“Mr Bojangles” sung by Sammy Davis Junior was playing on the car radio. Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1968 song tells of his prison cell encounter with a homeless man three years previously, a song and dance man who used Bojangles as his nickname. Pulling up the car at the end of the journey, I thought, ‘I’ve never been in a prison cell; I’ve never ever even been threatened with arrest. Would life look different through the eyes of Bojangles and his friends?
Maybe seeing the inside of a prison cell might mean living a more Christian life than being quiet and law abiding. Time and again throughout the Bible the people who speak up for God and for what is right end up being arrested.
Speaking the truth landed poor Jeremiah in constant trouble, “They were angry with Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned in the house of Jonathan the secretary, which they had made into a prison” John the Baptist had similar treatment “Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison”. While in prison, John was summarily executed, the price of speaking out.
Jesus warned his followers, “they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name”. It was a warning that came true very quickly in the early days of the church, “King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also”. Saint Paul’s experience was of repeated arrest and imprisonment, along with suffering brutality at the hands of the authorities.
‘Ah, that’s different’, our leaders would now argue, ‘that was about freedom of faith. We have freedom and there is no need for us to break the law’. But isn’t being a Christian about more than freedom of conscience? Isn’t the reason Christians accepted appalling things like slavery and the exploitation of children for so long that they saw no need to disobey the law? Was freedom to believe enough? Isn’t seeking God’s kingdom about more than individual conscience? Isn’t it about integrity and righteousness in all things?
The Irish government is about to introduce legislation that will result in ordinary working people paying for the greed of some of the nation’s wealthiest, even free marketeer and capitalist David McWilliams is fuming about it. Billions of Euro of working people’s money will be needed to repay bonds that have supported the rich and the powerful. Is that justice? Is that righteousness? Is that in keeping with the values of the Kingdom of God?
For the church to speak out would not be political extremism, McWilliams makes the point, “By the way, it’s not radical, it’s called capitalism”. But there is silence all around, not a single episcopal whisper.
Perhaps the time has come when we ask why we are not meeting the friends of Mr Bojangles.