As a nonbeliever, it's more unsettling than I care to admit the many sermons I've sat through in which I've felt the preacher was speaking directly to me. It happened again last night at Bible study when Chaplain Barlow, reading from the book of Matthew, posed the question: is meekness the same as weakness? To demonstrate the difference, he motioned for an inmate near the front of the class to stand.

"Suppose Chuck here is a bully who's just taken my lunch money." Barlow extended an open palm to the man. More than illustrate a point, I believe Barlow's demonstrations are intended to prove to us how comfortable he is around inmates. As if sensing a trick, Chuck hesitated before accepting the imaginary lunch money, and even then he was careful not to graze the chaplain's starched cuff and gold cufflinks; Brother in Christ though he may be, Barlow is still to many of us, first and foremost, a cop.

To walk away from a fight, Barlow continued, is to exercise meekness—power under restraint. "But suppose Chuck takes my lunch money every day, and every day I willingly hand him my two dollars." The chaplain removed another imaginary bill from his pocket, then another. "Am I still being meek?"

Barlow paused while the class considered this; the silence seemed to me like a condemnation. I stared down at my Bible. Sometimes while sitting in church I flip to the back where the prescriptive verses are arranged by trial. For loneliness, Hebrews 13:5 says to "…be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." In moments of fear, Psalm 31:24 reminds me to "Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen [my] heart …." When depressed, Psalm 42:11 encourages me to put my hope in the lord, "…for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

"If Barlow were able to relate to us, if he were the everyman he so often presents himself as, I should think he'd have more practical advice, a more relevant protagonist than his tired Goliath-figure, to offer us.

Say this lunch room bully is a Texas Aryan Brother, and he demands you pay him commissary to keep quiet about your charge. If you refuse to pay him, he and his posse run you off the yard. If you fight him, reckoning you win, the gang retaliates. If you report the threat to a staff member, you're labeled a snitch, and snitches end up in ditches. And if you check in to the SHU, the truth comes out regardless. In any case you spend the remaining seven years of your sentence running from yard to yard, rumor and reputation chomping at your heels.

So, you pay the guy. He hands you a neatly penned list for forty dollars worth of summer sausages, diet sodas, and oatmeal cream pies. Next week it's a list for seventy dollars. You keep paying him week after week, hoping the son of a bitch will be satisfied, or that one of you will be transferred, and the demands will end.

What advice would Barlow offer a person in such a situation? What then would the chaplain have to say about meekness and weakness? What scriptures would he quote? What parables would he refer me to? I looked up extortion in the back of my Bible, but it wasn't there.

That evening I made out yet another commissary list: two apple danishes, two honey buns, three six-packs of diet soda—Mountain Dew, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper—eight summer sausages, two bags of salted peanuts, two packs of batteries, and a bag of refried beans with chorizo. A total of $29.95.