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Coffee & Wisdom 02.45: Allow Me to Post This Epistle Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about writing from prison.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is coffee and wisdom.

We are beginning a new week, looking at epistles, letters, and incarceration–having plenty of time to do some writing. So I’m calling it “Allow Me to Post this Episode.”

Of the twenty seven books of Christian Scripture, twenty one of them are epistles, are letters. Then, what is an epistle? An epistle is a letter designed as a literary work rather than as a communication to one individual. The term isn’t much used nowadays. I guess people have decided that it sounds maybe a little bit too, too. So nowadays we call epistles letters for the most part.

The most famous in American history is probably “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King back in nineteen sixty three. There has been a lot of writing done in jails and prisons, however, over the many centuries.

For example, Oscar Wilde–De Profundis, one of his last works, and also “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” after his incarceration. What can you say about a Western tradition that begins with a couple of its most famous people being people who are tried and executed? We’ve got Jesus before Pilate over here and Socrates declaiming why he is going to take that hemlock after being condemned by the Athenian Senate in his apology.

There he is quaffing his his hemlock. Socrates said this: “I said to each one of you individually and in private what I hold to be the greatest possible service. I tried to persuade each one of you to concern himself less with what he has then with what he is so as to render himself as excellent and rational as possible.”

OK, one of the most famous things about Socrates at his trial is that he says–you know, you ought to be giving me money instead of condemning me. And that kind of ticked the court off. But he wanted people to be excellent and rational, as he says.

Famously, the Roman, Pilate, says, so you are a king. Jesus says, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” To which Pilate says, “What is truth?” It has long been debated whether or not Pilate was asking a deeper and more intricate question than Jesus had just answered. Perhaps Pilate himself had a very nuanced vision of truth, unlike the Jewish people he was dwelling among in the day.

As the Christian scriptures unfold, Paul very famously wrote several of his epistles from prison. Yeah, you can find all kinds of illustrations online of Saint Paul, either writing or transcribing.

That’s one of the debates–how much do some of these folks do the writing and how much do they talk about it and have a scribe write it? As Paul says, “I am in chains now, still preaching.” So there he is.

Another very early Christian one is Constellation of Philosophy by Boethius. Here is Sophia, Philosophy, talking to Boethius, who was imprisoned by the Roman emperor. Boethius may or may not have been a Christian. It’s still debatable, but he definitely wrote from a standpoint of Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy about the trials and tribulations of fate and being alive.

Another famous incarcerated person is Paul Bunyan. The Pilgrim’s Progress was entirely written in prison while he was there for twelve years in Bedford in the UK. Debatable about whether or not he had too much going on. Apparently he was able to see some people and had a fairly good visitor schedule there. Bunyon says: “I will stay in prison till the moss grows on my eyelids rather than disobey God.”

So, yes. How do you feel about that, Mr Bunyan? A prisoner of conscience. Another in this epistolary tradition is The Travels of Marco Polo, written while Marco Polo was in prison. A contemporary illustration shows him again dictating to describe what he saw, yet a contemporary diorama shows him writing himself. We don’t know exactly what happened. But, by golly, he was incarcerated for three years for commanding a ship in a naval battle against Genoa.

Another famous incarcerated person is Sir Walter Raleigh. He was incarcerated for 13 years in the Tower of London before losing his head, and wrote The History of the World in five books. Again, you have a lot of time in prison. You need some paper and a pen and you can write the history of the world or Pilgrim’s Progress. O

Oh, yes . . . Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a best seller, was definitely written in prison. After his failed revolution, he spent some time in jail in the 1920s.

It is International Women’s Day. So we should mention Lady Constance Lighton–On the Right Prisons and Prisoners. She was incarcerated for her work for the suffragette movement and did write a book from her prison experiences.

Others from the Second World War period, letters and Papers from prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a very famous theological text. And not so theological, since he was a communist, Letters from Prison by Antonio Gramsci. But again, prison tends to give people a little time and quite a bit of focus in terms of what they need to write.

Another famous example from the First World War is e. e. Cummings, the poet. Not as much known for his fiction writing and this semi-fictional book, The Enormous Room.

Cummings, like many young, idealistic Americans, volunteered to serve in the ambulance corps during the First World War, before the US entered the war. He went to France and then proceeded to write some letters home that were not entirely complimentary of the French war effort. For that, he was arrested by the French and spent most of the rest of the First World War in a prisoner of war camp,

Nelson Mandela. Twenty seven years he spent in prison. One of the messages that was smuggled out said “Unite, mobilized, fight on. Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle, we shall crush apartheid!” Which they did, after Mandela spent twenty seven years in jail.

Probably the most prolific writer ever of people in prison–in the Bastille for 11 years–the Marquis de Sade wrote 11 novels, 16 novellas, 20 plays, two volumes of essays, and he kept a diary. So that’s quite a bit of writing while you’re hanging out at the Bastille.

O. Henry, William Sidney Poitier, famous American writer. Eighteen sixty two to nineteen ten. Here on the left we have a kind of a fuzzy picture of him doing his bank work as a teller. He was later imprisoned for stealing some of that money from the bank. Here he is with his umbrella, having escaped to Honduras.

But he did come back to the US and spent three years in jail. A less well known thing these days is “O. Henry in Prison and Out,” a biography of O. Henry written by Al Jennings. Al Jennings is kind of forgotten these days, but Alfonso J. Al Jennings–1863-1961–nice long life. He was a lawyer in the Oklahoma territory who joined an outlaw gang in the late 1890s. Yes, he was a train robber. According to his own accounts, he became friends with O. Henry in Honduras and later they both came back to the US and served time in Ohio State Penitentiary.He was released from prison in 1902. He got a presidential pardon from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. Yes, that sort of thing has a long pedigree in American political history, getting your pardon, even though you’re pretty well, pretty surely guilty. Jennings later became active in politics in Oklahoma. He ran for governor and county attorney. He knew a lot about the law after all. What an American story. Eventually he moved to California and became a movie star in the early, silent films. So Al Jennings. Not much known nowadays, but a classic American figure, I would say.

That’s what we want to talk about this week: What incarceration gives to these folks who are able to write and be witnesses from that, many of them facing execution, such as Boethius.

He was under a death sentence. He would be executed sooner or later and wrote his book in prison. He says, “Among the wise, there is no place at all left for hatred, for no one except the greatest of fools will hate good people. And there is no reason at all for hating the bad, for just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind. And if this is so, since we think of people who are sick in body as deserving sympathy rather than hatred, much more so do they deserve pity rather than blame who suffer an evil more severe than any physical illness?”

Very interesting reflection. Evil; wickedness is a disease, just like consumption, and so we really can’t blame people for having it. He goes on to say, “Men who give up the common goal of all things that exist thereby cease to exist themselves.” This is a very Stoic idea of serving the universe and fitting into your place in the universe by being a good human being–“Some may perhaps think it’s strange that we say that wicked men who form the majority of men do not exist, but that is how it is. I am not trying to deny the wickedness of the wicked. What I do deny is that their existence is absolute and complete existence, just as you might call a corpse a dead man, but simply couldn’t simply call it a man. So I would agree that the wicked are wicked, but could not agree that they have unqualified existence.”

So not only are the wicked very forgivable, but they also don’t exist as human beings. And that’s the idea we’re going to talk about this week–incarceration and epistolary writing.

On Wednesday evening at 7:00 p.m. Central Standard Time, join us for Bibles and Beer. Speaking of Paul, “Paul Takes it All Back.” There have been a lot of times over the many millennia that people have predicted the end of the world and, by golly, it didn’t happen. So what do you do? Well, Paul is a model for what you do when what you’ve been predicting doesn’t come true.

Thanks for joining us today. Our theme for the month of March at First Unitarian Society is commitment. That is what we were going to be talking about for our Assemblies this month. I’ll be back tomorrow with a little bit more about letters and epistles. Thanks for listening.

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