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Writings from Prison

January 16, 2012

When I was in seminary, I read Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. The book chronicles his experiences as an inmate in both Auschwitz and Dachau Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. Frankl’s writing details the various ways inmates find meaning during imprisonment. Frankl’s words prompted me to pay attention to other important works written from a prison cell.

On Martin Luther King Day I recall some of the most profound words that have been written from behind bars.

The Apostle Paul wrote several of his letters during his two-year confinement in Rome, in approximately 61-63 A.D. Regarding his shackles as a minor concern, Paul used this time of incarceration to write letters that, for over two thousand years, have been a source of encouragement to his readers.

In 1658 John Bunyan, a Baptist minister in England, was indicted for preaching without a license. Though he was initially imprisoned for only a few months, officials extended his sentence to nearly twelve years because he refused to stop preaching. During that time, he penned Pilgrim’s Progress, still considered a classic of Christian devotion.

After serving in the Spanish army during the 1600s, Miguel de Cervantes returned home as a wounded soldier.  Unable to find work, he was sentenced to debtor’s prison.  There he wrote Don Quixote, as well as other stories, poems, and plays.

Watchman Nee, born in China, became a Christian in 1920 at the age of seventeen. The Communist government arrested him in 1952 because of verbal and printed professions of his beliefs.  Though he remained behind bars until his death in 1972, he continued to write about his faith. Those books and letters remain a source of inspiration.

Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned several times for leading revolution in India through passive resistance and nonviolence.  The Essential Gandhi includes his teachings on civil disobedience, freedom, and even the joy of prison.

During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was active in the German Resistance movement against the Nazi regime. He was among those who opposed Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. The Gestapo banned him from preaching, then teaching, and finally any form of public speaking.

He participated in a plot to remove Adolf Hitler.  In 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. While imprisoned the young pastor produced numerous letters later published as Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer was hanged at the age of 39 three weeks before the end of World War II. His words continue to inspire believers to this day.

Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and leader in the struggle for equality in South Africa, was locked up for twenty-seven years at Robben Island. Upon his release he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He had written much of that book secretly during his imprisonment.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most influential civil rights leaders in modern times. After initiating a nonviolent protest against racial segregation on Good Friday 1963, he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Birmingham, Alabama.  Mayor Albert Boutwell was a segregationist, and Police Commissioner Eugene Bull Conner was notorious for his violent treatment of blacks. Governor of Alabama in 1963, George Wallace had won that office with campaign promises of segregation forever.

Eight white Alabama clergymen wrote a letter published in The Birmingham News on April 12, 1963, entitled “A Call for Unity.” The eight pastors agreed that social injustices were occurring but expressed the belief that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts and not taken into the streets.

King responded with an open letter written on April 16, 1963. While specifically addressing those eight clergymen, King clearly wrote to a national audience. He declared his conviction that without direct action, civil rights could never be achieved. As he stated, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” He asserted not only that civil disobedience is justified in the face of unjust laws, but also that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

The letter proclaimed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Near the end of his Letter from Birmingham Jail King wrote “Never before have I written so long a letter…. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

That is true of all writings from prison.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2012
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