The way prisoners of conscience in other countries are treated seems far removed from the lives of most American Christians. As U.S. citizens, we do not live in fear of illegal abductions, arbitrary arrests, brutal interrogations, forced confessions, torturous prison conditions, and harsh sentences. Yet faithful disciples of the most famous “prisoner of conscience” in the history of mankind should know that the Word of God calls them to speak, pray, and act on behalf of persons whose rights are violated by regimes of the right or the left. The psalmist expressed the faith needed for our times: “Lord, I know that you defend the cause of the poor and rights of the needy” (Psalm 140:12, TEV).
While newspapers and television document cases of a few famous persons subjected to sudden arrests, one-sided trials, and long sentences, American Christians should not forget that there are literally thousands of others who receive no publicity in the outside world. Only a few groups such as churches or voluntary organizations like Amnesty International make the effort to stay informed about imprisoned men and women who are not famous scientists, writers, or dissidents. The 1977 report of the latter group lists more than one hundred nations where human rights violations occurred in that year. Here are a few names of forgotten people who represent many who suffer similar fates:
Heinz Reineke, a thirty-seven-year-old sculptor in East Germany, once belonged to the ruling Communist party there, but he soon became disillusioned. Last year he wrote an open letter challenging Erich Honecker, the head of state, for failing to live up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Reineke was quickly arrested and sentenced to four years in the Brandenburg prison for speaking out of his conscience.
Mykola Plakhotnyuk is a physician who graduated with honors and worked in a children’s sanatorium. Because he published a human rights samizdat (unofficial) journal, the Ukrainian Herald, Soviet authorities have detained him in a psychiatric hospital since 1972. Under harsh conditions his health has steadily deteriorated.
International church leaders wonder what has happened to the well-known Christian scholar Mauricio Lopez, an official of the World Student Christian Federation in Argentina. Because of his work on behalf of political refugees, he was dismissed from his post as rector of the state university of the San Luis province. Lopez was abducted in 1976 at Christmas; there has been no news of him since from the military government.
These modern cases make the Bible’s witness on behalf of human rights even more vivid and compelling. The book of Jeremiah, in its biographical sections about the prophet, often reads like a contemporary news release describing an authoritarian government’s attempts to silence a famous dissident.
Jeremiah lived in an age much like our own. While the kings of Judah adopted the ill-fated politics of shifting alliances with various power blocs, Jeremiah kept calling for internal renewal of the people’s covenant with God. His preaching was not the bitter denunciation of a turncoat, but the heartbroken pleadings of a man who could say, “My heart has been crushed because my people are crushed.… Is there no medicine in Gilead? Are there no doctors there?” (Jer. 8:21, 22, TEV).
When Jeremiah’s public proclamations were not heeded and his personal contact with the ruling authorities cut off, he registered his protests by means of an open letter to the king—much as some contemporary dissidents have done to bring world attention to their cause. But when Jeremiah’s scroll calling for the spiritual freedom of the people was read in King Jehoiakim’s presence, the monarch cut it to pieces and fed it into the royal fireplace (Jer. 36).
Jeremiah received even more contemptuous treatment later from King Zedekiah, who reigned when Jerusalem fell before the besieging Babylonian armies. Again, God’s spokesman was accused of being a traitor even though he showed his faith in the nation’s future by investing in property. Arrested on the false grounds of deserting to the Babylonians when he tried to leave to inspect his property, Jeremiah was incarcerated in an underground cell and endured weeks of this brutal imprisonment until he was finally brought up into the palace to be interrogated by the king (Jer. 37:11–16). He seized the opportunity to appeal for better prison conditions and was transferred to a courtyard where he existed on a meager diet of bread (Jer. 37:17–21).
The biblical witness further parallels modern violations of human rights. Jeremiah’s situation again deteriorated when government “hardliners” convinced the king that the prophet was dangerous to the security of the state: “This man must be put to death. By talking like this he is making the soldiers in the city lose their courage, and he is doing the same thing to everyone else left in the city” (Jer. 38:4). His fate was to be thrown into an empty cistern in the palace precincts, and he sank into the mud in solitary confinement.
But Jeremiah was not without friends who kept track of his situation. It is interesting that relief came to the prophet not through disciples like his secretary Baruch, who was probably also persona non grata in the royal precincts, but from a domestic servant in the palace. The Scriptures tell us that it was Ebedmelech, a Sudanese eunuch, who dared to approach the king to seek relief for Jeremiah. Ebedmelech’s words are a classical protest by a faithful man of God on behalf of a prisoner of conscience: “Your Majesty, what these men have done is wrong. They have put Jeremiah in the well, where he is sure to die of starvation, since there is no more food in the city” (Jer. 38:9).
This vivid case history in the book of Jeremiah not only illustrates the ancient prophetic concern for human rights, but also illuminates the painful struggles of faithful people in our world today. It is only one example of the Bible’s teaching about the human rights of prisoners. Indeed, the very constitution of Israel at the Exodus was linked to the compassion of God for his people in the slave labor camps of Egypt.
As God’s people moved into the Promised Land and were shaped by divine law, they found God’s commandments often ran contrary to common practices in the ancient world. Think of the amazing concern shown for the gerim, which our English Bibles translate variously as strangers, sojourners, aliens, or foreigners. In most ancient societies the gerim or resident aliens were looked upon as potential, if not outright, enemies. U.S. treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II should remind us that such suspicion of resident foreigners is hardly limited to the ancient world. Even within Israel these gerim usually held second class citizenship: Solomon’s census reminds us that 153,600 were pressed into work on the temple (2 Chron. 2:17).
In spite of their second class status, however, the gerim were singled out at various points in the laws of Israel, and their human rights were to be honored. Even Leviticus, primarily concerned with ritual purity and religious observances, describes God’s demand for the rights of the gerim: “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would a fellow Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33, 34, TEV).
Deuteronomy extends this commandment by setting it in the context of God’s election of Israel out of all other nations and of God’s supremacy over all powers. “He [God] does not show partiality and he does not accept bribes. He makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; he loves the foreigners who live with our people and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:17–19, TEV). Such “primitive” concepts of justice and human rights still seem to be unattainable in many twentieth-century states where the treatment of aliens and racial and religious minorities is often harsh and oppressive.
The Old Testament gives both negative and positive illustrations of the divine command for protection of rights. In ancient Israel, as under many military regimes even today, life could be uncertain and justice only a dream. When regimes changed, often those associated by kinship or service to the former ruler were in danger of cruel punishment or death. The bloody story of Abner and Joab, the respective commanders of Saul’s and David’s armies, is typical of biblical occurrences of the violation of rights. Though David had guaranteed Abner’s safety after the victory over Saul’s forces, Joab still wanted blood revenge because Abner had killed his brother at the battle of Gibeon. Joab dared to assassinate Abner openly on the street in the king’s city—perhaps relying on the common assumption that such revenge was acceptable. But David cursed him and mourned Abner. “He died like someone killed by criminals!” David lamented over Abner (2 Sam. 3:34).
The Old Testament shows us both the hope and the violation, the victory and defeat, of human rights. The divine law and the prophetic call were clear; but they were often ignored in the history of Israel. Particularly during the corrupt and unsettled period of the divided kingdom, bloody retribution as well as the abandonment of fair trials and just punishment became commonplace. The Scriptures use the notorious reign of King Manasseh as an example of the most flagrant abuse of human rights. Judgment quickly followed, and the Exile was understood by the faithful as the Lord’s punishment.
Like the Egyptian bondage, the Exile was another bitter lesson about the inevitability of God’s judgment if his people wantonly sinned against him and violated the standards of his law. Time and again the divine commands of justice and mercy had been proclaimed by law, prophets, and wisdom sayings. But as such teaching was violated or forgotten, the faithful of Israel began to realize that more than wise counsel was needed. The messianic hope grew ever brighter, particularly as the people saw their temple destroyed and the kingdom of Judah lose all earthly power. The hope was for a new covenant, for a time when the law would be within the human heart and not just written on tablets of stone (Jer. 31:33).
In the life and work of our Lord that messianic hope came to fruition. With his coming the matter of human rights takes on deeply personal meaning for his followers. He began his ministry in Galilee by announcing that the Spirit had anointed him “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18, Phillips). Often that teaching has been interpreted too metaphorically, as twentieth-century Christians have forgotten the social-political context of the police state in which Jesus spoke. John the Baptist, after all, was not the only one to land in jail in first-century Palestine; but certainly John’s death at the whim of Salome and Herodias was one of the most notorious examples of “justice” that Jesus’ contemporaries feared.
It is no wonder that in Jesus’ parables and sayings he often referred to the indignities and violations of basic human rights his fellow Jews might meet. Thus, the Lord’s teachings of love for enemies were all the more shocking to those who listened. That disciples should pray for the very persons who persecuted them seemed an incredible demand (Matt. 5:44).
The issue of human rights, however, becomes most poignant for us in the Passion of our Lord. He was summarily arrested and dragged off in the middle of the night. Even his most faithful friends deserted him (Luke 22:33, TEV). Interrogated before various authorities, Jesus knew the indignities of public humiliation. His physical pain on the cross was augmented by emotional and spiritual agony as he saw Mary and his friends in utter anguish. He expressed in his lonely prayer the desolation of condemned innocents of all ages, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Lord was willing to lose his rights, that we might be right with God (Rom. 5:1).
After the joy of the resurrection, the apostles soon learned that the servants were not greater than the master; that they too must endure tortures and even death for his name’s sake. Both the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles continue the theme we have traced in the Old Testament and in the Gospels: the innocent often suffer as their faith is tested in the refiner’s fire (1 Peter 1:6, 7).
Peter and the apostles were jailed for daring to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). They, like their Lord, knew the cruelty of the whip. Stephen found justice subverted when men were bribed to testify that he had blasphemed against Moses and God (Acts 6:11). Even the great apostle to the Gentiles, who enjoyed the privileges of Roman citizenship, learned what loss of rights meant on many occasions when he was a prisoner of conscience. In fact, Paul claimed that the authenticity of his apostolic authority rested on his identification with Christ in suffering. “I have been in prison more times, I have been whipped much more, and I have been near death more often. Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I was whipped by the Romans, and once I was stoned” (2 Cor. 11:25, TEV).
How did the young church respond to such trials? Certainly by prayer for the imprisoned (Acts 12:5) and for political authorities who could insure justice and peace (1 Tim. 2:1, 2). There is also evidence that other assistance was rendered when possible, as when Paul’s friends in Philippi sent him gifts to help with his expenses while he was in the Roman prison (Phil. 4:18). Church members sometimes even petitioned the prison authorities on behalf of the prisoners, as when Paul’s nephew convinced the commander of the Jerusalem jail of the dangerous plot to assassinate Paul as he was being brought into court. Paul sought justice for himself and used every legal means open to him, as when he appealed to Caesar so that his trial would not take place in the biased Jerusalem court (Acts 25:10).
In spite of this wealth of detail about human rights, the New Testament shows us only the tip of the iceberg, a few instances out of the countless times that human rights became an issue for early Christians. The Revelation of John perhaps best describes the faithful who suffered innocently: “These are the people who have come safely through the terrible persecution. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14, TEV). In this magnificent vision we understand the eternal hope that “He who sits on the throne will protect them with his presence” (Rev. 7:15, TEV).
God’s Word reminds us constantly of the anguish and rights of the oppressed, particularly of those who are prisoners of conscience and brothers and sisters in Christ. Through the efforts of contemporary churches, and through letters and telegrams from individuals, we can stand by those who are in prison, even in other lands. We can be reminded of what our help can mean to a prisoner as we read what Paul wrote long ago from his cell: “In my life in union with the Lord it is a great joy to me that after so long a time you once more had the chance of showing that you care for me. I don’t mean that you had stopped caring for me—you just had no chance of showing it. And I am not saying this because I feel neglected, for I have learned to be satisfied with what I have.… I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me” (Phil. 4:10, 11, 13, TEV).
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
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