Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Freedom and Imprisonment

In our Sunday lectionary readings this week we will be in prison with Paul and Silas. While we are there lets take a moment to remember three great figures of our current history, or at least the not too distant past who have lit the way to freedom from the darkness of prison and of human suffering.


Interestingly enough, it is in Letters and Papers from Prison that Dietrich Bonhoeffer seemed most convincingly to be free. Even knowing that his life was likely to be over soon, he found within himself a remarkable power to know the love of God. A sparrow or a ray of sunshine or the gift of time to write was all it took to make a prisoner for Christ resonate with profound joy. But above all, he found freedom in the solidarity he discovered in prison to be with the outcast: "There remains an experience of incomparable value... to see the great events of world history from below; from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled -- in short, from the perspective of those who suffer... to look with new eyes on matters great and small."


Another man of peace who used prison for the purpose of freedom was Nelson Mandela. From 1962 until 1990 he remained behind iron bars, but his spirit was unbowed and unbroken. In the wake of his release he articulated a dream of freedom for all citizens of South Africa. He became a witness for a historic emancipation for both captor and captive alike. In his own words: "We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."


One of the greatest practitioners of love and compassion in our time is the Dalai Lama. The suffering of the people of Tibet has been and continues to be one of the greatest stains in the sorry catalogue of human cruelty. Still, words like the following are possible from this remarkable human spirit who is a guide to freedom for those imprisoned by fear or suffering:

"Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another. However capable and skillful an individual may be, left alone, he or she will not survive. However vigorous and independent one may feel during the most prosperous periods of life, when one is sick or very young or very old, one must depend on the support of others.

"Independence, of course, is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness. The most subtle level of material phenomena is also governed by interdependence. All phenomena, from the planet we inhabit to the oceans, clouds, forests and flowers that surround us, arise in dependence upon subtle patterns of energy. Without their proper interaction, they dissolve and decay.

"It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others."