Reclaiming Prison Literature for the Life of the Church
Prison literature–literature composed by people in prison–tends to be some of the most powerful writing in all literature. The authors have sometimes been actual criminals whose experiences behind bars changed them (e.g. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice) in different ways. At other times, the authors have been imprisoned for their political views (or actions of civil disobedience and political resistance) or religious views (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison; Henry David Thoreau, On Civil Disobedience; Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham City Jail; Philip Berrigan, Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary; Daniel Berrigan, They Call Us Dead Men.) Often whether a writer is a criminal or a political prisoner is a matter of great dispute within a society (e.g., Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance; Mumia Abu-Jamal, Death Blossoms: Reflections of a Prisoner of Conscience; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Memoirs from the House of the Dead; Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks). The perspectives vary widely, as do the genres. But almost always the literature is powerful and moving–even if the reader continues to disagree with the writer.
I haven’t seen any scientific survey, but my experience is that U.S. Christians are less exposed to prison writings than almost anyone else. Many have probably read John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), but they are unlikely to realize that Bunyan wrote this while in prison for “unlicensed preaching,” which was smuggled out by his wife. But they probably haven’t read much literature written from prison.
This is unfortunate since Christians seem to have invented prison literature with the Apostle Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, & Ephesians) and with the Book of Revelation written by a Christian named John imprisoned on the isle of Patmos (who may or may not have been John the Apostle). We still read these biblical books, but I suspect that our interpretation is hindered because we no longer have a “feel” for prison literature.
I suspect our alienation is also due to the fact that few in today’s U. S. churches know anyone in prison. Jesus commanded his followers to visit those in prison (and expected Christians to frequently be imprisoned for our witness), but this is usually neglected or relegated to specialized ministries, today. And we expect to be on the side of the Powers who enforce “law and order” while the New Testament expects us to be a challenge to the lawmakers, to be subversive of the “order” of imperial forces. Reclaiming prison visitation as a normative Christian practice and reclaiming the reading of prison literature (and not just of Christians).
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