One of the many things I love about my husband is that he enjoys history and we will often go out of our way on trips to see interesting things that have historical significance. We once drove a very scenic route through Louisiana while en route to taking him to a 3-month training in San Antonio, TX not long after we were married so we could stop at a plantation house that was listed on the National Register. Another time, I don’t even remember where we were actually going, but we went quite a few miles out of our way while driving through Georgia so we could stop at Andersonville, the infamous Civil War prison. So, when we decided to visit San Francisco, it was pretty much a given that we would be visiting Alcatraz at some point. I found that it was fascinating, but profoundly sad to me.
When you buy your ticket for the ferry to the island, they include the option of an audio tour of the prison once you are over there. The narrators on the tape are men who were once guards there and also some men who were incarcerated as prisoners when it was still a federal penitentiary. It was sobering to look at those tiny little cells and think about someone being locked in there for years and years, and even more sobering to think about what those men had done and the laws they had broken to land themselves in such a place. At the very end of the audio tour, we were standing in the large room that had been the dining hall and facing the door through which we were free to walk away at any time we chose. A former prisoner talked about having been incarcerated in Alcatraz for 15 years and then, after serving his time, being set free. He talked about how the whole world had changed and how he stood there on the street looking at all the people who had been living their lives totally unaware of the life he had been living in that little cell and how frightening it was. He said he had no idea what to do now. Even so many years later, his voice was so sad, and so plaintive that I stood there with tears in my eyes listening to that recording.
As we were leaving, Drew and I were discussing how Alcatraz is such a grisly picture of the total depravity of man. We all have the seed in us to act out that depravity. And just the fact that such places are needed to separate those who break society’s rules should be a sobering reminder that we are all sinners, and each of us is capable of terrible thoughts and actions and prone to sin. When my husband was in Bosnia a few years ago, he was deeply struck by how quickly a civilized people can lose their civility. Yugoslavia used to be a very cosmopolitan society where the different people groups lived together in relative harmony until the war began. In fact, there was a joke about the different religious groups fighting that was funny to people at the time because it seemed so absurd that there would be that kind of fighting there. Not many years later, humor became horror as the ethnic and religious groups broke into civil war. Now, what used to be nice hotels are pock-mocked with bullet holes, many homes and buildings are damaged by repeated bombings and the fields are treacherous places filled with land mines. Gone is the civilized country where the Winter Olympics were once held in Sarajevo, and no longer is it a nice place for tourists to visit. Now it is a place where peacekeeping troops are necessarily patrolling in full military gear, and my husband received the added “hazardous duty pay” while stationed there for a year. We’ve talked about how quickly people can give in to the baser nature that is in all of us.
My children are very concrete minded and they want things to be cut and dried, black and white, easily defined. They are constantly asking me if someone they hear about historically or on the news is “good” or “bad.” For example, J often asks if the South were the ‘bad guys’ and the North the ‘good guys’ in the American Civil War. It is so hard to get through to him that life is much more complicated than that. I have told him that there were good and bad people on both sides, and most were fighting for what they really believed was right. In retrospect, I believe the right side won that war, but there were individual horrors acted out by people both sides along the way and there were equally good and kind and heroic acts by people on both sides as well. It is always this way. Ultimately, we are all bad, if one really wants to press the issue. Some of us just live out our depravity more openly than others, but we all have that seed of a sin nature that mars us.
The nickname of Alcatraz is ‘The Rock.’ I’ve been thinking about that. What a lonely, frightening thing it must have been to arrive there and hear, “Welcome to the Rock,” knowing that you were facing a punishment you deserved and feared. One of the prisoners who spoke on that recording said that in those days he had been so filled with hatred and how awful it was. I wish I could have heard his story, to know how things had changed for him now and why.
While thinking about ‘The Rock,’ I began thinking about Romans 9:33 which says, “As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’” Though ‘The Rock’ of Alcatraz served its purpose as a deterrent to crime and as a place to punish and separate from civilized society those who broke society’s rules, it could not, ultimately heal the true problem of their inborn sin nature. It may have served to rehabilitate some back into civilized society, but the only real hope for people who are so far gone that they have committed the crimes that would land them in an Alcatraz is to come to know repentance and the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And those of us on the outside of such institutions have that same need just as desperately. That is our deepest need. Though not all of us will ever commit the kind of crime that would draw the judgment of our government and society, every one of us deserves judgment and wrath. Every one of us stands wanting before Almighty God, even those who my kids would say are ‘good.’ No matter how ‘good’ we may seem, there is none that is righteous, no not one. Unfortunately, those who are on the outside enjoying their freedom often do not as readily see that need. So many do not realize that they are in spiritual bondage to sin and prisoners every bit as desperate as those men who inhabited those cells. Standing there in that prison, with tears in my eyes, listening to the hopelessness that man expressed, I was reminded that we all approach God’s throne in rags. I am amazed at the grace which exchanged my filthy rags for the righteousness of Christ, and that He alone makes me to stand faultless before the Throne. Jesus, the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, the Rock of Ages cleft for me. I am humbled and awed at such grace.
“Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”