We are in the middle of a three week reflection on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Last week we noted that every word of Paul subversively called the authority of the Roman Empire into question. At every corner Paul contested the empire’s narrative of reality. For Paul, the empire was a great pretender that needed to be exposed: The empire promised life but it delivered nothing but death. The Roman Empire, like all empires before and after, relied on military violence, heavy taxation (to pay for the military and create a landless underclass), the myth of divine favour (religion as good news for the rich), and a strict segregation of society into an oppressive hierarchy (a strategy of divide and conquer that was on endless repeat).
Paul penned his letter from a Roman jail. Yes, he was in detention without trial. This fact alone should prevent anybody ever reading this letter with a-political eyes. Paul was sitting in the belly of the beast when he wrote this letter. To ignore this context is to render his letter meaningless.
There are many well-known letters, books and diaries that have been written from within a prison cell or soon thereafter. To name three SA political prison memoirs: Hell-Hole Robben Island: Reminiscences of a Political Prisoner by Moses Dlamini; One Hundred and Seventeen Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation by Ruth First; There and Back: Robben Island 1964 – 1979 by Eddie Daniels.
Paul Gready, helps us tremendously in understanding the context of Prison-writer-Paul in his studies over many years regarding Writing as Resistance (Political Prison Writing in the Apartheid Era).
“The word is a weapon that both inflicts pain and secures power. Prisoners are relentlessly rewritten within the official ‘power of writing’, from interrogation and the making of a statement, through legislation and the political trial, to the regulations governing imprisonment. Within this process the prisoner’s sense of self and world is undermined, pain is made visible and objectified in writing and converted into state power. Language becomes subject to the dominant characteristics of the state: the lawlessness of absolute power renders the word a lie. However, the ‘power of writing’ is a contested arena. Prisoners write to restore a sense of self and world, to reclaim the ‘truth’ from the apartheid lie, to seek empowerment in an oppositional ‘power of writing’ by writing against the official text of imprisonment.” (P Gready: Journal for Southern African Studies, 1993, Vol 19(3) p 489-523)
Another SA political prison memoir is, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs. Sachs was arrested on 1 October 1963, under Apartheid South Africa’s notorious Ninety Days Law. He was held without trial for 168 days and kept in solitary confinement. He recalls in the preface of his book, that as soon as he was released:
“…I wrote it all by hand, rapidly, in secret, and relied on friends to have it typed. The police were everywhere; we had to be careful, the typists as well as myself. This was the time when Nelson Mandela and others, including two friends of mine, were on trial for their lives. Our movement was being crushed. It was a bitter period, and writing was more than a release for me. It was the only joyous activity I could manage, an intimate form of clandestine resistance.”
I remember when I read Sachs’ book I could not stop thinking of him in solitary confinement and this context impregnated every word with arresting meaning. This is how we are called to read Colossians.