The early history of Christianity was largely an urban story. Monks in the desert prayed for its advancement and expansion. But the growth of the upstart faith took place in cities: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Athens, and Rome.
For its part, the Christian intellectual tradition was born in a particular social environment, too: prison. The scriptures of other religions have been composed on rugged mountaintops, in verdant forests, on spectacular seashores, and in sheltered hermitages. Christian literature first saw the light of day behind bars.
From a prison cell in Rome, the apostle Paul penned these words: “I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call: one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).
Saint Paul may have been one of the first prisoners “for the Lord,” but he was certainly not the last. Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, Jesuit youth leader Alfred Delp’s Prison Writings, and Baptist preacher Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” remind us that some of the most compelling Christian writing in the last century has been produced not in ivory towers but in jail cells. What’s especially striking about this body of literature is the way it transcends ecclesiastical boundaries and denominational loyalties.
Awareness of a faith familiar with incarceration casts an illuminating shadow of its own on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Paul’s paean to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” is regularly highlighted in earnest calls for Christian reconciliation. And rightly so. His status as “prisoner for the Lord,” however, forces us to recognize at the same time the contemporary reality of a persecuted Christianity in war-torn and injustice-stricken parts of our world.
The coincidence of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with the celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King may be providential. In his contribution to Christian prison literature, written on scraps of newspapers and toilet tissue, King drew upon the great tradition of Christian thought—from Augustine and Aquinas to leading Protestant figures—to make an unforgettable case for the “extremism” of love. We know the ecumenism of the seminar room and the soup kitchen. The ecumenism of the cell block may be the most powerful of all.