When the video of George Floyd’s death went viral, sparking protests, marches and the BLM movement across the West, my dear friend, Jamie Lee, recommended a book by Anthony Ray Hinton, called The Sun Does Shine. It tells the story of a young man in Alabama who was wrongfully arrested and convicted of a series of murders, and who then spent the next 28 years on death row in a small cell until the trial was fundamentally questioned and he was released.
I’m grateful to Jamie for recommending this book because in reading it, the book moved me from dwelling on the brutality in that Floyd atrocity, or react to the subsequent violence, where we all seemed to have to take one side or another.
Hinton’s example in the teeth of overwhelming injustice was astonishing and strangely wonderful. Clearly and powerfully written, it tells the story, not merely of survival but of the transcendence of one human over institutional and tribal injustice. Now, I too recommend that book to my family and friends.
Writing in Prison
As I read it, I couldn’t but recall other great literature like this, written in the most extreme contexts of human deprivation and torture. I think of Viktor Frankl’s experiences in Auschwitz.
Paul of Tarsus’s soaring letter of encouragement to his friends in Phillipi writing from a hole in the ground in the deranged emperor Nero’s prison comes to mind. Or Nelson Mandela’s account of his decades-long incarceration on Robben Island is up there in this genre. What about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress written in Bedford prison? Or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s account of The Gulag Archipelago? Then there is Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, of how her family in wartime Rotterdam were shopped for protecting Jews and were themselves sent to concentration camps. And Richard Wurmbrand’s Sermons from Solitary Confinement, which he tapped out in morse code while spending two of his 14 years in solitary during Romanian communism.
On and on it goes, but in these places where there was apparently no freedom, comes powerfully transcendent insights into living in true inner freedom.
These heroic stories are timely and important for us all when we think we have it hard; when we think we are unreasonably constrained, captive even during Covid-19 restrictions. We learn to appreciate what we have within us.
Mostly, these works call us to hope in spite of our circumstances. These stories call us from the immaturity of young children complaining that they are hungry or can’t go out to play, to become mature and fulfilled, wherever we are, whatever we can or can’t do.