Fr Martin Newell: Following Christ to prison pt.1

On 14th August 2021, Fr Martin Newell spoke to CCA’s Saturday sessions for the first of two reflections on why prison time that results from direct action taken as a matter of conscience can be an experience of faithful Christian discipleship. We’re sharing the text of Martin’s talk below, but if you’d like to watch the recording instead to hear Martin, you can do this here:

Biblical and Spiritual Perspectives on Prison

Why are we talking about prison? Firstly, because risking time in prison is something that some of us, at least, judge to be a necessary response to the climate and environmental emergency. Secondly, because if that is something we are going to experience, reflecting on the experience from the perspective of faith, to try to make some deeper sense in and of that difficult time, that sacrifice, can give us strength to face up to it, to risk it, and to come through it with our faith and our humanity strengthened, not diminished. And thirdly, with the hope that by sharing our reflections, in faith and love, we can encourage and inspire others not to be afraid to take the risks required to help bring about the enormous, deep, drastic and urgent ecological, spiritual and political conversion that is required in these times.

I think it is worth saying that in a society without the death penalty or physical torture – for example – crucifixion – imprisonment is the worst punishment that the authorities can impose. And of course our prisons are much more hospitable than prisons in traditional societies like that of Jesus and the first Christians, as well as many other countries today. On the other hand, there are a lot more people in prisons in industrial societies like ours.

In this sense, to be in prison for reasons of faith and conscience is a very literal way of following Jesus, of ‘taking up the cross’ of Jesus, or of ‘following the way of the cross’. If we do it, we do in some sense as a participation in Jesus’ suffering for the ‘salvation of the world’: not that it is up to us to ‘save the world’ – God in Jesus has done that already – but as Christians we are called to follow the Christ; to be part of his body; to ‘participate’ in His mission. We are seeing the effects of sin on God’s Earth very visibly these days. In ‘sharing in His suffering’ we can share too in His saving mission.

Biblical References to Prison – or ‘Captivity’

THE OLD TESTAMENT

There are not many references to prisons in the Old Testament (as far as I know; others may like to add some for further reflection). In the book of Genesis, Joseph was in prison for possibly 12 years, after being sold into Egypt by his brothers, and then unjustly accused of making unwanted sexual advances by Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39–41). In prison he acquired the gift of interpreting dreams: we could perhaps say ‘of understanding reality correctly’. God used the trials Joseph endured to bring about something good: “the saving of many lives,” including those of his brothers who had hated him so much (Genesis 50:20). That of course is what we too would hope to do.

The next obvious reference is in Isaiah 61 – also quoted by Jesus in Luke chapter 6 – as part of the ‘manifesto’ for Jesus’s mission: in Isaiah’s words, “The spirit of the LORD God is on me, who has anointed me, to bring good news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favour for our God”. Perhaps this expression of a desire to ‘release those in prison’ is one root of Christian concern for prisoners and ex-prisoners.

The prophets generally were of course often in trouble with the authorities – both rulers and religious leaders – for their proclamation of the words of God. The closest I’m aware of to one of them ‘being put in prison’ is Jeremiah, when in chapter 38 he is put down a well. One distinction is that the nature of the place he is put seems to be the punishment, not just his loss of freedom, as he is ‘sinking into the mud’ and will die from starvation when there is no more food in the city, if he is left there. When I was in prison for a Ploughshares movement action, someone sent me a slightly cartoon-ish postcard picture of Jeremiah down the well – the image reminded me of a dungeon. This is probably the closest image we generally have of a ‘traditional’ prison. Interestingly, and perhaps not unlike what might be our own situation, Jeremiah’s plight excites different reactions from different parts of the ‘establishment’: the ‘chief men’ have him thrown down there, but a foreigner, Ebed-Melech the Cushite, is sympathetic to him, reports the situation to the King, who has him brought up and seeks his advice (not that he listens!), and then protects him. A situation perhaps similar to some of the stories in the book of Acts, where again, different parts of the establishment react differently – a difference that St Paul for example deliberately exploits – which may also be something maybe we can learn from?!

In the Book of Daniel, Daniel and his friends were imprisoned in a “fiery furnace” as punishment for breaking the law, in Daniel chapter 3, and then imprisoned in the “lions’ den” in chapter 6. Both of these ‘trials’ have been used by Christians to interpret their experience of being in prison for being faithful to their understanding of the implications of the Gospel. They have seen the experience of being in prison as a time of testing – a time of being ‘tried by fire’ – and a time of ‘being in the lions den’, a real testing of faithfulness to God, of putting their trust in God to keep them safe and to protect them – from both moral and physical dangers: moral dangers including compromise with the principles that brought them there, and with a sense that the pressures of prison life could lead to a failure to live up to a Christian way of life while inside prison. Others use the imagery of the New Testament that is closely related to Daniel – the apocalyptic from the Book of Revelation imagery of ‘being in the belly of the beast’ (Rev 11, 13 etc.): being in that all-consuming, enclosed and – sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically – dark environment – at the heart of the System, in the sense of it being such a controlled place, where ‘the System’ is in total control – it is easy to think of it in such ways. This imagery also seems to me relevant because prison being a place where so much sin, or at least the consequences of sin, is concentrated, both social and personal: the sin of society as well as individuals. It has this in common with many of the world’s ‘marginal’ places.

THE NEW TESTAMENT

The New Testament is full of references to prison and captivity. At least four of St Paul’s letters are traditionally called the ‘prison epistles’: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. In the book of Acts, the apostles and disciples are imprisoned a number of times. But we will begin with the central books of the New Testament, the Gospels.

The Gospels

The most obvious references to followers of Jesus being in prison in the Gospels come in Jesus’s ‘apocalyptic discourses’ about ‘the end’. For example, Luke 21: 5 – 38, where Jesus says, “many people will come using my name… refuse to join them… for the end is not so soon’. Because of your refusal to comply, “you will be seized… persecuted… and imprisoned… brought before kings and governors… to bear witness… your perseverance will win you your lives”. Of course, many examples can be given where this last bit doesn’t happen – in the normal sense of ‘during life on this Earth’. As people of faith we have to see our lives within the perspective of eternity, which begins in this life. Matthew’s Gospel also has a very similar text (see Matthew 24:1 – 31).

Matthew’s Gospel also refers to prison and prisoners in a different context, in Matthew 25:39 “when did we see you sick or in prison and go to see you”. This is part of the Last Judgement scene, where the sheep and the goats are separated (Matthew 25: 31 – 49 ).

It is interesting here that those in prison are equated with the sick. At that time, probably even more so than today, a prisoner was often there as a result of poverty – because historically there were such things debtors prisons, as well as of course, the desperation of the poor just to survive.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was arrested about a dozen times in her life for activism and was in prison a number of times. She quoted this text from Matthew 25, and the “Work of Mercy” in the Catholic tradition that is based on it, and said that “the best way to visit the prisoner is to go to prison”.

The first person in the New Testament to suffer persecution and be imprisoned for his faith is, however, John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:2 and chapter 14). His fate reminds us of the powerlessness of the prisoner. It reminds us that once we are in the legal and prison system, we are on a roller coaster that we cannot get off on our own accord. We are at the disposal and the whim of our captors. We can be grateful that in countries like this one that prisons are part of a system with lots of rules surrounding them, so that personal whims are that much constrained. But they still play their part, along with the simple unpredictability of what will happen next.

Acts

As I mentioned above, the apostles and disciples are imprisoned a number of times in the Book of Acts. For example, in 4:23, “As soon as they were released they went to the community and told them everything.” Perhaps there is a lesson there, for when we are released, to go to our community and ‘tell them everything’ – or at least to share our experiences and reflections.

In Acts 5:17, it says “they arrested the apostles and put them in the public gaol” – but the ‘angel of God’ led them out at night, enabled them to escape and told them to start preaching the message. Again, maybe there is a lesson for us: that when God brings us out of prison, in whatever way – for example, when we are released – maybe we will be called to start once more ‘preaching the message’ that was the reason we ended up there.

On the other side of what you might call the prison equation, in Acts 8:3 it says, “Saul then began doing great harm to the church; he went… arresting both men and women and sending them to prison”. And in 9:2, “Saul… asked for letters… to authorise him to arrest… any followers of the Way”. His memories of these actions must have been very painful for him in later life after his conversion. I am sure they must have made him all the more passionate to repay God and the people for what he had done. This is a reminder that we must never give up on our persecutors or our captors. Like a converted smoker, they could become the most passionate and powerful advocates for our cause.

There are multiple stories of imprisonment, escape and divine rescue in the book of Acts. For example, in 12:1 – 5, “Herod… had James the brother of John beheaded… and went on to arrest Peter as well…. He put him in prison”. On this occasion an angel opened the gates for Peter to escape – he thought it was a dream until the angel left him. In 16:16-40 Paul and Silas are flogged and put in prison in Philippi. While there, they were “praying and singing God’s praises” – a recurring theme in Acts. Many Christians, for example those involved in the US civil rights movement, have followed this example and taken prison to be a place for ‘praying and singing God’s praises’, and for deepening the faith that kept them going, by Bible study, discussion, meditation and contemplative prayer.

While Paul and Silas are singing and praying, there was an earthquake which made “all the doors of the prison fall open”. They, and other prisoners, could have escaped – but instead Paul called out to the gaoler who was converted along with his family. Again, we cannot give up hope for the conversion of our captors to the cause that we believe in. And the text goes on to say that Paul insisted on being heard by the Magistrates who wanted to release them quietly to keep the story from having what we might call today ‘the oxygen of publicity’. We can learn a lesson from this too: not to let the authorities off the hook by complying with whatever deal they might offer us that seems to offer us a quiet life.

In 24:22 and following, Paul is in custody for two years in Caesarea, where he had opportunities to explain the faith to the Governor (Felix), then Festus, and King Agrippa and other rulers. He also had opportunities to argue his case to others and stay in contact with other disciples before using his status as a Roman citizen (22:29) to have his case heard by the emperor. Paul knew how to ‘cash in’ on his privilege to spread his message, even at the risk of his own life, which is something we too can learn from. As a result, he was sent to Rome, where he was under ‘house arrest’ – chained to a Roman soldier to prevent escape – where he continued to preach his message, “proud of his weakness” and powerlessness.

The fact that so much of the Scriptures were written from prison tells us something. Prison can be a great place to understand what is going on in the world, the nature of our society. It can be a great place to understand our faith, and especially the Scriptures. Maybe that’s why there seem to be so many angels in them, and so many who learn to interpret dreams – to interpret the nightmares of the societies and the rulers of the times and places where they live.

Christian Tradition

Since Biblical times, there have of course been Christians imprisoned – as well as executed and tortured – for their faith all through Christian history – including by other Christians! I’m sure none of us are advocating that! In the more recent few centuries, examples of Christians imprisoned for conscience would include Quakers, as a result of their conscientious objection, most recently and well known in this country during World War One.

I believe it was the Prison Reformers such as the Quaker Elizabeth Fry, who spent some nights (voluntarily) in prisons – and invited others to do so – who brought about the idea that prisons could be ‘reformatories’, or ‘penitentiaries’ (places for ‘doing penance’) in the American terms. Penance was understood as a practice that in this case was not voluntary but imposed, that would lead to moral reform and a becoming a better person.

At least some Victorian era prisons were deliberately designed along similar lines to monasteries – it’s no accident that, like monasteries, prisons have cells, and ‘regular hours’ for meals. As far as I’m aware, UK prisons no longer have early morning wake up calls, early nights and ‘lights out’ times. But it is not long ago that they still did, much like many monasteries.

It’s probably these similarities, along with the understanding that ‘the margins’ – and perhaps especially prisons – are great places to get the right perspective on the scriptures and on faith that led to some Christians, including Catholic Workers in the USA in the 1950’s and 1960’s, to talk about prisons as the ‘new monasteries’. This probably sounds rather unrealistically romantic. It’s probably more real if you are in prison with a whole load of your Christian friends in a certain type of the more comfortable American prison… but there is something in it. Not that prison is a healing place, good to become a holy person in that way. In fact in my experience, survival in terms of keeping good mental health over a longer time inside is a challenge. But the monastic movement did indeed start as a movement to the margins, away from comfortable Christianity. And the inactivity of prison life does give at least the potential to read and study and reflect on the Bible and to pray more intensely – even to do these things together with others, if we are lucky to be there together with others of the same mind for the same reason. It can help to do these things from that marginal perspective on society from where the Bible was mostly written.

Part of what can be rare for many of us about this experience of being ‘at the margins’ is that we not there as a ‘helper’ – a social worker, a minister of religion, a ‘do-gooder’ (in the best possible sense of that word) – coming in ‘from above’ with our choice and freedom in each moment to give up our privileges and freedoms. Not coming in that way, but as people almost equally powerless before the prison system, who have also entered into a chain of events that may now be out of our control (actually, this probably doesn’t apply when on remand), at the mercy as much as everyone else of ‘the system’ – which as the prison saying goes, ‘you can’t beat’. This is something that can be a real learning experience.

It was of course from prison that Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned those electrifying words in his ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’. That was where he wrote about the need for a ‘new monasticism’, including the ones about seeing faith ‘from the underside of history’. Words that inspired both liberation theologians and the ‘new monasticism’ movement. And he was able to see, understand and write those things because of that marginal place in which he sat. It was while in prison (to state the obvious) that Martin Luther King penned his famously powerful and piercing ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, and Nelson Mandela started writing Long Walk to Freedom on Robben Island.

One of the strange things about being in prison is that, just by being there, not by necessarily doing anything, it can be a very powerful and significant act. As Phil Berrigan said, “prison speaks to conscience”. As does all willingness to suffer voluntarily for what is right. Or so I believe. It is not just the disruption of an act of civil disobedience that creates an external power that can bring about change. The sacrifice combined with it can have an ‘internal power’ to bring about conversion of conscience, which ultimately is the deeper, more lasting and profound change.

I believe it is useful to try to see a stay in prison as a retreat. It can be an opportunity to pray more intensely, to study the bible from that reality, to read the realities of the world we live in, to reflect on what we are experiencing there, and what it tells us about our society. It is good, when the opportunity arises, to take a cue from the apostles, and to sing and praise God in captivity – even if quietly. It is good to take a cue from St Paul and write lots of letters or articles for others on the outside to read.

On the other hand, there is no need to put pressure on yourself. If you find it hard, do what American Catholic Worker Frank Cordaro calls ‘easy time’. But in a place where the pleasures of life are in short supply, often the best way to give life meaning is to act intentionally to make it meaningful.

I think it can also help to understand time in prison as an act of solidarity. Solidarity with all those around the world who are unjustly imprisoned. Solidarity in particular with all those Earth Protectors who are persecuted, suffer violence, injury, imprisonment, torture and death for their cause around the world. During the Vietnam War many Christians in the USA went to prison camps for conscientious objectors. Those who were drafted risked prison for their conscientious objection. Some others, mostly those who were not drafted, risked prison for anti-war protests, which they saw as another form of conscientious objection, an act of solidarity with those who were drafted (conscripted). They saw it as a necessary risk for those convinced that nonviolence was the solution to problems, rather than the state violence of war. If soldiers were willing to risk their lives, and other war resisters had to endure prison, then it was necessary for those with the privilege of not being drafted not to sit back in comfort, but to take similar risks, to cash in on their privilege.

Just remember: when you are lying on your bunk, it is really important to be happy with whatever it was that you did that got you there!

And finally… some words from Vietnam war and anti-nuclear resister Jesuit Fr Daniel Berrigan. He is speaking about war and peace. I am saying these same truths apply to our attempt to help end the war on the planet.

“We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total–but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the mere desire for peace…”

“We want the peace; but most of us do not want to pay the price of peace. We still dream of a peace that has no cost attached. We want peace, but we live content with poverty and injustice and racism, with the murder of prisoners and students, the despair of the poor to whom justice is endlessly denied. We long for peace, but we wish also to keep undisturbed a social fabric of privilege and power that controls the economic misery of two thirds of the world’s people.“

“So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the verities of peace… we have taken for granted that war shall exact the most rigorous cost, and that the cost shall be paid with a cheerful heart. We take it for granted that in wartime families will be separated for long periods, that men will be imprisoned, wounded, driven insane, killed on foreign shores. In favor of such wars, we declare a moratorium on every normal human hope – for marriage, for community, for friendship, for moral conduct toward strangers and the innocent. We are instructed that deprivation and discipline, private grief and public obedience are going to be our lot. And we obey. And we bear with it – because bear we must – because war is war, and war good or bad, we are stuck with it and its cost.”

“But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands, and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for the peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their loved ones, in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans – that five-year plan of studies, that ten-year plan of professional status, that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise.

“Of course, let us have the peace,” we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor the disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs – at all costs – our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good men should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost – because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.

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