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Prison Writings

January 19, 2014

Last week I met with a friend I had not seen in several years. Born and bred in Spartanburg, he had been living in China since 2002, working as an English teacher on a Fulbright Scholarship. Arrested following a traffic mishap, he endured an ordeal beyond what most of us could ever imagine. He spent eight months imprisoned in a forced labor camp in China. At night he was confined with twenty-nine other men in a concrete cell that had no chairs and no beds. By day, he worked making Christmas lights destined for market in the United States. I doubt that I will ever again look at those lights without thinking of him. As difficult as his imprisonment was, it became the source of an inward journey that he recorded in journals. Those notes will eventually become a published memoir.

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.

As a part of my functional major in pastoral care and pastoral counseling, I spent one unit of training working as a chaplain in a medium security prison in LaGrange, Kentucky. Personal letters and journals written by the inmates were carefully censored, as was all correspondence coming into the prison. The prisoners at LaGrange were given occupational therapy – making license plates for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

The Apostle Paul wrote several of his epistles 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 pen letters that have been a source of encouragement to his readers for over two thousand years.

Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy during a one-year imprisonment while awaiting trial for the crime of treason against King Theodoric the Great. Boethius was the victim of unjust treachery. His experience inspired reflection on how evil can exist in a world governed by a good God. His work has been described by several church historians as the most interesting and most far-reaching example of prison literature.

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 crafted Pilgrim’s Progress, still considered a classic of Christian devotion.

Miguel de Cervantes returned home as a wounded soldier after serving in the Spanish army during the 1600s.  Unable to find work, he was sentenced to debtor’s prison.  There he wrote Don Quixote, as well as other stories, poems, and plays. I suppose that being behind bars leads to fantasies about jousting with windmills.

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, he persisted in writing about his faith until his death in 1972. Those books and letters continue to be 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 from any form of public speaking.

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

The late Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and leader in the struggle for equality in South Africa, was also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Incarcerated for twenty-seven years at Robben Island, he kept a secret diary. Upon his release he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, much of which was written during his imprisonment.

Important works of literature written from confinement include King Arthur by Thomas Malory, The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott. Other authors who wrote from prison were Ezra Pound, O. Henry, Oscar Wilde, Sir Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Henry David Thoreau who wrote Civil Disobedience after spending one night in jail.

On Martin Luther King Day, I recall some of the most profound words that have been written from behind bars. King 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. In 1963, George Wallace had won the office of Governor of Alabama 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.” Those 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.

King 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 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?”

Apart from the occupational therapy of making license plates in Kentucky or the forced labor of stringing Christmas light in China, the most valuable use of time for those serving time is to think long thoughts, pray long prayers, and write. It is certainly true that writings from prison have contributed to the great literature of civilization and have made the world a better place.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2014
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