When Prison Doors Open

Scripture: Acts 16: 25 – 34
By Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
September 27, 2015

I don’t know about you, but the closest I’ve ever been to being thrown in jail was when I was 17 years old.  I guess it would have been juvenile hall.  I was with some friends in Palm Springs during spring break.  We were walking up and down the streets at midnight when a police officer stopped us.  He asked to see our i.d.’s because it was way past curfew.  When he discovered that we were under age, he lined us up against a wall, told us that he would be taking us to juvenile hall where we would call our parents.  Of course, the thought of calling our parents at midnight, was much scarier than spending the evening in juvenile hall.  After all, our parents had trusted us enough to let us stay at a friend’s vacation home in Palm Springs for the week.  Well, we were scared out of our minds, our hearts were pounding a million beats a second – none of us had ever been in trouble with the law before.  Fortunately, for us, the police officer received a call that someone had just robbed a liquor store around the corner.  He needed to leave, but he told us to stay put.  Well, when he left in one direction, we high-tailed it in the other direction.  We were running down the street as fast as we could, hiding in the shadows of the night.  Needless to say, we never stayed out past curfew again.  

Paul’s experience in our scripture passage is much more severe. Paul has been stripped and beaten and thrown into jail.  His feet are shackled with wooden stocks.  According to historical research on the prison system 2000 year ago, Paul’s legs had been stretched as wide apart as possible to cause excruciating pain in the stocks. He is back in the inner most cell; that is he has been placed under maximum security.  Maximum security; maximum pain; no bail.  I had the opportunity to visit one of the Roman prisons in which Paul was thrown into – it was dingy; it was lonely; it was dark; it was cold.  As I stood there in that cell, I could hardly imagine one surviving such inhumane, barbaric conditions.

Paul has been thrown into jail unfairly because he brought freedom to a slave girl.  Paul ruined the owner’s income. This is a matter of economics.  Paul is unjustly thrown into jail.  This is the story of Paul’s life – he preaches, he is beaten-up, and he is thrown into jail.  I think that most of the New Testament was written in prison.

Of course, there have been others who have been unfairly locked-up.  Mandela, King, Gandhi, John the Baptist, Jesus.  But I recently came across a story of one locked-up that I found to be quite disturbing. Bear with me, but I think it is an important story to share.

Once upon a time there was a man.  (This is an important detail to the story.)  

Once upon a time there was a man.  He lived somewhere deep in the bush, presumably with family and friends.  He was in his early twenties.  He was a brilliant hunter, a patient teacher, a leader in the community.  He could make a bow by hand.  

He was a man.  Remember that detail of the story.

But somehow, most likely by force, this man wound up locked up in a cage.  

His new home?  The New York Zoological Garden in the Bronx.  Yes, he lived in a cage in the Bronx Zoo. He did not even have his own cage.  He lived in one of the larger cells in the Monkey House.  Average attendance at the zoo before his arrival had been around 10,000 people.  After his arrival, attendance doubled.

This man (a detail that seemed to have been forgotten) was good for business.

He was name Ota Benga.  He had been stolen from his homeland, from the Congo.  He was the victim of an expedition that aimed to show something like the “wonders of the world.”  They had hoped to bring a whole family.  But, in the end, they would up with Ota Benga.  In a cage.  At the zoo.  

Did I mention that he was a man?

This was the 1906.  This was the twentieth century.  This was the metropolis of the world.

Zookeepers claimed that it was not captivity.  They claimed that he lived in a zoo for his own protection, that living with monkeys was the best place for him.  That if he were free, if he were on his own, he would be at risk.  One man claimed, in the New York Times, that Ota Benga “liked the white man’s country, where he was treated as a King, had a splendid room in a place full of monkeys, and enjoyed all the comforts of home except a few wives.”

Over time, they did let him out of the cage. To wander the grounds of the zoo, with crowds of people, up to 500 at a time, following him from place to place.  Calling out to him, taunting him, offering jabs, hoping to see him hunt or whatever else he might do to entertain them and satisfy their curiosity.

Ota Benga had had enough – when it was time to go back into the monkey cage, he bit the zookeepers, for some reason.  The crowds, too, became uncontrollable.  The Ota Benga spectacle had turned into a mess. (Newkirk, Pamela, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”, The Guardian, June 3, 2015).

This is a haunting story, barbaric and inhumane – but there is light at the end of the tunnel. There were some who didn’t believe that this captivity was acceptable.  There were some who challenged the zoo.  These folks, mostly local clergy, backed up by their congregations, led protests, gaining the attention of the press.  The protests grew in volume – moving from the local to the national.  Eventually, he was released to the churches.

That is where the hope lies in the story.  “There was a force, an inconvenient force, which held the community to the uncomfortable truth of Ota Benga’s humanity.  They were a thorn in the heel of the oppressors.  They were persistent, they were loud, they were organized, they were…effective.  They were the Church.  Not all of the church, mind you.  But they were Church, indeed.” (Dousa, Kaji, Sermon entitled, “Dance, Monkey, Dance”, June 7, 2015).

That is one the callings of the church.  I believe that we are called to be the inconvenient voice in the face of the oppressor.  Last week, we heard the scripture passage from Isaiah, “The spirit of God is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners”.  Who are our captives today?  Who are the oppressed in our time?  Who is not being treated as a beloved child of God? Who are we called to set free?  

Unfortunately, we are not without our options.  There is poverty and homelessness in the world’s wealthiest nation.  There is illiteracy in one of the world’s most educated nations.  In our beautiful country, there is environmental degradation.  In a nation founded by immigrants, there is now hostility toward immigrants.  In a country which prides itself on being progressive, there is still sexism, heterosexism, personal and institutional racism, and the list goes on and on.  Last week we identified four areas in particular that we thought were of specific concern to this congregation: environment and climate change, racial justice, LGBT outreach, and income inequality.  We listed other areas as well of concern in our social justice forum – human traffiking, the refugee crisis, voter suppression, and prison reform.

Today, you will have the opportunity to share where you feel God is leading this congregation to serve as a prophetic witness in our community, our denomination and in our world. For justice is more than a passion for just us.  You will find a yellow slip of paper in your bulletin. We invite you to fill out that slip of paper and place it in the offering plate following the sermon.  These pieces of paper will help us to determine where the energy is in the congregation, how the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and where we are called to turn our attention this next year.

Our scripture passage this morning goes on to say, “About midnight. . .”  Midnight is a time when life is at its worst.  Darkness is at its highest point.  Midnight is when all the pain and the heartache and the disappointment culminate.  “But about midnight,” says scripture, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God. . .”  In the moment of greatest despair, they sang – they sang about the faithfulness of God, the glories of Christ.  With nothing to sing about, they bellow of God’s faithfulness.  The prison becomes a sanctuary.   

Let me ask, what was their secret?  How in the world were they able to sing in prison, at midnight?  I believe it is because Paul and Silas knew they were not in that jail cell alone.  They knew that when all hell breaks out, God breaks in.  The author goes to say that following the singing and praying, “There was suddenly a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s shackles were unfastened.”

No matter how unrelenting injustice is, God’s desire for justice is more persistent.  No matter how powerful hatred is, God’s love is that much more powerful.

What we learn from the story of Ota Benga, what we learn from Paul and Silas, what we learn from the pursuit of social justice is that we can be a mighty force for change in our world.  Our presence is power.  Our words are potent.  Our breath is life.  Our faith is action.  Speak – somebody will hear you!  Sing – somebody will learn your song!  Pray – somebody will catch the Spirit!  Move – somebody will serve with you!  Testify – somebody will follow our God! Yes, speak, sing, pray, move, testify – and watch the prison doors open wide!