I’ve learnt much more during my four years in jail than in my whole lifetime,” confessed Surinder Khanna to me during one of my visits to Tihar Jail, Delhi. During seven years when I weekly visited Tihar inmates to do a spot of teaching and counselling, I always felt that I learned so much befriending prisoners like Surinder and scores of others. Thereafter, I’d often ask myself: What really is a prison? And, who truly is free? This weekend Christians celebrate “Prison Ministry Sunday” and Monday is Independence Day. Christian involvement with prisoners originates in the life and teachings of Jesus who proclaimed: “God’s spirit is upon me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor and to set prisoners free.” Moreover, he promised that those who visited prisoners would inherit the heavenly reward.
The Bible tells of some prisoners who were unjustly jailed for their stand against evil, injustice, falsehood and unrighteousness: Joseph, Daniel, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and others. Jesus himself was held captive on the night before his crucifixion. Though these were physically held captive, their inner spirits were supremely free to confront their captors and critique crimes of their times. Although one is not imprisoned, one might feel fettered on account of being enslaved by bad habits or sin. Guilty of murder and adultery, King David prayed, “God, set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name.” By thinking that one is free when one compulsively acts according to one’s whims and fancies, one ironically imprisons oneself since bad habits and evil inclinations steadily stifle one’s freedom.
“The whole world is a prisoner to sin,” writes Paul. Though this statement paints a rather pessimistic view of our world, deep reflection will make us aware that there are so many snares and prisons that entrap us. For example, there are the “prisons of the past” when one nostalgically looks back to some “golden era” of one’s life and yearns to replicate it in the present. Or, “prisons of the future” can make us daydream about some illusory pie-in-the-sky while the here-and-now is wasted. True freedom lies in living in right relationship with God, others, and the whole cosmos, here-and-now.
In jail I’d often meet prisoners whom I least expected locked in Tihar: statesmen, doctors, professors, distinguished officials of the armed forces, religionists and scientists. Many swore that they were innocent, others confessed to crimes they could have avoided. Who are we to judge and condemn? Finally, the Bible also speaks of God as judge and jailor. So be it. As we prepare for Independence Day let’s treasure our freedoms and pledge to shatter our own prisons and set prisoners free....