Prisoners of Conscience by John de Gruchy

Prisoners of Conscience by John de Gruchy

Most of us will remember the Free Mandela Campaign which began in earnest in the nineteen-eighties after he was moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison. What you probably will not remember is that last week marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the protest march on Pollsmoor that took place as part of that campaign. On 28th September 1985, thousands of people, amongst them many clergy from a variety of church denominations, as well as from the Muslim community, including several of my colleagues and students embarked on this mass event that brought parts of Cape Town to a standstill. I was not there because I was in Pretoria where I was giving the J.B. Powell Lecture at the University of South Africa that evening. The march, which started early in the morning, divided into two streams one of which, led by Beyers Naudé, went directly to Pollsmoor from a nearby starting point. The other which started on the Cape Flats never got beyond Athlone and ended in chaos as the police attacked the marchers with whips and rubber bullets. Our son Steve and several of my students in this group were arrested, taken to Wynberg magistrate’s court and then imprisoned in Pollsmoor. Steve remained there for five days before the case against him was dropped.
 People are imprisoned for a variety of reasons. Some are awaiting trial, some are convicted criminals, some might be prisoners of war, but others are often prisoners of conscience. Prisoners of conscience are jailed not because they have committed a crime but because they have acted in accordance with their conscience and, in Steve’s case, Christian convictions. And because prisoners of conscience, like those locked up that day of the march on Pollsmoor, are deemed a threat to the security of the state, there is every reason to be anxious about their situation. The conditions in prison might well vary from one group to another, and in apartheid times they were better for whites than for blacks. But prison is still prison. You are virtually powerless and never quite sure what might happen to you. So while we supported Steve in doing what he did, as parents we were also anxious about what might happen to him. He was 23 at the time, and had previously been arrested and sent to prison for publicly protesting against apartheid. As a conscientious objector it was also possible that he would spend many long days behind bars.

 Last week Isobel found the diary which Steve wrote while in prison. She had been looking for it ever since he died in February, so it was wonderful to find it at this precise time. It is ten pages long and makes very interesting reading. Amongst his comments he tells how he spent hours reading through the Acts of the Apostles. This is a snippet of he wrote:

‘Then our cells were shut for the night (2.30 p.m.) and we were on our own for the rest of the afternoon and night. During that time (the afternoon) I slept and read the book of Acts. Did you know that only 2 out of 28 chapters in Acts don’t have reference to political persecution of Christians?! Prison was the (daily) experience of the early church.’

St. Paul described himself as ‘a prisoner for the Lord.’ He was often arrested and thrown into goal because he proclaimed Jesus as Lord and in doing so challenged the authorities of his day. Some of his letters we have in the NT, like Philippians, were actually written in prison. There are also vivid accounts of Paul’s various imprisonments recorded in Acts, like that celebrated occasion in Philippi when he and his fellow worker Silas not only sang songs at midnight in the cell, but also converted the jailer and managed to escape because an earthquake broke open the prison gates. This brings to mind another passage in Steve’s prison diary:

 ‘At about 5 pm we had a service – each of us standing by the small slit windows of our cells… We sang some songs and hymns, and then read Hebrews 10:32-39, and shared about prison and Christian witness. David then led us in a set of intercessions, and then we prayed for people in Cape Town, for our families, those in prison, the prison officials…We then sang the Lord’s Prayer, and Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrica – which reverberated through the corridor…’

 There is a long tradition of Christians being imprisoned because of their witness. Sometimes it is simply because they preached the gospel, as still happens in some countries today, other times because they stood up for the oppressed and sought justice. Recently we watched again the movie ‘A Man for all Seasons.’ It is about Thomas More the one-time chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII. More was a Catholic who refused to acknowledge the King’s divorce of his wife and proclaiming himself head of the Church of England in order to make that possible. Another prisoner for Christ was the Baptist preacher John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress who likewise in the 17th century, who refused to conform to the Act of Uniformity. And then, of course, there is Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose Letters and Papers from Prison has become a Christian classic. All of these were imprisoned because they had acted out of a conscience shaped by Christian conviction.

In 1996 I convened the Sixth International Bonhoeffer Congress in Cape Town. It attracted well over a hundred scholars from around the world. On one of the days we went to Robben Island and visited the cell where Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years. Then, just outside his cell in the courtyard we listened to Beyers Naudé speak about both Bonhoeffer and Mandela as prisoners of conscience who courageously fought for justice and witnessed to the truth. This came back to me again as I read Steve’ diary from prison, recalling that Naudé had himself been on that same march. Reflecting on that this thought came to me: where would we be if people like Paul, Thomas More, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela and so many others had not been prepared to suffer for their faith, their passion for justice and for truth?

Freedom, both religious and political, always comes at a great cost, and for that reason we should never cheapen or squander it, never fail to thank God for those who have paid the price through their own suffering and in so doing manifested the love of Christ who gave himself for us all. So today I would like us to celebrate the heroes of faith who, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, because of their faith suffered torture, imprisonment and death. In doing so they bore a faithful witness to Jesus who likewise was arrested, thrown into prison, and crucified as a common criminal for our sakes, for our freedom. Freedom from sin, certainly, and freedom from fear, but also freedom for others, freedom to be truly human, freedom to love and freedom to live by our convictions as followers of Jesus.

8 September 2010, Volmoed