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FORGIVE ME FOR NOT SPEAKING UP, THIS TIME
This Reflection begins with two stories, one true and one half true, to be made fully true now. The Romanian pastor, Richard Warmbrand, imprisoned for 14 torturous years in the communist gulag, explained how it started: “The Communists convened a congress of all Christian bodies in our Parliament building. There were four thousand priests, pastors, and ministers of all denominations – and these men of God chose Joseph Stalin as honorary president of this congress...One after another, bishops and pastors arose and declared that communism and Christianity are fundamentally the same and could coexist...My wife and I were present at this congress. Sabina told me, ‘Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ! They are spitting in His face.’ I said to her, ‘If I do so, you lose your husband.’ She replied, ‘I don’t wish to have a coward as a husband.’” (Warmbrand, Richard, Tortured for Christ, Living Sacrifice Book Company, 1998.)
If his wife wasn’t by his side, it’s apparent that Richard Wurmbrand would have remained silent out of fear and a penchant for protecting his family. His sacrifice proved to be enormous, and its legacy continues today in the work of the “Voice of the Martyrs.” The Christian Congress touted the politically and ecumenically correct position, that communism and Christianity could get along as comrades. Is this not what Christ wants? Peaceful coexistence and respectful “tolerance”? During its reign, Communism promoted itself as being the ideal, beyond reproach and its propaganda machine worked hard to promote this deceit throughout the world. There are many things that separate the various types of government on this globe. There is one thing common among all, however: Each presents itself as the ideal, the “light of the world” (which is a blasphemous attribution to a world power of a gospel description of the Christ).
Our brothers and sisters in bondage need such a voice. Once in the gulag of any nation’s prison system, they are utterly dependent on the voices outside the walls, to be heard, to be informed by them, and to free them.
The second story begins with truth. I recently sat in a plush restaurant at a fundraising dinner for a twenty six-year-old prison ministry. My parents and I were excited to hear about both the “in-reach” into the prisons for those hungry for the Truth, Way and Life that only Christ could provide and the vital information of what is also going on inside the walls of county jails and state prisons: The overwhelming percentage of prisoners who are caged innocently, and the equally overwhelming percentage who are caged for illegal, inflated sentences. Most US citizens would recognize the name of the keynote speaker. What he had to say drew us to this dinner.
The congenial and dedicated ministry worker next to me asked about my work. I explained that much of it was devoted to freeing innocently and illegally sentenced prisoners. Though I should know better, I was still stunned by her question. “How can so many innocent people be imprisoned?” I know the statistics, the case studies, the sad and enraging stories of so many, affirmed by the recent media attention to a “justice system” that went and keeps going toward prostituting the definition and pursuit of “justice.” The lady with the scales has holes in her aging blindfold. She has begun to watch who has more money, what race are the litigants, what clout do they and their lawyers have, and what are the political repercussions that guide the prosecutors’ behavior and zeal.
The prison ministry worker and her friend had no further interest. The little I said in a minute threatened the prevailing paradigm of all prisoners being “lost souls” who were guilty and needed to hear how Christ would set them free. I mentioned how strong the faith in Christ was already present in many prisoners, and that their faith has much to teach us in our “free” world about the zeal and reliance on God. The suggestion that prison ministers could learn about Christian zeal and faith from prisoners seemed a foreign (and threatening) notion. The literature of the organization spoke only of “offenders” and “ex-offenders.” There was no hint of any prisoner possibly being a prisoner of injustice, without having “offending” anyone. Strikingly absent was any call to legal system reform and the preference of the justice of God over the injustice of humans.
This quest for justice is ancient. The psalms declare, “Can judges who do evil be your friends? They do injustice under cover of law; they attack the life of the just and condemn innocent blood” (Psalm 94:20-21). “To crush underfoot all prisoners in the land, to deny a man his rights before the Most High, to deprive a man of justice – would not the Lord see such things? ...Those who were my enemies without cause hunted me like a bird. They tried to end my life in a pit and threw stones at me; the waters closed over my heard, and I thought I was about to be cut off. I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit. You heard my plea: Do not close your ears to my cry for relief. You came near when I called you, and you said, ‘Do not fear.’ O Lord, you took up my case; you redeemed my life. You have seen, O Lord, the wrong done to me. Uphold my cause!” (Lamentations 3:34-36, 52-59, NIV).
Jesus warned, “As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid your last penny” (Luke 12:58-59). Sounds familiar. Too many still remain in prison even after they run out of their last penny.
Now I continue the story that didn’t really happen, though I wish it would have:
At the pause between speakers, I did the universal sign for the attendees’ attention, standing and tapping my spoon against the water glass. Silence quickly consumed the room at the unexpected request for attention. I asked the chairperson for five minutes of everyone’s time, to which he nodded and smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen, many prisoners have not heard the beautiful sound of a metal utensil against a glass cup for ten, twenty or thirty years, living in an isolated world of plastic except for the metal of the iron bars that is called a “gate” (as animals have) rather than a door. Just as rare to you is the sound of the groans of injustice, crying out from the belly of the Christ in so many of our nation’s prisoners, as rare as a prosecutor who admits he or she won a conviction (or confession) of an innocent person, just as rare as the judge who reminds the jury “this is a court of justice” instead of the usual “this is a court of law.”
The audience listened uncomfortably as I spoke outside their prevailing belief that the US “has the best justice system in the world” and that everyone in jail or prison is an “offender” that must be “reached” by the Gospel to be “set free” in their hearts. And once, if ever, released, will be kept physically free because they are a “new person” since, of course, our justice system never imprisons such free and spiritually transformed people, or so many believe. I continued.
“I know I stand in the company of devoted and caring brothers and sisters who are not afraid to visit the least among us in captivity. I honor your work and support it with prayer and work of my own. However, I admit my fear in your midst, the fear of being misunderstood, of being labeled as one of the political left, and of failing to provide Christ with the voice He utters through the mouths and hopeful dreams of prisoners.
“Christ mandated we visit Him in prison. But even many seasoned prison ministers do not think of themselves visiting Christ and learning from Him. Many still see themselves as ambassadors to the lost and depraved that are justly in prison through their own fault.
“In the five minutes you have graciously permitted me, I cannot provide documentation that supports the contention that at least twenty percent of prisoners are innocent, that another fifty percent or more are illegally or over-sentenced, being guilty of some but not all the crimes for which they were convicted. I can, but have no time now, to document how our prisons replaced the mental health institutions that were closed because they didn’t work, driving many of their residents into homelessness or into short-term care facilities which equated to no care, that our legal system is just as broken, ineffective and inhumane as the psychiatric hospital-human warehouses of the past.
“Is not the justice in this or any nation governed by the imperatives and idols of people, such as their politics, egos, power grasping, and economic greed, rather than the Holy Spirit? Please remember this when you look at Christ behind bars, presuming you can see Christ in the “least of my brethren.” From His birth to His death and resurrection, that’s where Christ could always be found, in the least. Please remember that not all prisoners claim to be innocent, like most people believe they do. Most are more honest than that. But when one does, please assume he or she is telling the truth rather than the opposite, and be Christ’s ear for His voice through him or her.
“Our persecuted brothers and sisters in nations hostile to our faith will tell us, and have told us, how easy it is to bear the name ‘Christian’ in the US. Abundance, comfort, the “good life” or “the American dream” has never been a by-product of Christianity, contradicting the ‘material-blessing’ theme of so many radio preachers who make a good living from the ‘money blessings’ bestowed on them. Christ Himself told us we will be persecuted. Suffering and sacrifice is the trademark of our faith and the mercy of God as it leads to self-denial and sanctification. The history and stories of our saints testify to this.
“Consequently, the Christian faith is vibrant in our prisons, more so than in many of our churches. One prisoner wrote me: ‘Two days after receiving the news that my appeal had been denied I had to preach God’s word at the Leadership Training Class we normally hold on Sunday afternoons. Before your parents delivered the news I had been asking the Lord to give me a message for His people to hear and be edified. I didn’t know what to preach on and had been pondering about two topics that were rotating in my head. But finally, during my conversation with your parents, I knew I was given the right message: ‘I still believe in God.’
“’The Lord took me to the book of Daniel 3:16-18 where it says, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnessar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.’ Truly, my resolve and faith in God is the same as these men. I know, deep in my heart that the God I serve is able to get me out of this place, but even if He chose not to, I will still serve Him and remain faithful to Him. I will not bow to the gods of unbelief and disillusion.’
“How many prison ministers would not want to visit this man and learn from him? It shouldn’t matter, but just in case it does, he is innocent of the crime of which he was convicted for a life sentence. I can provide you many more such statements of faith from other innocent and ‘legally’ guilty people of greater faith than mine. Would you humbly allow these prisoners, these “offenders,” to minister to you as you minister to them?
“The psalms and the books of the prophets frequently call for the freedom of the prisoners, with no long didactics drawing lines between innocence and guilt. Jesus freed the prostitute condemned to die. Sure, when He told her to ‘Go, I don’t condemn you,’ He also added, ‘and sin no more.’ But He speaks those same words to us.
“When you go into the prisons, consider acting as though you are entering a church or cloistered monastery. A.W. Tozer remarked that three-quarters of any church congregation need an authentic conversion. Would you deny this of your own? Of course, that is also true of the prisons. But the congregation of Christ’s saints is there as well as in our churches, perhaps in the same percentage. But the persecution and suffering of the prison church is greater than that of the free churches. So look, please, for the faith there that is greater than ours, that faith that survives and even thrives with more resilience than the faith of the physically free in our churches outside the razor wire garlanded walls. That faith will teach and inspire even those of us who deem ourselves the saved and righteous ambassadors to the ‘lost’.
“Yes, the majority of our prisoners are ‘offenders’ as your brochures label them. Do not the majority of us at this gathering also merit the same label? I believe Christ and the Scriptures say ‘yes’. But that majority is not as overwhelming in the prisons as we believe or want to believe. So many prisoners are not ‘offenders’ as you have labeled them tonight. So many ‘ex-offenders’ are not that, but liberated innocents whose faith sustained them fifteen, twenty, thirty years or more in institutions overtly and covertly designed to humiliate, depersonalize, persecute, and crush the souls of our brothers and sisters and their families, loved ones, children and friends.
“The ‘Great Commission’ calls us to speak the ‘Good News’ or Gospel of the promised Messiah, and you do that. May God continue to bless your work. Indeed, ‘God desires all to be saved’ from the chains of sin and our idolatry that places us at the center of the universe instead of our Creator.
“At the continued risk of being misunderstood, let me suggest that the Commission work doesn’t stop there. Part of it, to use Christ’s words, is to ‘heal the sick, cast out demons, free the oppressed.’ It isn’t enough for my ailing loved one to ‘know Christ as personal Savior and Lord.’ I cannot be content with that. I must seek doctors and the best care to heal on the physical level too, as Christ did. It is not enough for the poor and hungry to ‘know Christ.’ We are instructed to clothe and feed them as well. It is not enough for a prisoner to be ‘born again.’ We must work hard to free him physically. This is not my personal calling or opinion, but the calling of Christ for all of us. This is made so clear in the epistle of James, that faith without works is dead. And if you are familiar with his writing, ‘works’ is not relegated to prayer and preaching, but to concrete tasks of mercy like providing clothes, food, shelter and the material commodities such as money, legal work, advocacy and a voice of the proclamation of evils to which the prison walls stand as a monument.
“As I began, I’m afraid of how you heard what I just said. I’m afraid for not myself, but for our many innocent and less-than guilty-as-charged prisoners. Your brochures, speakers and my personal conversations make me fear you aren’t seeing the Christ locked up and in need of freedom, both by working toward legal system reform from the top down, and by working to free individuals from the bottom up. Please, quell my fear. Please begin with the premise that my voice is that of the unjustly imprisoned, who have no voice here tonight but mine. The Christ in our prisons would be so delighted to hear a chorus of voices joining mine right now.”
My brothers and sisters in prison, this is what I should have said that night. Many of you, in your zeal and fire-refined faith would have spoken up. Please forgive the silence of my voice, as yours were silenced upon entering the prison. Forgive my suppression of the voice of Christ that stirred within me, tainted by my socially taught manners of not causing a disrespectful ruckus. I forgot how the apostle Paul caused riots with some of his speeches, but wasn’t afraid to continue on.
However, I make amends. I will publish this essay as an article on my Web site and distribute it to not only those on my newsletter subscription list, but to all ministry forums I know, including the one I should have addressed. And with the next opportunity God provides, with the permission and guidance of His Holy Spirit, I will be your voice in the flesh, not just on paper.
To my general readers, know that the US imprisons the greatest percentage of its citizens per capita of all nations, far exceeding those of both third world governments and those hostile to the Christian faith and our social and political equivalents (and allies) of the first world industrial and technological nations. (In defense of my compatriots, I assert that Americans are no more criminally inclined than that of other nations. To those detractors that will attribute this to the US “being hard on crime,” I suggest reviewing the laws and legal practices of other nations. You’ll find their laws to be equally and, in many cases, more demanding, than that of the US.)
Statistics tell me that one in every thirty of you are or have a loved one entangled and strangled in our legal system. Should I address only the groups that are labeled “minorities” such as my Black, Hispanic, Oriental, Haitian, and Native American brothers and sisters, I know every six of you have a loved one in prison or on parole supervision. (My readers are intelligent enough to guess the cause of this disparity between the “general” and “minority” populations.) Your voice to the world is weak, by design. I am willing to amplify it. Christ has given many of us the freedom and resources to do so. We must use His gifts in a judicial, prudent, effective and Holy Spirit guided way.
My reference in the opening to Wurmbrand’s response to the Parliamentary Congress must not be construed to mean I equate the treatment of prisoners in the communist gulags of the past and present to that of democratic and republic nations. There are frightening parallels, however. The dictatorships of the past and present could imprison their citizens as “threats to the state” or “material witnesses”. That was enough to subject Pastor Wurmbrand, his wife, and hundreds of thousands of others to prison without due process. The post “9/11” legislation of some democratic nations now empowers them to do the same.
The essence of my opening
is to establish a standard for myself. I faced no prison sentence or social
expulsion if I had spoken up at that fundraising dinner. If I fail under
those benign circumstances, can I hope to speak up for Christ, wherever
He is, through whomever He chooses to speak to us, when the stakes are
much greater? Please pray for me.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
in the Christian Faith ~
Spiritual Resource Services
© May 21, 2004
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