Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
April 21, 2016
On a spring day in the year 203, a 22-year old Christian woman by the name of Vibia Perpetua was arrested by Roman imperial soldiers. The charge against her, to which she very proudly pled guilty, was “being a Christian.” Perpetua was a citizen of the Empire at a time when the public profession and practice of Christianity was a capital crime. But unlike many early converts to Christianity, Perpetua came from a well-respected and influential family, and had enjoyed an excellent education. She had been married for some time, and only a few weeks before her arrest had given birth to a baby boy. But we know nothing about her husband, and it appears that she had recently returned to her parents’ home in a small town not far from Carthage, the capital city of the province of Proconsular Africa (modern Tunisia).
During her imprisonment, which lasted no more than a week or two, Perpetua kept a diary. Shortly before she was martyred in the Carthaginian amphitheater, her diary was smuggled out of the prison. It was later published, and is the earliest surviving piece of writing by a Christian woman. It is a gripping narrative throughout, but one scene is especially moving. At the time of her arrest, her baby was taken from her. She tells us of the emotional anguish she felt at being separated from her child, as well as the physical discomfort she experienced from being unable to continue nursing him. But thanks to some well-placed bribes made to the guards by her co-religionists on the outside, Perpetua’s baby was restored to her for a time. She writes: “[Arranging] for the baby to stay with me in prison…instantly made me feel better—no more pain and anxiety for the baby’s sake. And so for me the prison suddenly became a palace, so that I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”(1) Perpetua is describing an almost magical transformation that took place in her experience of incarceration. Caring for her child was her natural maternal desire; suffering for Jesus was her freely chosen Christian responsibility. She was willing to sacrifice the joys of motherhood for the high calling of martyrdom, but for short time she was privileged to enjoy the former while preparing for the latter. And she experienced that as a royal privilege: her carcer had become her praetorium.
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Nearly eighteen hundred years later, on a spring day in 1963, another young Christian was arrested because his religious convictions differed from those of the state. This was Martin Luther King, Jr., who was leading a campaign for civil rights in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. A circuit court had recently issued an injunction against the campaign, but the demonstrations had continued. Three hundred protestors were jailed—and King had vowed to join them. Up to that point, King had been restricting the ranks of the protestors to those who had undergone the prescribed regimen of “self-purification,” and as promptly as the members of his “nonviolent army” were arrested, they were bailed out and sent back to the lines. But now the bail money had run out, which meant that the number of properly trained demonstrators was dwindling. And if King too were to go to jail, the chances of raising new bond money might dwindle as well, causing the Birmingham campaign to grind to an ignominious halt. Yet if King broke his vow to violate the injunction, he would lose the credibility and moral authority on which his leadership depended. Over the objections of his lieutenants, he decided to “make a faith act”—to lead a march, get arrested, and go to jail, uncertain of when he and his followers would be released. On April 12—Good Friday—King was charged with civil and criminal contempt of court, and committed to the Birmingham city jail.
That same day, eight of Alabama’s most prominent white religious leaders ran an open letter to him in the Birmingham News,(2) acknowledging the “natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” but insisting that because of certain recent developments in city government, the ongoing demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.” King, however, didn’t get to read this statement right away, for he was being held incommunicado in a narrow, ill-furnished cell, with only a barred window high overhead for light. Fortunately, on the second day of his confinement, his circumstances began to improve. He received visits from his attorneys on Saturday and again on Easter Sunday, and learned that his brother, the Rev. A. D. King, had led a huge march. On Easter Monday, one of his attorneys brought word that singer Harry Belafonte had raised $50,000 in bail money and had pledged to raise as much more as would be needed. Additionally, King was permitted to call his wife, who informed him that President Kennedy had interceded on his behalf. This explained why he had just been given a mattress, a blanket, a pillow and telephone privileges. The movement was alive! King describes his reaction to all this good news as follows:
I found it hard to say what I felt. [My attorney’s] message had brought me more than relief from the immediate concern about money; more than gratitude for the loyalty of friends far away; more than confirmation that the life of the movement could not be snuffed out. What silenced me was a profound sense of awe. I was aware of a feeling that had been present all along below the surface of consciousness, pressed down under the weight of concern for the movement: I had never been truly in solitary confinement; God’s companionship does not stop at the door of a jail cell. I don’t know whether the sun was shining at that moment. But I know that once again I could see the light.(3)
That “light” was still shining brightly in King’s mind when, on Tuesday, April 14, he finally had the opportunity to read the letter that the eight clergymen had published four days before. His response was written with a pen which his attorney had surreptitiously left in his cell, and was scribbled on the margins of the newspaper, pieces of toilet paper and some sheets of contraband stationery. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” remains the greatest apologia for Christian non-violent direct action against social injustice ever written.(4)
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During the spring and summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to teach classes on Perpetua’s prison diary and King’s “Letter” at two Washington State correctional facilities, one for men, the other for women. For some years I had been studying the writings of Christians who were imprisoned for their faith. I was investigating the spiritual resources that Christian prisoners of conscience like Perpetua and King drew upon to sustain them through their ordeal and enable them to stand up against the pressures brought against their conscience by the state. But I had begun to wonder if my angle of vision on these texts—that of a comfortable, upper middle class university professor, who had never made any significant sacrifices for his religious beliefs and ethical principles—was preventing me from seeing some of what was there. So I made arrangements with the Department of Corrections to do some “research” at these two prisons, whereby, via the format of a college-level class on Christian prison literature, I would learn how prisoners who self-identify as professing, practicing Christians might read that literature.(5) In one sense, I was teaching the classes, providing historical context on the two works we studied and leading the discussions. But in a deeper sense, the participants were the teachers and I was the student, there to learn how these classic writings might strike readers whose perspective was closer to that of the authors than my own. Of course, the inmates who signed up for my classes were not themselves “prisoners of conscience.” As they repeatedly pointed out to me, they were doing time not for being Christians, but for not being Christians—or at least for not practicing the faith they professed.
One of themes in the writings of Perpetua and King that my students found particularly impactful was that of the transformation that takes place in a person’s life, even in the direst external circumstances, when divine grace is at work—the theme highlighted in the portions of these two texts discussed above. Several offenders reported that the experience of incarceration had forced them to face the various kinds of spiritual bondage in which they had long been held, and had provided an unexpected opportunity to experience liberation. One inmate, Florian,(6) who was suspicious of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” because it seemed to him to confuse the gospel of Christ with the cause of civil rights, nevertheless had this to say: “Unless the freedom of Christ dwells within us, we will not be free. We can be out of prison but in bondage to sin, and we can be in prison yet free in Christ.” Brendan spoke to this point, too: “I was really struck by [Perpetua’s] claim that that the prison had become her palace. That’s true for me, too! On the outside, I couldn’t manage my own life. But the Lord is using my time in here to teach me how to live. Of course, I don’t want to be here, and I want to return to my life, my family, my job. But in a way this place has become my palace, just like she says.” The most moving testimony of all came from Honoria, one of the quieter members of the women’s class, who plucked up her courage and made a speech that had us all in tears: “Before I got the sentence, I was already in prison. I didn’t know how to live. I did drugs. I hated myself. I disappointed my family and myself. I couldn’t do anything right. But since coming here, I feel that God has been with me. For the first time in my life, I’ve been sober. I’ve been in touch with God. I’ve dealt with my issues. My faith gets stronger every day. I see positive changes in myself. Now I feel free. I’m not in prison.”
(1) The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity §3.9, trans. Joseph Farrell and Craig Williams, in Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano, eds., Perpetua’s Passions: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 15.
(2) C. C. J. Carpenter et al., “Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen,” Birmingham News, April 12, 1963, http://www.massresistance.org/docs/gen/09a/mlk_day/statement.html, accessed January 4, 2015.
(3) Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait (orig. pub., 1963; reprint ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), p. 84.
(4) Originally published in the press (in toto and in various redactions), the complete text of King’s “Letter” is printed as Chapter 5 of Why We Can’t Wait, cited above.
(5) For details on my research, see Kathy Henning, “Theologian Rick Steele Goes Behind Bars,” Response (Autumn 2012), https://www.spu.edu/depts/uc/response/new/2012-autumn/bible-theology/ambassadors-in-chains.asp.
(6) The names of inmates given here are pseudonyms. To preserve their anonymity, while still according them the dignity of having a name that reflected their personal identity and life’s story, I assigned each participant the name of the patron saint of whatever occupation he or she held before their arrest or intended to enter upon release. Thus, one inmate, who hopes to become a Braille writer, was dubbed Lucy, after a saint who was blinded and martyred during the Diocletian persecution. Another, who had been a car salesman—an occupation which, amusingly enough, has no designated patron saint—was named for St. Brendan the Navigator, a sixth century Celtic monk whose distinctive form of ascetic practice was to sail alone in an open boat in uncharted waters. Still another, who was a web designer, took the name of the patron saint of telecommunications workers: the archangel Gabriel. And so forth. I myself participated in this procedure, taking the name of Cassian, a fourth century Italian schoolmaster, whose students stabbed him to death with their writing implements when they heard he had converted to Christianity.