The Revd. N.J.A. Humphrey
When I was about ten years old, my father, brother, and I took a tour of Alcatraz, that famous prison on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. We were shown cells with breathtaking views of the ocean and the city skyline—the sort of views that any city-dweller would kill for (which, before its closing, would have been a good way of getting that view). My father, however, commented that for him, such an imprisonment would be even more difficult to bear given the view—to know that all that beauty and freedom were out there, and that you could not be a part of it.
I remember being led by a U.S. Park Service ranger down to solitary confinement, and then our tour group was locked in one of the pitch-black cells. I just happened to have one of those keychain flashlights, so I pulled it out of my pocket and turned it on, much to the annoyance of my brother and father and the rest of the tour group, who wanted to soak up the “ambiance” of solitary confinement. I thought, “Hello, it’s not solitary if we’re in a tour group!” But I had to admit (to myself at least) that it was pretty rude to lighten our darkness when the darkness was the whole point of being there.
That tour of Alcatraz was the first time I ever set foot in a prison. Since then, I’ve been to a prison in Maryland, and being in an active prison, as opposed to a tourist attraction, is a very different experience, indeed. I saw in that visit how prison changes people. Prisons are tough places. And sometimes, they are hellish places, both for the prisoners and for the prison guards.
Remember the Abu Ghraib scandal? I recently heard a radio interview of former Abu Ghraib interrogator Eric Fair, who witnessed the torture of prisoners there and later studied for the Presbyterian ministry at Princeton Seminary. The difference between Abu Ghraib Prison and Philippi Prison, however, was that while to contemporary eyes, that behavior was scandalous, to first century eyes, it was standard operating procedure.
Paul and Silas, after all, were dragged into the public square. The authorities ordered them to be stripped naked, and then a mob beat them with rods. They were flogged, thrown in prison, and put in stocks. It’s a good thing digital cameras weren’t available in the first century A.D., because if the prison guards had taken photographs of Paul and Silas, this story would be illustrated with pictures of Middle Eastern men, naked and beaten and shackled, and they’d look a lot like the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib.
Prison changes people. Being a prisoner changes you, and being a prison guard changes you. How it changes you, though, is dependent upon your response to it. How did Paul and Silas respond to their predicament? Well, for one thing, we could say that while Paul and Silas were changed by this experience, they were not chained by it. Had I been Paul or Silas, I would not have done what they did. Instead of being filled with anger and resentment, as I would have been, they are heard “praying and singing hymns to God.”
Next, Acts recounts, “Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” When the jailer (who had followed the authorities’ orders and likely participated in torturing Paul and Silas) awoke during the earthquake and saw that the prison gates were hanging wide open, he was sure his detainees had made a break for it. As the violent servant of violent men, he knew what grisly fate lay in store for him. Court-martial. Dereliction of duty. Public humiliation. His family dishonored. Imprisonment. Torture. Death. So he drew his sword to kill himself. But Paul, reassuring him that none of the prisoners had fled, implored him not to harm himself.
At that moment, Paul and Silas were free, and the jailor was imprisoned. Paul and Silas could have watched with justifiable satisfaction as the distraught jailer disemboweled himself. It would have been, quite simply, poetic justice. Instead, the jailed freed their jailer. For those of us committed to traditional notions of justice and accountability, Paul’s deed, while noble, is deeply unsatisfying. The jailer doesn’t get his just deserts, after all.
Acts wraps up the surprise happy ending for us: “At the same hour of the night [the jailer] took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.”
Instead of retaliation, the stories of the New Testament consistently offer us reconciliation. The world has accustomed us to stories of revenge and retaliation, such as the stories from Abu Ghraib Prison, but the Church proclaims instead stories of repentance and reconciliation, such as this one from Philippi Prison. For only stories such as these hold out the promise that God’s kingdom is indeed stronger than the kingdoms of this world.
In this morning’s story from Acts, God’s response to the violence of the crowd, the magistrates, and the jailer is nothing less than a “violent earthquake.” Yet God’s violence harms no one; it only shakes the foundations of our human justice, breaking down the walls that separate us, and unshackling both jailed and jailer alike. You and I need to be shaken up by God’s violently nonviolent earthquake. We need to embrace an earth-shattering commitment to reconciliation, which will only happen when people like you and me refuse to be placated by revenge, refuse to accept the scapegoats offered by the powers of this world in place of the Lamb of God, and instead insist on truth and reconciliation through Jesus Christ our Lord, by whose Spirit we are inspired to offer unending prayers of thanksgiving, singing ceaseless hymns of reconciliation to God.