Letters from Prison, IV: Prisoners and Presidents
Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in a crooked and perverse generation.
Shine like stars in the world. —Philippians 2:15
There’s a lot going on today in the Christian Churches. For global Christians, it’s the first Sunday in Lent. For Catholic Christians, it’s the feast day of St. Valentine. And of course for American Christians, it’s Presidents’ Day Weekend, as you can plainly see from the crowded pews and vast congregation present this morning. So I’ve been thinking this week about Prisoners and Presidents.
Some presidents become prisoners: I think of Panama’s Manuel Noriega and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who, during a brutal 17-year military rule, arrested something like 130,000 Chilean citizens, and tortured 40,000, 4,000 of whom simply ‘disappeared’ and were never heard from again. Some presidents become prisoners, thank God.
On the other hand, some prisoners become presidents, thank God. In 1975, Václav Havel was a moderately successful playwright in Czechoslovakia when he finally decided he was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore, so he wrote a letter to Communist Party General Secretary Gustáv Husák, which became famous and incendiary.
He complained about “the aesthetics of banality,” and “the cult of right-thinking mediocrity” in the Communist Party and just completely slandered the whole regime. Mr. Havel was one of the first ones to refer to Communist Czechoslovakia as ‘Absurdistan.’ It probably won’t surprise you that impolitic language like this got Václav Havel thrown into prison for five years.
The warden, an unreconstructed admirer of Adolph Hitler, took an instant dislike to political dissidents like Mr. Havel. When he found out Mr. Havel was writing letters for the gypsy inmates, because they were illiterate, the warden threw him into solitary confinement.
Mr. Havel wrote hundreds of letters from prison to his beloved wife Olga. At the end of almost every one, he signed off with “I kiss you.” It was the only way he could kiss her.
Mr. Havel’s five years in prison did him absolutely no good, however, and when he was released, he immediately resumed his epistolary warfare with Czech Communism. He and Lech Wałęsa in Poland were the two people most responsible for the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Not a shot was fired. They called it The Velvet Revolution. Mr. Havel served as President of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic for 14 years.
In 2003, President Bush awarded this Czech prisoner the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he died in 2011, President Obama said, “His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire.” Today, there is a bust of Mr. Havel in the Rotunda of the U. S. Capitol Building, one of only four non-Americans to be so honored, along with, among others, Winston Churchill.
I guess I find these letters from prison so moving and poignant because they show us the irrepressible human spirit. Imprisonment is about confinement, obviously. The free creature is constricted within this impossibly narrow world of drab walls and stagnant air and implacable iron bars and unpickable locks, and the only way to free the spirit and connect with those you love and long for is to toss a missive beyond the barbed wire.
“I kiss you” is how Václav Havel signs his letters to his beloved Olga. St. Paul doesn’t want to send a kiss; he sends a friend instead.
Remember what I’ve been saying about this letter. Early in his career St. Paul had founded the church at Philippi, sometime in the 40’s A.D. Over the years, for various reasons, from a distance, Paul establishes his most precious friendships in Philippi; that church becomes his favorite congregation.
And now, 20 years later, he is trapped in a Roman prison cell, around 62 A.D., thrown there for creating such a ruckus by preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Blasphemy and treason are the charges—serious stuff. The Roman D. A. brings the indictment—serious empire. Nero is the Roman Emperor—serious man.
Paul’s not in a position to help the Philippians himself, since he’s something like 700 miles away, and locked in a jail cell on top of that, so he sends his love via his dearest friend. “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon,” writes Paul to his friends, “so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. Timothy is like a son to me.”
So Paul’s world is 9′ x 10′. He is caged in. But he will not stop and he will not give in. He frees his spirit by sending a friend, and his inimitable, indomitable advice. “Do all things without murmuring and arguing,” he writes, “so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” Be blameless and innocent in a crooked and perverse generation. In other words, “Be Christ in a Christless world. You are the only ones who can do it. I’m locked up. Make me proud. Prove to the world and to God that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
“Shine like stars in the world,” he says. Some presidents become prisoners, thank God. And some prisoners become presidents.
On June 11, 1964, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, seven miles off the coast of Cape Town. He was 44 years old. When he walked out on February 11, 1990, he was 71; 27 years. They let him write two letters a year, and receive two visitors a year. When his beloved wife Winnie visited him, they sat on opposite sides of inch-thick glass; he did not touch her for 21 years. His daughter was a toddler when he went in. When he saw her next, she had a toddler of her own.
From his prison cell on Robben Island, Mandela said, “There are victories whose glory lies in the fact that they are known only to those who win them…. Prison and the authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity. In and of itself, that assured that I would survive, for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure.” Now, that sounds like presidential timber to me.
Year after year, as his imprisonment stretched on and on to half a lifetime, the international outcry swelled to greater and greater intensity. In London, in Paris, in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, there were all these “Free Mandela” Posters and “Free Mandela” rallies.
Mr. Mandela later joked, “Most of these Americans crying ‘Free Mandela’ had no idea who I was. Most of them thought ‘Free’ was my first name.” And it is—right? Mandela’s name? His name is “Free.”
In 1994 during the first free elections in South African history, thousands of Zulu and Xhosa and Swazi South Africans waited for hours to vote, in lines that stretched literally for miles, and elected Mr. Mandela the first President of the Republic of South Africa. I do not think it is too much to say that South Africa exists today as a single nation only because Nelson “Free” Mandela was its first President. You know what South Africa calls itself today? The Rainbow Nation.
If you’re interested in exploring this further, Mr. Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom is a beautiful story. It’s also a great title—right?—because for black South Africans, and for black Americans, it’s always a Long Walk to Freedom.
Or if a 500-page book is too much for you to take on just now, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: you could watch the very fine 2009 film Invictus. It’s a very small movie, but it’s almost like a wallet-sized snapshot of Mr. Mandela’s life and South Africa’s struggle for equality. In less than two touching hours, you could learn everything you need to know about Nelson Mandela.
In the early 90’s, when Mr. Mandela became one of the most famous people in the world, a reporter asked him, “Madiba, when they make a film about your life, whom do you want to play your part?” Mr. Mandela didn’t even need to think about that. “Morgan Freeman, of course,” he answered instantly.
Twenty years go by. In 2007 or 2008, Morgan Freeman decides to make a film about one year of Mr. Mandela’s life. Mr. Freeman’s own company produces the film, and Mr. Freeman, of course, plays the part of Nelson Mandela. After all, Morgan Freeman knows how to play a prisoner: remember The Shawshank Redemption?
So they make this film and call it Invictus. When Morgan Freeman shows an early screening of the film for the old President, now almost 90 years old, Mr. Mandela turns to Mr. Freeman with gratitude and says, “Now they will remember me.” Could you possibly get a higher compliment than that from one of the greatest global citizens of the twentieth century? “Now they will remember me.”
One last thing and then I’ll quit. One more prisoner who became President. Almost.
Do you remember when John McCain challenged George Bush for the Republican Presidential Nomination in 2000? Do you remember what he called his campaign bus? He called it “The Straight Talk Express.”
Senator McCain would zip across the country chatting nonstop with a bus-full of reporters, and they couldn’t believe what he was telling them. He was telling them the unvarnished truth. There was nothing he would not say.
One reporter said that “Politics has always been a dodgy game of sly compromise and circumlocution,” but John McCain was incapable of sly compromise or circumlocution. It’s probably why he lost the nomination, but I guess when you spend five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, compromise and equivocation kind of lose their appeal.
Late in the 2008 Presidential campaign between Senators McCain and Obama, a woman stood up at a McCain rally and said, “I don’t trust Obama because he’s an Arab.” And Senator McCain quickly protested, “No ma’am,” he said. “Senator Obama is a decent family man and a good citizen, whom I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” That moment was legendary as one of those few gestures of civility in recent American politics.
But I guess when you’ve spent five years under the most brutal interrogations, you cling tenaciously to honor and truth and decency. You find out that life is too hard and too short for mendacity.
In his memoir of his time as a Prisoner of War at the Hanoi Hilton, Senator, also Captain, McCain tells the story of fellow prisoner Mike Christian. Mike was a poor man from Selma, Alabama; he never owned a pair of shoes till he was 13 years old. He’d enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 and became a bombardier navigator. He was shot down and became a North Vietnamese POW in 1967.
Sometimes the POW’s would receive packages from their families, and there were often cloth items included—scarves, handkerchiefs, other clothing items. For a long time, Mike had been squirreling away patches of red and white cloth. The POW’s wore blue shirts.
Mike Christian somehow carved himself a crude needle out of a bamboo stalk, and began sewing the red and white patches of cloth into the inside of his blue shirt until he’d fashioned a small American flag. When his captors discovered it one day, they took his shirt away, and then took him outside and beat him almost to death. They punctured an eardrum and broke several ribs.
Then they threw him back into the barracks where the other prisoners helped Mike to his bunk. Then they all tried to fall asleep.
And Captain McCain says that just before he drifts off, he notices that Mike Christian, a poor kid from Selma, Alabama, has wedged himself into a corner of the barracks under a naked light bulb, has pulled out his bamboo needle, and started sewing a new American flag by stitching patches of red and white cloth into his new POW shirt, even though his eyes are so swollen shut he can barely see.
We, you and I, live smaller lives than folk like these, and we are we unlikely to face such dire chains, partly because they wore them for us.
Still, life, in smaller ways, can take almost everything from you—your livelihood, your health, your loved ones, your freedom even. What they can’t take from you is your honor, your decency, your spirit, and your self.
As Paul, from a Roman prison cell, puts it to his favorite congregation, “Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in a crooked and perverse generation. Shine like stars in the world.”
Václav Havel, “Dear Dr. Husák,” in Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990, ed. Paul Wilson, translator unknown (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 66.
Paul Wilson, in his introduction to Václav Havel’s Letters to Olga, 1979-1982, trans. Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 8.
Dan Bilefsky and Jane Perlez, “Václav Havel, Former Czech President, Dies at 75,” The New York Times, December 18, 2011.
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), p. 341.
Ibid., p. 440.
Morgan Freeman, “How I Got to Play the Hero,” Time, December 23, 2013, p. 158.
Joe Klein, “Flawed Hero,” The New Yorker, January, 17, 2000, p. 28.
Wikipedia entry on “John McCain.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCain
John McCain & Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers (New York: Random House, 1999), 335-336.