefs or values, I see it positively in that it’s something Leanne genuinely relates to–something that genuinely gives her a community and a way to experience God. Yes, she leaves and experiences the world, which begins her path to prison, but she returns and is ready to declare her dedication to her faith, community, and lifestyle. Already, there are hints of this structure being too overbearing, but Leanne is happy.

Things go wrong when the police show up and pressure Leanne in to going back to the “English” world undercover to turn in her friends for drug offenses. Going back there is taboo for people who have already made their choice, so when Leanne returns to her Amish community, she’s shunned. The very structure she dedicated herself to rejects her and she leaves quietly in the night to ease the burden on her family.

Yet religious structure is still important to Leanne. As part of the Norma cult, she vocalizes a need for hard-written theology, especially when challenged with allegations that Norma’s followers aren’t a real religion. If not for the other members’ insistence that believing in Norma is more about being seen and the feeling of the moment rather than theology or doctrine, Leanne would’ve succeeded in her “Council of Nicaea” attempts to create a structure for her faith. Structure is immensely important to her even though her faith itself has completely shifted. Unfortunately, even the toxic parts of the structure she came from seep into her interactions with others in the Norma cult and the season ends with Leanne kicked out of yet another faith community in which she tried to find meaning.

Not Just in it for the Kosher Meals

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One of the most dynamic faith stories this season is Black Cindy’s conversion to Judaism. Sparked by the disgusting slop-in-a-bag that now passes as food at Litchfield (which Red didn’t not make and has nothing to do with, for the record), several inmates learn that they can request kosher meals since the prison is obligated to respect religious food restrictions. Word spreads and soon everyone is asking for kosher meals, including Cindy. However, she anticipates from the start that someone upstairs is gonna catch onto this Jewish ruse soon enough and spends much of her free time studying up on what she thinks is Judaism, namely the culture. This is more than what the other inmates do and when a Rabbi comes to visit, it’s game over for most of them. Cindy, though, doesn’t get a complete dismissal from the Rabbi. He tells her that she’s confused cultural Judaism with religious Judaism and though neither he nor the audience really expects her to get serious about the faith aspect of Judaism, that’s exactly what Cindy does for the rest of the season.

What began as something self-gratifying and shallow for Cindy becomes a deep, genuine desire to experience God again. The next time she meets with the Rabbi, she’s desperate to convert and when she cries in front of him, he knows that she is taking the Jewish faith seriously. In a flashback, we see Cindy as a child at the dinner table while her Protestant father leads the family in prayer. When he catches her sneaking a bite of rice, he turns the prayer into angry, verbally abusive condemnations to hell.

No wonder Cindy can’t experience God through Christianity. Judaism has no strict concept of hell, so there’s no way that anyone within that faith could condemn her to it like her father did. Her Christian upbringing imprisoned her spiritually and proved toxic, so Judaism becomes something freeing for her.

This transformation from a shallow, self-gratifying motivation to adopt a faith tradition to a deep, spiritual drive to join it and continue to grow in it is poignant. It shows the transformative power of God to reach people, even through their selfish actions.

Sacred Norma

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With her perpetual silence and warm smile, Norma becomes a receptor of her followers’ ideals. When they look at her, they see the perfection and love that they cannot otherwise experience. They project their thoughts, and in some cases their developing “Normatology” onto Norma and Norma, in part due to her muteness and in part due to the pleasure of leading a spiritual community, never gives them any clear rejection except when they act unkindly toward each other. As the season progresses, Norma’s followers encounter more miracles and find more reasons to believe in her. They’re seen as a fringe group–not as easy to ignore as the Wiccans and not established enough to deserve time in the chapel. Through flashbacks, we learn how Norma only felt seen and heard in a hippie community, specifically through the leader with whom she fell in love, and then she ultimately pushed him off a cliff. Is her prison cult an attempt at recreating that life before it all went wrong? Does she allow the girls to keep idolizing her because they make her feel seen just as much as she makes them feel seen?

Since she never speaks, we’ll never fully know what she’s thinking, but her cult does embody this notion of the unseen being seen. Before this season, Norma didn’t have a major role. She mostly existed in the background, but then a few of the girls started seeing her. Then, more saw her and soon the cult formed. Most of the inmates in Norma’s cult have experienced not being seen in some fashion. We know Leanne’s community stopped seeing her the moment she committed a taboo (which she was coerced into doing in the first place). We know Brook Soso is unseen because not only is her cultural identity as an Asian called into question, but her bubbly, talkative mannerisms compels others to ignore her. Norma is one of the few people who sees her, but then Leanne’s overbearing dogma pushes her away. With nowhere left to turn, Brook decides to kill herself in the most “unseen” way possible: swallowing pills and passing out in the library where no one’s around.

It’s this experience of being unseen by religious communities or communities in general that creates the Norma cult. In the face of this rejection and their status as inmates, they have to construct new meanings and miracles, one of which is the fence in front of the lake being wide, wide open.

Baptism and Mikvah in the Lake

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The season finale gives us a “miracle” in which the idiocy of a couple of contractors results in one of the fences in the prison yard being wide open. We’re then treated to a ten-minute scene of inmates realizing their proximity to momentary freedom and running toward it. They strip their shoes and plunge into the water without abandon. This is Cindy’s chance to perform her Mikvah and make her conversion to Judaism official, so the lake is already given this spiritual significance. More generally, this free play in the lake is a brief interruption to the women’s confinement and subjugation as prisoners. It’s eschatological in that they are already free (for a moment in time), but not yet free (since they will be caught and rallied back into their cells). New communal and relational realities are birthed as Brook finally finds a community (and most likely a girlfriend) that accepts her while Taystee embraces her role as “mother” of the black girls.

I loosely call this scene a baptism because these women connect themselves with the freedom of the water in some way. Some fully submerge themselves while others only dip their feet in, but they all experience unabated joy at this unexpected interruption.

And the season leaves us with that–with these women experiencing a moment of life in the face of death all around them and the certain punishments to come once they’re caught. Despite being in prison, they are constantly finding new ways of encountering the divine.

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Yet as interesting as this all is, I’d love to see the same treatment given to Christianity that has been given to other religions. Christianity is still portrayed homogenously as a backwards, exclusionary and abusive system (Islam gets even less development than that as we only see it briefly in Watson’s short flashback). It has certainly been these things and I have no problem with narratives exploring that, but there’s plenty of grounding to go beyond that. Sister Ingalis is a prime example of a character the writers could use to explore the radical, social justice-oriented praxis of Christianity. Once again, I see so much potential for her friendship with Sophia as a metaphor for a reunification of queerness and faith, but they need much, much more than a five-minute scene in one episode to achieve that.

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In any case, I hope the series isn’t finished with exploring religious narratives, because encounters with religion deeply shape us and, as we see in some of the stories from this season, they radically change us.

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