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January 18, 2020

Nine years ago, Clare and I went to Newberry, South Carolina, for the town’s autumn festival. The owner of a bookstore there asked me if I would come and talk about my writing and sign copies of my books.

While I was in this quaint shop, I looked through the section of old books, one of my favorite things to do. I love to browse through the used volumes in old bookstores. A title caught my eye, Prisoners of Hope. I recognized immediately that the author had lifted this phrase from the prophet Zechariah. It is one that I have paid attention to before in my devotional reading. I had not read this book, written in 1900 by a woman named Mary Johnston.

The story, set in Colonial Virginia, is about a family that came to Virginia by way of the Chesapeake Bay. The family did not come as wealthy planters. They came as indentured servants, therefore the title. Those people who came to this country as indentured servants had the hope that they would have a new beginning. People who were prisoners settled much of the colony of Georgia. Most of them had been transported from the debtor’s prisons of England.

One branch of Clare’s family came to Georgia. Her family is quick to say their immigrant ancestor was not in debtor’s prison but was a member of the Royal Guards. The Royal Guard were British soldiers on the ships bringing the prisoners to the New World.

I met with a friend I had not seen in several years. Born and bred in Spartanburg, he had been living in China, working there as an English teacher. 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 in a concrete cell with 29 other men. The cell 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 Christmas lights without thinking of him. As difficult as his imprisonment was, it became the source of an inward journey 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 found 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 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.

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 the 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 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. Locked up 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 that book was written during his imprisonment.

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 in 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.”

I will never forget a conversation I had with General Norman Gaddis. General Gaddis was Colonel Gaddis when he was an Air Force pilot. He was shot down over North Viet Nam. He was in solitary confinement in what the United States Prisoners of War refer to as the Hanoi Hilton for 1000 days, about three years. Then for another three years, he was in a cell with three other American officers, also prisoners of war.

In conversation with General Gaddis, I asked, “What got you through? What gave you the ability to endure those six years?”

He answered succinctly, “Scripture got me through.”

I said, “You mean they let you have a Bible?”

He answered, “Oh, no. They did not let me have a Bible. When I was growing up, I was in Sunday School. I was always encouraged to memorize Scripture. I was surprised to know how much of that I remembered. Even when I could not remember the exact words of a verse, I could recall stories that I had heard as a child. Can you imagine what the story of Daniel in the lion’s den meant to me?”

That is what it means to be a prisoner of hope. It means that in whatever circumstance you find yourself, you know that ultimately your life is at the mercy only of the Almighty. Your life is not at the mercy of those who would persecute. It is the reason the prophet Zechariah coined this improbable phrase, “prisoners of hope.”

With this provocative phrase in mind, let us remember those in our own time who are persecuted for their faith or their desire for freedom. They are truly prisoners of hope.

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