“Papillon” is a true story about Henri Charrière, a Frenchman framed for a murder in 1931 and then wrongly charged with a life sentence and hard labour. After watching a captivating movie based on the book, I was haunted by the suffering of Charrière and over 80,000 men like him who were condemned to penal colonies controlled by France by almost a century.
The penal colonies consisted of three islands. By far, the most depraved form of punishment was on St Joseph Island. Not only were prisoners placed permanently in solitary confinement (sometimes in complete darkness), but they were forbidden to make even a sound. Thousands would spend years there under a piercing silence that eerily hovered over the entire island.
St. Joseph was nicknamed the “Dry Guillotine”. A guillotine (and anyone in its vicinity) is extremely wet after being operated, drenched in the sprayed blood of the decapitated. But at St. Joseph, there was no blade, and therefore no blood; just the slow, maddening, excruciating death of men’s spirits. Inmates were banned from screaming in frustration, venting to other prisoners in adjacent cells, singing a comforting tune, or even praying aloud for deliverance. That prohibition was more torturous than the hard and dangerous labour prisoners on the other penal islands were forced to do.
Cries from the Cross
Christ’s unjust trial and crucifixion paralleled the conditions at St. Joseph Island in several respects.
The cross was solitary. Although multiple people were crucified at the same time, a cross (like a prison cell) would only hold one person at a time.
The cross was the ultimate confinement. Unlike prisoners in St. Joseph, Christ could not even move His hands and feet.
The cross was engulfed in physical darkness for some time (Mark chapter 15 verse 33), which paled in comparison to the spiritual darkness of demonic forces taunting Christ as he hung, bled and died.
Breaking the Silence
Likewise, Christ was silent throughout His suffering (Isaiah chapter 53 verse 7), refusing to answer Herod (John chapter 19 verse 9) or to complain or protest while being flogged, mocked and falsely accused.
But near the end of his torment, even Jesus broke His silence. In the moment of His greatest anguish, he screamed “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Matthew chapter 27 verse 46 specifically notes that He let out a loud cry.
If even Jesus eventually needed to cry out, how much more do we need to when we are in unbearable pain?
St. Joseph Island today
The French government eventually shut down the penal colonies in the 1950s. But, regrettably, the torment of silencing people amid suffering is a legacy that lingers far beyond the shores of former island prison camps.
We have all, to a certain extent, lived the legacy of St. Joseph today, i.e. forcing people to be silent during painful trials. Whether deliberately or unknowingly, the core reason for doing this is to serve our own interests. The French government developed physical infrastructure (e.g. roads, railways and cleared land) in its Caribbean colonies at the cost of its prisoners’ dignity, justice and even lives. Likewise, people protect themselves from the guilt of seeing a colleague suffer, or the awkwardness of being helpless to change or eliminate a problem at the cost of others’ emotional dignity and justice.
Same Root, Different Fruits
While the root of selfishness remains the same, the fruit born from it can take a myriad of forms:
§ imposing our presumptions and expectations about our feelings on others based on our (limited) understanding of their situation. (“You just got a promotion, you MUST be happy!”)
§ ignoring the situation so we don’t have to be saddened by it (e.g. a mother turning a blind eye to how her boyfriend abuses her child because of how badly she wants to keep the romance)
§ trivialising the situation, by insisting the pain is not that bad, or invalidating the victim’s pain by comparing it to that of others
§ guilting others through by wrongly dividing the word of truth (II Timothy chapter 2 verse 15) (“If you had the joy of the Lord, you would never be sad.”)
§ pressuring others to accept abusive circumstances (“Men will always push for sex”)
§ blaming others unfairly for inciting their own suffering (“What were you wearing when he groped you?”)
§ pushing others to “hurry up and get over it” by unfairly accusing them of being unforgiving, resentful or bitter if they don’t heal as quickly as we want them to
§ telling victims outright that they don’t have the right to express themselves (“Men don’t cry”) by disingenuously masking our self-centredness behind a mirage of compassion for others (“Don’t bring that topic up, it’ll make others feel uncomfortable”)
Setting the Captives Free
Jesus proclaims that “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me … to set the captives free” (Luke chapter 4 verse 18). That anointing is not only limited to physical captivity, but emotional captivity as well.
If we invite him to examine our hearts and test our motives (Psalm chapter 26:62), He will give us the grace to repent, to renew our minds and to set our loved ones free by responding to their pain with His compassion.
Kacy Garvey is a Christian poet, speaker and activist. In 2011, she launched "Rahab", an outreach to prostitutes in Geneva, Switzerland. She is a USAID certified HIV Testing and Counselling Provider and has also successfully completed training in Trafficking in Persons conducted by the International Organisation on Migration (IOM). She performs original pieces of spoken word poetry to various audiences, and in 2014 and 2018, she launched “Undone” and “Water Jar”, the first and only Christian poetry albums published in Jamaica thus far. As a founding member of the Love March Movement (since 2012) and #MarriageMattersJA (since 2018), she is a regular presenter on the science, politics and biblical worldviews on sex and sexuality. In January 2021, Kacy launched Caribbean Christian Response, an online movement that reviews the news from a biblical worldview and gathers millennials across the region to pray together and seek God’s heart on these issues.