Philippians 3:4-16 “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I continue our theme of letters from prison with, not a letter, but a prose epic written in prison, which you might say was his “letter” to a nation in distress.
John Bunyan wrote, during a 12 year prison sentence in England, The Pilgrim’s Progress which was published in 1678. Bunyon was John Eliot’s approximate contemporary, 20 years younger. When Eliot was here in Roxbury, Bunyan was in England during decades of religious violence there. He was in prison for preaching without a license, an act strictly prohibited by the Church of England, but he was an evangelical dissenter who would not be deterred. Bunyan had no formal education and his family were artisans with no standing in society of that time. But Bunyan was a brilliant speaker and writer--with a great imagination.
The Pilgrim’s Progress, written as an allegory, was conceived and presented as a dream he had of a man on a journey. The man’s destination was a reunion with God. The moral was to “keep your eyes on the prize” (Philippians 5). Now, today's journey is a cliche, when the journey amounts to going from job to job, from relationship to relationship, from city to city--like an accidental tourist. What Bunyan had in mind was the life journey that is chosen intentionally, a pilgrim not to a geographical destination but to a state of being.
Bunyan reports that his dream began with the sight of a man, in rags, stooped under the burden of a very heavy sack and reading a book. The book, not named, was the Bible, and the burden on his back was his sins. He is desperate to get relief from his sins, which Bunyan portrays as more grievous than any other kind of adversity like natural disasters, pandemics, disease or poverty. He can’t persuade his wife and three children to escape with him from the “City of Destruction,” so he leaves without them. Alone and lost, he encounters “Evangelist” who advises him to seek “The Celestial City” where he will find God and the forgiveness of sins. What follows is an extraordinary account, like Dante’s Divine Comedy, of a harrowing journey beset with all kinds of trials (the Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, Vanity Fair, the Valley of Humiliation). Christian, as he is named, was hampered by well-wishing but useless companions along the way (Pliable, Obstinate, Simple, Sloth, Wanton, Faithful, Ignorance). But the moral was, to keep his eyes on the prize throughout.
Bunyan’s purpose was to encourage the beleaguered Non-Conformists. In a religious world where religion was taken mortally seriously, Bunyan sought to provide a path other than the intellectual controversies and the ritual formalities facing people of that time. He proposed a path of the heart, not of the head or the prayer book. It was a strict Calvinism, shared by Eliot too, teaching the hopeful message that God will relieve the burden of your sins. We are descendants of Bunyan and Eliot, without the asceticism and self-mortification, but believing in the forgiveness of sins.
Remember the MONOPOLY board game? One of the possible cards you could draw was, “Get out of jail free.” What a joke to think about today! If only there were such a thing! There are Presidential pardons, of course, but only a small percentage of those who apply receive clemency and, in some presidential cases, only for political purposes.
In this country, we have too many people in jail with long terms for minor drug offenses. They don’t see any Get Out of Jail Free cards, although that has been remedied lately, slightly. In this country, we have too many people in jail unjustly, including on death row. They seldom see any Get Out of Jail Free cards. But thank God for Brian Stephenson. Thank God for the Innocence Project. Thank God for the Partakers College Behind Bars program. Thank God for seminary projects that bring education and inspiration from the Bible to prison inmates. They go in, they attempt rescue operations either through legal maneuvers or biblical education.
Get Out of Jail Free is a bad joke, more like Get Out of Jail Broke. None of the projects I have named can prevent the stigma that sticks permanently to former inmates throughout their subsequent lives as free men and women, especially the many who are Black and Hispanic. You’ve probably read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow by now and know all about that.
The prison is one of “civilization’s” most awful inventions. The prison conditions of 18th century England inspired the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” in our Bill of Rights. But very little changes, because prisons keep prisoners “out of sight and out of mind.” The sun never shines on the abuses within the penal system.
Prison punishes by deprivation, then adds cruelty--lives lived entirely in concrete and steel, white and grey, no color anywhere, no rugs, no curtains, nothing remotely natural, regimented schedules, lines and line-ups, deprived of privacy and family and caring touch, having to navigate sub-sub-cultures, deprived of safety, outright threats to their safety and the integrity of their bodies, and solitary confinement being the principal means of discipline--bestial!
I am asking a spiritual question now. What is the effect of a prison sentence? What happens to a man or woman incarcerated? How do they cope? What resources can they tap there? What hope greets them upon awakening every day?
One of the most remarkable evidences of such lives are the letters that come out of prison, like the one we heard read by Doug this morning from Ryan Post. There are other, more famous ones, like Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s autobiographical short story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters, Oscar Wilde’s 60-page letter from Reading Gaol, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. People share remarkable things when they write from prison. Prison letters, the great ones that get published and all the personal ones that never see the light of day, make a claim on our attention because they are written in extremis. Confinement, isolation, boredom, danger, dehumanization--these conditions would turn anyone’s thoughts sharply inward, revealing the depths of the human soul.
I listen to that letter of Ryan’s and marvel at his composure, his insight. I wonder that the sensation of God’s generosity could ever have reached him. He attended Bible study, I know. I wonder if the other inmates have any inkling of the abundance of God’s love. I wonder if they ever see the stars, or the moon even, and realize the part they occupy in God’s miraculous creation. I wonder if they realize they are part of God’s universe, moreover that God’s universe is in them, that their beating heart and the chemistry of the endocrine systems and the yearning of their souls mimic the giant, monumental suspiration of the universe. I wonder if they feel any freedom in the simple knowledge that God made them. Could that alone sustain an incarcerated woman or man?
And further, do you suppose there is any chance that the deprivations they suffer make more room for the expansion of their souls--would there be anyone to show them how to take that spiritual step there? Or is this just foolishness on my part? I am asking a spiritual question now. Religious people voluntarily stripped themselves of comforts. Inmates have that forced upon them. Religious people find freedom in their austere practices, then sing hymns about it. It is a stretch to think a prison experience can be turned inside out and made into the opposite of its intention, to turn punishment into fulfilment.
But here precisely is the gospel message to us. God is saying to everyone who lives under absolute constraints, who live at the limits of endurance, living in extremis: you may just have to find your freedom there, and you can. It will take the spiritual equivalent of an earthquake to bust out of jail as if free, as happened to St. Paul. The story tells a kind of parable--the gospel of forgiveness knocks down human walls. There is so much to forgive, and to be forgiven for, it could require a prisoner’s term to make amends, including for the crime involved. The same applies to us. You may not walk out of the literal prison rubble as Paul did, but inmates can walk around the prison like a free man or a free woman, and the same applies to our prisons. Now, we can’t claim to live like someone in a prison anything like Walpole or Rikers Island or the Cook County Jail. And yet, some of us are locked up inside and need our earthquake, too. An earthquake experience awaits everyone in God’s world, like the earthquake that set Paul and Silas free, for anyone at their limits, in or out of prison. Christ’s gospel of forgiveness unlocks human locks.