Ariel Castro lived an adolescent dream. For over a decade, he got sex whenever and however he wanted. His three female slaves were so dependent on him for food and clothing they nearly gave up all thoughts of escape.
Castro’s dream ended the day he forgot to lock his door. Perhaps on an impulse, one of his prisoners tried that door and discovered it was unlocked. Carried away by joy and fear, she walked to a neighbor’s house. That's where she claimed her birthright: freedom and dignity.
God established human government, or so Christians believe, to deal with such matters. So policemen came and brought the full force of the law on Castro's head. Castro's neighbors might have hung him before sundown. The due process of law produced the orderly sentence of 1,000 years without parole.
Castro didn't accept the sentence. He hung himself. Delighted to be a jailer, he would not adjust to being a prisoner. Relishing the sexual services of his prisoners, he found no delight offering those same services to his fellow inmates. The controller refused to be controlled. And so, his fantasy being ended, and finding reality too difficult to bear, he gave himself the death penalty.
This story offers a lot of lessons.
Poverty is a prison. Some are born into it. They cannot imagine life outside it. The poor man's fellow prisoners watch the doors. They warn him when he checks the locks. They tell their friend there is no escape; that the world out there is cruel; that he must make the best of things inside this hell hole.
Ignorance is a prison. Fellow prisoners guard the exits. They keep saying that it is impossible to escape. "Science is not for you," they say. "Art is a foolish toy for rich people. Questioning the meaning of life, or honestly evacuating the convictions held by people in this prison leads to nowhere. You are trapped. You must adjust."
Mindless religion is a prison. Jailers tell prisoners they must believe what they are told. When prisoners ask why, the jailers explain that what they teach is true just because it is. They say that digging deeper is a terrible crime against God. In the religious prison, no one is allowed to examine the foundations of his faith. Discussion about such things only detracts the inmates from cleaning the prison and getting supper on the table. Pragmatic matters drive real questions away so the jailer can have some peace. The mind, which we are told is "a terrible thing to waste," becomes one's enemy.
Imagine the joy of Castro's unfortunate prisoners had he occasionally allowed them to go to Wal-Mart. He might have done that had he been certain his prisoners would not try to escape. His prisoners would probably have been grateful. They might have even wept, or laughed, for joy. They would have likely come to love every aisle in the store. They would have come to know the name of every employee. To them, Wal-Mart would have felt like the entire world. So Castro's prisoners might have filled their days at home anticipating another visit to Wal-Mart. They might have conversed endlessly about their last visit there. They might have said to one another, "surely this is what we have been longing for, this wonderful place of freedom and delight. This is the life well-lived! Who could ask for more?
However, if, by chance, some employee had realized that despite the women's joy, something was amiss -- had that employee decided to keep watching the women, visit after visit, he might have perhaps finally helped one of them escape.
Her heart racing, she might have ran next door to Starbucks or to Toy's R Us. She might have plunged into a world much larger than Wal-Mart.
We think the prisoner would have just keep running on to freedom. However, studies on the effects of long confinement suggest otherwise. It is entirely likely she would be feel undone by this sudden awareness of all the opportunities and challenges of freedom.
Unprepared for freedom, it is entirely possible that she would run back into her half-way house, back to that place where she has experienced the degree of freedom possible for her. She might even use her fearful experiences to warn her fellow prisoners – “life before Wal-Mart was truly horrendous. Now that we have Wal-Mart, lets just count our blessings. Let's not endanger the joy we have discovered by reaching for things we just can't understand."
It is even possible that this woman, having tasted for one brief moment the chaos of the outside world, would warn her children against looking for freedom. She would do this not because she would want her children to be slaves. She would do it because she fears for their safety. She loves them. She doesn't want them exposed to danger. Although her motivations are not malicious however, they are nonetheless damaging. She unwittingly becomes an accomplice in helping the jailer maintain control.
This is not an unlikely scenario, by the way. People within any given social system rarely bring themselves to question it. The more curious might work to enlarge it but they will rarely challenge its legitimacy. That is how social systems perpetrate themselves. That is how how they become viruses that influence the limits of our thought and courage.
This is the way poverty, ignorance and mindless religion turn into something like the invisible fences we use to shock our dogs into acceptance of the boundaries we impose on them for their own good. It’s why those robbed of dignity and delight by the systems in which they live accept and defend those systems. It is the reason we fight to preserve the structures of economy, political life and religious control that gives pleasure to the few at the expense of the many.
If Castro could have taken his prisoners to Wal-Mart, they might have never left. When people have nothing to lose, they eventually revolt. But if they have the smallest bit of joy – if they can only be allowed to enjoy their halfway house, even occasionally – they will eventually imprison themselves. They will even grieve when the season of halfway measures comes to an end. They may even lose sight of what freedom means.
Freedom can be scary. Although we hunger for it, we also spend a lot of energy avoiding it. And, we work hard keeping our loved ones from looking for it.
So we can be thankful for that neighbor who didn’t fool around with halfway measures. When the prisoner knocked on her door, she called the cops. The cops didn't offer the prisoners a halfway house. They put an immediate end to Castor's hell. They set the prisoners free.
Sometimes, however delightful it seems at the time, our halfway house is a trap. We end up clinging to it our entire life. We never get to know what it would feel like to experience our own life.
May God give us good neighbors, courageous cops and righteous judges. But even if we don't get those things, may He at least grant us the courage to think.