Christ in the Prisoner

Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island (Paul Mannix)

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island (Paul Mannix)

I have been very slowly making my way through Nelson Mandela’s autobiography this year. Right now, I am reading about the first major trial of opposition leaders in South Africa. Mandela describes the arrest and imprisonment of over 100 leaders, many of them educated professionals–“priests, professors, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, men of middle or old age, who were normally treated with deference and respect”. He describes how these respected men were introduced to the humiliations of prison–how they were made to stand naked for over an hour while they waited to be introduced to their mats, blankets, and open toilets in the terrible barracks. And this, of course, was an eye opening experience for these men of respect and renown, and experience that led him to write these famous words:

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones…

The words are not dissimilar to Jesus’ famous teaching in Matthew 25, when he describes a day when people will be separated into two groups. And Jesus will turn to one group and welcome them into the kin-dom of heaven…

…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Matthew 25:35-36, 40

And then Jesus turns to the other group and invites them into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” because they did not help “the least of these”.

Just as in Mandela’s quote, Jesus teaches that we will be judged by how we treat the “lowest”, rather than the “highest” in our own lives. Usually this reminds us to always treat people well, whether or not they can repay our kindness. It reminds us that, while giving attention to the well-connected and powerful person could gain us a bit more status and wealth, giving attention to those who have nothing to give in return could gain us the kin-dom of heaven. It reminds us that our civilizations will be judged not by their grandest buildings and most advanced accomplishments, but they will be judged by how their poor and vulnerable lived. It reminds us that our churches will not be judged by how well-connected they are in the halls of power, but by how respected they are in the transgender and homeless youth communities. For many of us, this is one of the most basic and familiar teachings of the Christian faith.

But Mandela’s quote takes this teaching about caring for the “least”–those toward whom we might be tempted to show pity–and its puts a useful spotlight on the prisoner, whom we are to visit. And not just the awesome, moral prisoners: the Dr. King’s, the Nelson Mandela’s, the Aung San Suu Kyi’s, the tried criminals of conscience–the Frank Schaefer’s and Tom Ogletree’s. These are the heroic and noble “criminals”, and it is not hard for those of us who admire them to see how they should be treated like Christ himself.

But, when Mandela was experiencing his imprisonment, he was not just realizing how badly well-respected men were treated in prison. I think he was realizing how badly all non-white South Africans were treated in prison, including the “bad guys”–the thieves, the murderers, the rapists. I think he was challenging us to judge a nation by how it treats not just the “good” prisoners, but the “bad, legitimate” ones, those who are truly despised and feared. This is the true test of the moral strength of a nation–how it treats its most hated people.

And this becomes one of the most aggravating and challenging teachings of the Christian faith. We are to visit the prisoners and see Christ in the prisoners. But not just the prisoners we like–but the nastiest, scariest, most hated prisoners. There are so many of these prisoners roaming around in our own lives. People who are imprisoned by hatred, mental illness, addiction, abusive behavior, misguided ideologies and theologies. These are people who hurt us and scare us, persecute and prosecute us. And we are called to look at them, squint with the eyes of faith, and try to see Christ in them.

This is our great, uncomfortable challenge. From Christ to Gandhi to Rustin to King, we are challenged to have faith that Christ’s divine light lives even in those we legitimately despise. And the great test of our character will be not how we treat those who are easy to love, but in how we treat those who are the hardest.