Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. (Luke 23:13-25, NIV)
At Angola, we saw men who had committed terrible crimes, who had hurt and killed others, and who had in so doing rebelled against God—like Barabbas. The bars that closed behind us were daily reminders of this, as was the barbed wire along the prison fences. Victims surely still bear marks of their crimes. Tears still shed, lives fragmented, wounds that people would never fully recover from until the new heaven and new earth. No doubt many of these men had done horrible things. Men in prison for life. One man I met, with tattoos indicating a life that had been given to the service of the devil as a Satanist. Recollections of a life once lived.
Not too unlike Barabbas—one who had been imprisoned for “insurrection and murder.”
But these men have been given new lives. Their old lives have been exchanged for the life of Jesus—who took their place. And at Angola, we were overwhelmed with evidences that these men had been pardoned like Barabbas, and given a new life in Jesus Christ.
Lives permeated with humility. Sitting beside men who have tattoos up their arms or on their necks, some built like The Rock—yet not hardened our callous, but listening attentively, asking insightful questions about ministry, and how to minister to those around them. Gentleness of speech, one man beside me offering brownies to others around him. A rap by several of the inmates with a chorus that ran “Bow! Bow! Bow! Bow”—declaring the Lordship of Christ in Philippians 2. One older man saying that they prayed more for us as the next generation than they did for themselves. A man who had been a right-hand hit man for a Columbian drug lord, who had—while in 20 years solitary confinement—become a believer and begun to paint beautiful pictures. A classmate sharing how he had been able to reach out pastorally to a guard who regularly spoke roughly to the inmates. Hearing of men from Angola being witnesses to the mercy of God within other prisons. Goodbye hugs, genuine words that we will be missed. Gentleness worked by the gracious, Fatherly hand of God. There is life here.
But these men did more than show us something special happening at Angola. The truths we saw at this prison reach far beyond the prison bars and barbed wire. They showed us the story and calling of every Christian. Jesus and Barabbas as an image of the gospel. Jesus is innocent, but He suffered and died for us—for us who had rebelled against God and hated others (having been murderers and insurrectionists like Barabbas). And so we are also given new life, and called to live for our God in response. As we read in Peter’s Pentacost speech, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”(Acts 2:36, NIV) And the right response? “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38, NIV)
At the same time, we are called to remember our brothers and sisters in prison—they are having struggles and temptations and difficulties that are unique to them. May they continually remember their freedom, pardon, and calling in Christ, even when behind bars for a time. Let’s remember them in prayer, even as we also remember the common pattern of their story and ours.