"I was in prison" (St. Matthew 25, 36)

Thoughts on the Perspective of the Prisoner Pastoral

  By Johannes Beutler SJ (Papal Bible Institute, Rome)


  1. An Impression

  Those of us who visit prisoners have crossed a certain threshold many times. Again and again, for 11 years I have consciously been passing through the reception area of the Juvenile Detention Centre III in Frankfurt am Main. The prison threshold is the dividing line between the world "outside" and the world "inside". "Outside" is the world of those who can go wherever they want, the world of those who are able to choose the people they want to meet, irrespective of the time of day. "Outside" is also the world of interpersonal relationships, the world of families, jobs and leisure. "Inside" everything is very different. The freedom to move is severely restricted, right down to being locked up in a small cell, every evening, and also many times during the day. "Inside" is the world of limited contact, administratively regulated visiting times, forced togetherness of people who otherwise would never have dreamed of sharing their living space. The keys we are given are the tools that divide such living spaces. In any such spaces you can find concentrated the misery of the world; hardship, loneliness, despair.

  Whenever we sit in the detention room or the visiting area of the chaplaincy centre the same question arises time and again: "Who is God?" Many prisoners feel very strongly that they have not just been deserted by people but also by God. In their response they read the psalms and together with the writer and Jesus they lament: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Psalms 22, 1; Mark 15, 34) For those people God seems to be "outside", not here "inside". The thick prison walls have left God "outside". At least that is the impression many prisoners have. Perhaps part of it is their sheer disappointment. Perhaps God is closer to those who are successful, kind and productive than to those who have been disadvantaged right through their lives and maybe have been found guilty for their actions. And so, on Sunday mornings they hear the bells of the small church across the yard, the sound of which call the "good" Christians of the neighbourhood to church, while those "inside" ask themselves whether they should attend the service "inside"; a service they are taken to in groups, which are watched closely and which are then accompanied back to the cells. And so they wonder if that is still the one church they used to believe in, or if there aren't really two churches, the church "outside" and the church "inside".

In many countries of the world this "threshold" will perhaps be experienced differently. People are imprisoned and kept locked up not just because they broke the law but because they became too difficult. Many people, even in those so-called "civilised" nations, often have to wait years for their trial while others are held without charge. Many have lost their freedom simply because they spoke out when it would have been better to stay silent, or because they acted while others only watched from the sidelines. We all know examples of this kind from all continents of the earth. Amnesty International knows many of the individuals concerned but, of course, cannot know each and every case. Even today, there are western industrial nations where conscientious objectors are sent to prison. Not only in South East Asia are people fighting for human rights locked up in prison cells. Not only in Latin America do lawyers working for the poor lose their freedom and sometimes even their lives. Such cases make us ask ourselves: "Where is God?" From a Christian perspective one might ask: "Where is Jesus?"

2.     The Perspective of the Gospel

  The New Testament offers perhaps a surprising answer to the last question: Jesus is "inside"! We all know the scene in the Last Judgement as told in St. Matthew's Gospel (25, 31-46). The righteous people of the world are being separated from the cursed. The important criterion for the final decision is the question whether man has helped the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and those in prison and has been with God on the side of the underprivileged. And in those verses we are told: "Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me (St. Matthew, 25, 34-36). "I was in prison" - that statement should surprise us and make us think. How does this fit into the duality of the world we experience every time when we cross the prison threshold: the world of the "righteous" outside and the world of the "sinners" inside? The Gospel tells of the astonishment of those who always practised this duality. "Did we ever see you suffering, sick or in prison?" Jesus replied that he identifies himself with "the least of these my brethren": "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (St. Matthew 25, 40). Those who look at the face of the poor, the suffering, the sick and the imprisoned will recognise Jesus. If it is necessary to divide the world between "outside" and "inside" then Jesus is definitely "inside" and with those imprisoned.

This view has many similarities with the picture the Bible draws of prisoners and imprisonment. Almost always the representatives of God's People - patriarchs, kings or prophets - are imprisoned and are often not guilty. The longest and most memorable story of this kind is told in Genesis (39-41). Joseph's brothers have sold him to Egypt. He ends up a prosperous man at the court of the Pharaoh and is noticed by the wife of the captain of the guard. When he refuses her advances she accuses him of improper behaviour towards her and Joseph is sent to prison. Only much later he is set free again and has his old rights reinstated. Samson's story is similar when he is innocent and still imprisoned by the Philistines. Technically, he should be called a prisoner of war. When he can't free himself he causes the house containing him and hundreds of Philistines to collapse. This does not just demonstrate his own strength but also that of the God of Israel (Judges 16).

  Similarly, Judah, Hoshea und Hezekiah, the last kings of Samaria, are prisoners of war (2nd Kings, 17, 4; 25, 7-25). The dual kingdom ended with their reign. Matthew later counts the kings of Judah as Jesus' ancestors (1, 11).

  Again and again, the Old Testament tells of prophets being thrown into prison. One of the earliest of those is Micha, son of Jimla. King Ahab ponders war against Ramot-Gilead and consults all prophets at his court. They all advise him and promise him victory. Only Micha ben Jimla acts differently. Consulted after much hesitation he tells the king of his impending defeat. He is thrown into prison and fed only bread and water. Only after Ahab dies in battle he is set free again. (1st Kings 22, 1-38). The prophet Hanani in the Southern Kingdom suffers a similar fate when he remonstrates with King Asa (2nd Chronicles 16, 10).

  Like Elijah, other prophets are sent into exile (1st Kings, 19 3). He escapes from Ahab and his wife and heads for the Southern Kingdom and the desert. Amos is told: "O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there: but prophesy not again any more at Beth-el: for it is the king's chapel, and it is the king's court." (Amos 7, 12). During the confusion prior to the conquest of Jerusalem Jeremiah dares to prophesy the impending defeat of the city and the kingdom. As a result he is thrown into the dungeon (Jer 38, 1-13). When a friend takes up his case he is brought up again but kept a prisoner at the court of the king "until the day when Jerusalem was conquered" (Jeremiah 38, 28).

So we realise that prophets who tell the truth live dangerously, and that those who proclaim their faith may lose their freedom and even their lives. This conclusion is summarised in the Epistle to the Hebrews where we hear of the former heroes of their faith: "And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword ..." (Hebrew 11, 36)  The power of their faith was stronger than the power of those persecuting them and robbing them of their freedom and their lives. This view is certainly also borne out by the experience during the time of the Maccabees (cf. 1st Maccabees 9, 53; 13, 12).

  A life in prison can serve as a metaphor for persecution and hostility. We know of many psalms telling us of innocent people being persecuted, who then look for help in God. Many times we also hear in psalms of disease, either as a metaphor for a life of conflict or as proof that hostility can indeed lead to illness in those being persecuted. In this context we also hear about imprisonment. In psalm 142, 7 one person who is innocent but still persecuted prays: "Lead my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name." It is not entirely clear here, whether the term "prison" serves as a metaphor or is indeed the reality out of which the prayer is offered. In any case, life in prison, which in Graeco-Roman times often meant life in total darkness, is a suitable metaphor for life in conflict and oppression.

  At this point a brief word on the meaning of psalms for those visiting and caring for prisoners may be useful. When I started to visit women in Latin America who were in prison having been convicted of drug smuggling I soon realised that their bibles, which they had inherited from their predecessors, often had a black line through the middle. Initially I asked myself what that was supposed to mean but soon found the answer. More than any other book of the bible these women read the psalms and used them as their personal prayer book, especially in the evenings and before going to sleep. They looked for inspiration during those times of the day when they thought of and worried about their loved ones, their children, parents, brothers and sisters. I was surprised to hear that some psalms were more popular than others, and that the women read those again and again. They were the ones read as part of the night songs in church. A favourite was psalm 91, but also psalm 4, which closes with the words: "I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety." (V. 8). Another favourite prayer in prison is psalm 23: "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want." (V. 1) Many prisoners would surely like to find themselves in the dark valley the psalmist speaks about.

During their time in exile and afterwards the suffering people of Israel are promised deliverance from such a life in darkness and oppression. The "Servant of God" mentioned in the Book of Isaiah is told: "I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house." (Isaiah 42, 6-7). Later we are told more about this "Servant of God", that he himself will suffer humiliation, pain and death, and that only through him and his patience the vicious circle of violence will come to an end.

  According to one of the later texts in the book of Isaiah it will be the Messiah, who will give freedom and new hope to the oppressed people. "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord ..." (Isaiah 61, 1-2). As we will remember, according to the gospel of St. Luke (4, 18 ff) Jesus reflects on those words from Isaiah in his first sermon in his home town of Nazareth to describe his future mission. The gospel tells us that Jesus knows he has been sent "to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord." Especially in St. Luke the good message for the poor, and the promise of freedom for the captives, belong together.

  I should point out here that in ancient times there were no detention penalties. People were detained either due to war, because of a debt, which had to be paid or as part of an investigation ending in a sentence, which more often than not was death. Sometimes Jesus speaks of a debt tower, a prison, into which people could be thrown (St. Matthew 5, 25). Otherwise, when the New Testament tells us about prison it is in connection with a court hearing. Only very few texts tell us about people who are not part of Jesus' group, for example, in the scene of the Passion, in which the Jews of Jerusalem are asked to decide between Jesus and another prisoner, Barabbas (St. Luke 23, 18 ff, 25), and chose the latter. In other texts we hear how Jesus or members of his group are imprisoned or held captive.

  St. John the Baptist is the first of those well known prisoners. Even from prison he sends a message to Jesus (St. Matthew 11, 2). Due to the mood swings of Herod John finds his end in prison (St. Mark 6, 14-29). For us as readers of St. Mark this fate must have some paradigmatic meaning: John, the Baptist, dies an innocent man and is buried by his disciples with all honours, and the same fate awaits Jesus.

  The New Testament reports the arrest of Jesus when he walks to the Mount of Olives (St. Mark 14, 43-49). This could be interpreted as being imprisoned on remand, even if in comparison to today the circumstances are very are different, as personal and human rights as we know them were virtually unheard of. There are scenes of ridicule and maltreatment, even the guards get involved before Jesus is sentenced to death and he is put to the cross. (cf. St. Mark 14, 65, 15, 16-20).

Ever since Jesus had died on the cross the history of the early developing church was littered with examples of imprisonment and death. It was Jesus himself who foresaw these events (St. Mark 13, 9-13). Stephanus is lynched and dies without trial and detention (Acts 7, 59 ff.) Most of the apostles fare slightly better. Like Jesus, though, they get into conflict with the High Court of the Jewish people and are detained because of their belief in Jesus and the proclamation of his name; initially only Peter and John are arrested (Acts 5, 18), then the entire group of twelve (Acts 5, 18). In the earlier case the apostles defend themselves and are set free, in the second case they are freed due to the intervention of God himself. Having been detained once again St. Peter relives the experience (Acts 12, 3-18), while Paul and his followers find themselves in a similar situation in Philippi (Acts 16, 19-40): the doors of the dungeon open and the prisoners are allowed to move again freely. Of course, they immediately use the opportunity to proclaim Jesus to the prison guard and to convert him to one of the believers.

  Probably pursuing a theological agenda, St. Luke repeatedly tells of the miraculous liberation of the proclaimers of the Christian faith, and he wants to show that God's word is stronger than any human chains he might be bound in. This conviction draws strength from the death of the messenger of that faith, one of the reasons why St. Luke keeps telling us about it. The long chapters of the Acts (21-28) in which Paul is first imprisoned and then makes his way to Rome lead us to a similar focal point, the death of Paul. At the end of the Acts, even when faced with Paul's impending death St. Luke stresses that Paul was able to spread the word of God freely and without trouble (Acts 28, 31).

  In the "Letters from Prison" Paul himself speaks in a much more sober manner of his own imprisonment. He draws his strength not from the miraculous experience of God's help but rather from his weakness, of which he is proud (2nd Corinthians 11, 30). In two authentic letters dated approximately 55 AD Paul describes himself as a prisoner; in the letter to the Philippians and in the letter to Philemon. We assume that Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus. In the letter to the Philippians Paul draws the reader's attention straight away to the fact of his detention. He describes himself as "in bonds", tied up or in chains (Philippians 1, Of course, detention in a Roman prison cannot stop the proclamation of the Word of God - on the contrary. Having been imprisoned Paul uses the occasion to first defend himself and then to "confirm the Gospel" (Philippians 2, 7, cf. 1, 16). In this way his message reaches everyone including the entire commander's palace (Philippians 1, 13).

  In the short letter to Philemon, his friend, Paul tells of a similar experience. Paul seems to be in the same detention centre. From this dungeon he asks Philemon to look after Onesimous, his erstwhile slave, and to forgive him and set him free. Paul is in prison for "the sake of the Gospel" and is unable to invite Onesimous to his own house. During the initial exchange of greetings Paul describes himself as "a prisoner of Jesus Christ". It is those two letters from which the early Christians received their perception of Paul as the "prisoner of Christ". Of course, the long detention of Paul in Rome as told in the Acts and other earlier sources played an important part, too.

  The two most important letters of the school of Paul contain the theme of Paul as a prisoner; they are the letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Ephesians. The letter to the Colossians (4, 18) closes with the words of Paul: "The salutation by the hand of me Paul. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you." We feel reminded of the German resistance fighter, the Jesuit Alfred Delp, who, imprisoned in his cell, handcuffed and facing death still managed to write his last letters and notes. In the letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4, 1) Paul describes himself as a person imprisoned for Christ, virtually as a "prisoner of Jesus Christ" (3, 1). Through his imprisonment the fate of Jesus himself is repeated and also the new fruit is created through the spirit of Jesus.

  It does not come as a great surprise that Paul in his pastoral letters, i. e. his letters to his disciples Timothy and Titus, repeats the idea of himself as a prisoner. In 2nd Timothy he writes to Timothy: "Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God." So there is a positive connection between detention and the proclamation of the Gospel: although Paul was detained because of the Gospel it is exactly this fact that helps the word of the Gospel to be spread.

  If the apostles, like John the Baptist and Jesus himself and also Peter and Paul had to suffer animosity and imprisonment because they proclaimed the Gospel it doesn't surprise that the New Testament treats imprisonment as an almost daily experience of the Christians in the first century. A good example would be the epistle of Paul to the Hebrews. In the final part of the letter he repeats what Christians should strive for in their lives, such as love of brothers and sisters or hospitality. But then he also reminds them: "Remember them that they are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body." (Hebrews 13, 3) In this letter the connection between detention and maltreatment stands out and will be recognised by everyone working as a prison chaplain.

  In his seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor John the Seer expressly talks about the impending imprisonment of members of the church. In the letter to the Smyrnaens it says (Revelation 2, 10): "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulations ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." We assume that the anticipated actions of an overzealous authority refer to the arrests of Christian during the time of Domitian. The Roman governor Gaius Plinius the Younger in his exchange of letters with Trajan (Ephesians X 96 ff.) a little later reports similar developments in northern Asia Minor. Christians, male and female, will be interrogated and perhaps even be tortured. Unless they renounce their faith they should be killed. But if they instead worship the Roman Gods they should be set free. Such documents reflect the reality of life for Christians in the eastern part of the empire at the beginning of the second century, and we know that the persecution of Christians in all parts of the empire is to follow in the next two hundred years. In fact, the historical review shows that imprisonment and death will be part of all Christians right up to the times of Constantine, when things changed. The New Testament tells especially of two Christian martyrs whose imprisonment and death has found its way into literature, too; these are Ignatius of Antiochia, whose seven authenticated letters tell of life in prison while he is awaiting death as a martyr, and Polycarp of Smyrna, whose violent death is well documented in our oldest Christian martyrology.


  1. New Ways of Looking at Imprisonment and Prisoners

  Reading biblical texts and reflecting on them can lead to novel ways of the way we perceive imprisonment and prisoners. When Jesus said: "I was in prison and you visited me", he is "inside". I meet him every time when I visit a prisoner. I also see Jesus when I look a prisoner in the face. But the imprisoned person is not just transparent. I do not look through a prisoner and see Jesus, something we occasionally hear from pious Christians in social occupations, rather I experience Jesus through gazing at a real person, a person who identifies himself or herself with Christ and suffers with him.

  The long line of prisoners among the predecessors in God's people leads us to a similar conclusion that Christ is "inside". The early people of Israel were imprisoned just like kings and prophets, especially like kings and prophets. John the Baptist, Jesus himself, his apostles and the early martyrs do not just show solidarity with prisoners, they are imprisoned themselves because the did not renounce their faith or their message. This is especially true for John the Baptist; The rulers can ill afford to allow that most insistent of teachers who dares to criticise the lifestyle of kings only to remain free, and in the end John does not just lose his freedom but his life. Jesus himself is imprisoned because he announced an empire that would not be ruled by human despotism but by the word of God.

  In that way we can trace those who were imprisoned for their faith right up to our times. It makes us sit up and think. Even in the western democracies we meet conscientious objectors who are detained although they are not criminals. The trial of a few good friends of mine comes to mind, who were protesting against the storage of medium range missiles with atomic warheads and had blocked the approach to a barracks. They were carted away, had their IDs checked and were tried in court. When they appealed against their conviction I witnessed how the prosecuting lawyers tried to convince the court that they had been motivated by lowly principles, and how they were treated in a manner normally reserved for terrorists. They were sentenced to 30 days in prison. This was not an isolated event. When I dealt with cases like that I occasionally asked myself why it wasn't me sitting there. Like my friends, I was a member of a peace movement. Together with them I had said prayers at the gates of the barracks. Together we had placed candles on the iron gates of the barracks during the nights of Christmas and Easter. So I might have been imprisoned myself. Maybe though, I hadn't been courageous enough to go one step further, to demonstrate genuine public disobedience, which surely would have landed me in jail. And so I asked myself sometimes: "What have I done wrong to be free while others are in prison?" Had I been silent when I should have spoken out, had I failed to act when others became active? Many of us have been asking ourselves such and similar questions, perhaps when we visit prisoners of conscience, even in our western democracies.

  I believe that such thoughts can help us to stop thinking in black and white, and thinking of a world in which the goodies are "outside" and the baddies "inside". We will always find cases where everything is exactly the other way round. And to point that out cannot and must not be a reason for arrest.

  Of course, not all prisoners are heroes or saints. The large majority of prisoners are not being detained for political reasons. Even then, we don't have the right to be judgmental. My area of expertise is mainly those people who carried drugs like cocaine from Latin America or Africa to Europe and were arrested. Under German law they were tried for illegally importing drugs and sentenced to long periods in jail. On many occasions I had the opportunity to find out how these prisoners see their sentence. Some easily admit that drug smuggling would not have been the only way to rid themselves of their debts. But many told me that they had been financially destitute. Many of them come from countries with rich economic resources. Like Nigeria, Columbia is not a poor country and is rich in oil reserves. However, that wealth is not distributed evenly, and although the rich get richer the poor get even poorer. This is also true on an international level. The wealthy countries of the globe get wealthier while the debt burden of the poorer nations keeps mounting. At the same time pressure is exerted downwards; often the poorest of the poor bear the brunt of such injustice and struggle to survive from day to day without work, without education for their children and without care when they fall ill. So I would ask: who are the criminals, those people, who because of their poverty don't know which way to turn and in their desperation decide to smuggle drugs to end their vicious circle of debt, or, those who helped to get them into their desperate state in the first place.

  I remember a discussion with a woman from Columbia, who had lived for some time in the US and was able to express herself very succinctly. She asked me: why is drug running treated in exactly the opposite way to arms running? In the fight against the trade in illegal arms the buyers get punished, the producers and suppliers, however, i. e. the western industrialised nations, do not. In the drugs trade the exact opposite is true. Producers and suppliers get punished and buyers go free. If you think about why this is the case the answer is there for all to see: whatever the situation, the industrialised nations of the north are always the saints while the developing nations end up in the dock.

  Such reflections help us to judge actions of others more carefully. Certain actions will carry a penalty under the law although when examined more closely in the light of international justice turn out to be a direct result of unjust structures for which the poor of the southern countries cannot be held accountable.

  Often women are the weak link in that particular chain. Most of the women I have met during the last decade have children but not a husband. Sometimes I said that in such cases the man who fails in his responsibility for his children should go to prison, not his wife whom he left with the sole responsibility of caring for their children. Especially in those poorest countries the legal structures for enforcing joint responsibilities for children in separated families are sadly missing, but even if they existed the enforcement of financial support would surely have to fail, as many men themselves are without jobs and income. Often women said: "I would not accept a single penny from that man", as many of those relationships have a history of violence and deception. Many women would rather resort to unconventional means to look after their children than run the risk of being humiliated again.

  So we realise that the framework according to which the good people are "outside" and the bad ones "inside" has its faults, not just when we think about the bible but also when we reflect on the causes of guilt and punishment in today's modern societies.

  So, how will I face imprisoned people in future? I will know that it is not up to me to judge the guilt of others before God. Jesus does not remind us in vain: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew, 7, 1). We cannot see into the hearts of people. We don't know the motives that led to their actions. We do know, however, that it is often poverty that causes actions. Often I am part of those causes of poverty myself. I live on the sunny side of life and have perhaps failed to take an interest in those living on the other side, those who with their misery pay for my wealth.

  Even during those hours when I face someone guilty in prison I will always recognise the untouchable dignity of man, and I will see the face of Jesus who said of himself: "I was in prison and you have visited me."