Last week was the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. The Board of Education which went to the Supreme Court. It was the court case that paved the way for the desegregation of our school systems. I was too young to remember the event but I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Oliver Brown, who attempted to enroll his third grade daughter, Linda, in Sumner Elementary, an all-white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. Linda, who was black was refused by the school’s principle. Linda had to walk one mile, through a railroad switching station, to her school, although Sumner Elementary was only seven blocks away from her home.
I’ve always admired folks who have the courage to challenge systems that are oppressive or discriminate against certain groups. Who could forget Rosa Parks who refused to sit in the back of the bus. Or, Erin Brockovich, who fought and won the lawsuit against the multimillion dollar corporation, PG & E. It was in Hinkley, California where hundreds of people died or got cancer because of that company’s practice of contaminating the local streams and rivers. Through her efforts, the people were awarded monetary settlements to offset their suffering.
A few weeks ago, several thousand women marched in Washington DC, to encourage the government to work harder for gun control. You may not agree with their position but I admire their determination and especially their passion for speaking out about something they feel strongly about.
Most of us have issues we feel strongly about but rarely do we do anything. We are afraid of rocking the boat or unwilling to challenge the status quo. Very seldom do we talk about our faith, our church, or what we believe in. Unlike Paul and Silas we lack the passion to get involved. We are passionate about some things like recreation, home decorating or fine dining, which are all very wonderful but also self-serving. The problem is they tend to control our time, energy and resources. So we need to ask ourselves; Are we really free?
Paul and Silas were men of faith who weren’t afraid to rock the boat. They frequently spoke out and did some things that really went against the grain. In this particular story there are three incidents where they stand up for what they believe. But in the process they are beaten and thrown in jail. They were imprisoned for trying to right a wrong.
First, they silence the slave girl who was doing some fortune telling. Some men were profiting from the girl and exploiting her talents. Those who were making money at the expense of the slave girl accused Paul and Silas of breaking local traditions and had them arrested. No one cared about the slave girl, except for Paul and Silas, but their courage to stand up for her made them condemned men. They liberated a woman who was being taken advantage of because since they were passionate about those who were oppressed.
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Secondly, while they were in prison they sang and prayed. They didn’t complain or whine or withdraw. Instead they witnessed to their faith. They were not ashamed of their beliefs and they weren’t afraid to make their faith visible. Paul and Silas were free to express their faith even while confined. They used their confinement as an opportunity to worship. As it turns out at least one of their captors was listening.
Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Conference was imprisoned because he spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. He was imprisoned for twenty-seven years as a political prisoner. All he wanted was equal rights for black South Africans. Although separated from the outside world, he never lost his dedication to the cause. He worked in mines, studied and organized his fellow prisoners. Mandela was passionate but unfortunately he was locked up and unable to make public speaches. In the meantime he used his confinement as an opportunity to do something creative.
To survive prison, Mandela started a garden. For years he asked the authorities for some seeds and a place to create his garden. Finally, they relented and Mandela spent months cultivating the soil and nurturing his plants. His first harvest was poor but he continued to make improvements each year. Eventually his garden produced wonderful vegetables and he would present them to the prison guards and officers.
Mandela was a prisoner, who had a passion for equal rights. But while in prison he was limited in his efforts to continue the cause. So he used his prison time to do something constructive. His garden gave him a sense of purpose during the time he was separated from his family and friends. While in prison the one thing he could control was his garden and it gave him a sense of liberation.
Shortly after Paul and Silas were imprisoned, there was an earthquake. It shook the walls enough to destroy the prison. Paul and Silas could have walked out, totally free. But, the prison guard who was responsible for their security decided to take his own life. If they escaped it would be his fault. Paul and Silas said to him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” So a third time they stood up for their faith by having compassion on a man who would have been unjustly punished. The prison guard, who was overwhelmed with guilt was liberated.
The faith of Paul and Silas was one of courage, love and passion for others. They challenged the status quo and were imprisoned unjustly. God, however intervened and awhile later Paul and Silas were set free. They were liberated, free again to continue their ministry in another place.
I believe their liberation was no accident. Paul and Silas were faithful. They stood up for what they believed in. They had compassion on others and God was with them in the midst of their cell.
This past month we have witnessed inhumane treatment to prisoners in Iraq. It has been front page news for several weeks and currently there is a full investigation. We have all been sickened by the abuse and hopefully not all prisoners were treated that way. Several soldiers have commented that their faith would never permit them to participate in abusive treatment. And, some Iraqi prisoners have said they were treated with respect.
Charles Colson tells the story about his experience at a prison in Brazil. He visited Humaita Prison, in Sao Jose dos Campos. Formerly a government prison it is now operated by Prison Fellowship Brazil, an alternative prison without armed guards or high-tech security. Instead it is run on Christian principles of the love of God and respect for humankind.
Humaita Prison has only two full-time staff. The rest of the work is done by the 730 inmates who are serving time from everything from murder to drug-related crimes. Every man is assigned another inmate to whom he is accountable. In addition, each prisoner is assigned a volunteer mentor from outside who works with him during his term and after his release. Prisoners take classes on character development and are encouraged to participate in educational and religious programs.
When Colson visited the prison he saw men at peace. He saw clean living areas and people working industriously The walls were decorated with motivational sayings and scripture. Humaita Prison has an astonishing recidivism rate of only 4 percent, compared to 75 percent in other prisons. Colson saw something else that really affected him. He was led to a cell that was historically used for solitary punishment. Now the cell contains only a crucifix, a beautiful carving of Christ hanging on a cross. Colson’s escort said to him, “He’s doing time for the rest of us.” (from Christian Soup for the Christian Soul, “Perfect Freedom”)
What liberates us from those things that imprison us is faith. Feelings of being fenced in, trapped or locked up, can be overcome when we are passionate about what we believe. Physical confinement doesn’t prevent us from using our minds and being creative. Also, we can escape the walls that surround us by focusing on the needs of others rather than constantly worrying about ourselves. And, we can also be assured that God is aware of our bondage and through means beyond our control, is just waiting to set us free.