The late Alexander Werth, a BBC correspondent, was one of the journalists who accompanied the Red Army as they deliberately marched to liberate the Maidanek concentration camp in Poland. The description Werth gave was so gory that the BBC refused to air it arguing that it was unbelievable and probably a Soviet propaganda gambit. It was after the emancipation of other camps that it dawned on BBC that Werth’s story was factual.
Werth says that the camp appeared harmless from the outside and no one could guess the kind of evil that was perpetrated inside its walls. A tour of the camp revealed the horrors that were meted on what the Nazi considered as the ‘undesirables’. In the quest for a ‘pure’ society, the Nazis broke all the rules of human sanity and ushered in a time of unimaginable bloodshed. It was the crying abuse of the 20th Century.
It is shocking to learn that such a place that was a slaughterhouse for masses could just pass for another workers’ settlement. It appears that the captured undesirables could not tell that they were breathing their last as they approached the camps. Nothing outside could warn them of the impending danger. Outside its walls, nothing smelt like Zyklon B.
It is the same with our lives. There are numerous places around and about our lives that look harmless from the outside. Mistakenly we jump on the bandwagon only to realise later that it is being driven furiously to a slaughterhouse. Bertrand Russell, in his writings, ‘The Problems of Philosophy’, identified Appearance and Reality as “one of the distinctions that cause the most trouble in philosophy.” Immanuel Kant would posit that objects could be known from the way they appeared and not as they may be in themselves. Kant, unlike David Hume, was not necessarily vouching for Empiricism. These kinds of arguments raise several epistemological questions. However, we are not going to discuss this for now.
The Tullanium was a squalid underground dungeon that was used by the Romans to contain criminals or lock up purported leaders of the enemies of the state. Among the guests of the dungeon was Simon Bar Giora who was one of the architects of the Great Revolt of 66 CE – 70 CE. He was captured after the fall of Jerusalem. Others, according to medieval traditions, were Peter and Paul. It was a place of execution. Sallust, in the ‘War with Catiline’ describes Tullanium as a place of neglect, darkness, and stench that makes it hideous and fearsome to behold.
Calpurnius Flaccus, too, helps us understand what this place looked like. In his writings, ‘Declamations IV’ Flaccus says,
“I can visualise the state prison, constructed of huge stone blocks, receive through the narrow chinks just a faint semblance of light. Culprits cat into this prison look forward to the execution cell, and whenever the creaking of the iron-bound door stirs those helpless, sprawled out people, they are terrified, and by viewing someone else’s punishment, they learn of their own soon to come. Whip lashes crack, food is delivered in the foul hands of the executioner to those who then refuse it. The hard-hearted doorkeeper sits by, a man whose eyes would remain dry even when his mother weeps. Filth roughens their bodies, chains grip their hands tightly. Why is it that the law keeps me alive for a year?”
It is clear that Paul, Peter and other early Christians were subjected to harsh and hard conditions. It is ironical that Peter and Paul still thrived in misery. They defied the odds against them to claim the victory already achieved through vicarious death of Jesus Christ.
Dancing in the Storm
Paul was not only incarcerated at the Tullanium. There are times he was locked in the house and other times in Caesarea. The limitations, pain and agony imposed on Paul did not stop him from accomplishing his purpose. His heartbeat reverberated to the ends of the earth even when he was at the heart of a dungeon.
The Books of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon were written by Paul while in prison. It seems that his time in prison did not only become profitable to the early Christians but to us too.
Paul epitomises an ideal believer of Jesus Christ; A hardened soldier who stops at nothing in fulfilling His purposes. It is a great challenge to the 21st Century Church. This revelation is humbling. I am made to understand that my purpose on the face of the earth is to serve Master Jesus in both pain and party; sing in the storm; praise in the prison; dance in the dungeon and be thankful in thunders.
The onerous decision of what type of Christians we want to become rest upon us. We can choose to blossom in bloom and gloom like Paul or despair in despondency and debilities. The choice is tough but the outcome is glorious. It is a choice to be made every morning we wake up. It is called carrying the cross on daily basis. It is called dying to self, absolute surrender, daily commitment.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”