In yesterday’s sermon, one of the frequent speakers in our congregation gave a straightforward application-oriented message about our duty as jailers in the prison of our minds, keeping some thoughts and impulses under restraint given the knowledge that not all thoughts and impulses are acceptable to act upon. The fact that the speaker gave what I thought was a pretty obvious sort of message, yet one that is not likely to resonate very well with those who are not familiar with the Bible or its ethical demands on believers, because it stands so contrary to contemporary practice in a particularly hostile way. Nevertheless, as it is a matter of great importance to our political and cultural development, it is an issue worth discussing in more detail, and so we will do so. After a personal story, I would like to discuss imprisonment as it is discussed in the Bible, and also discuss the political and cultural ramifications of self-restraint and their absence.
Recently, when I and a couple of others went to the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie , it was noted by the archival information presented for visitors that during some parts of the prison’s existence that between one quarter and one third of prisoners successfully escaped. Although the stockade around the outer prison is not extremely secure, to escape would require at least some level of connivance or laxness on the part of prison guards, unless there were parts of the stockade wall that were simply not being monitored at all. As discussed in my reading of prison architecture  and my own experiences in visiting prisons, there are a variety of prisons whose security is based on the perceived threat level of the people under constraint. Those prisoners who are not of great danger are in minimum security, those of slightly more risk in medium security, those of high risk in maximum security, and those of particular danger in what is called Supermax, at least in the United States. Constraint not only consists of bars and chains and fences with guard turrets and razor wire and other visible means but also electronic surveillance and other more invisible means of observation and constraint. It should be noted that these too depend on alertness on the part of guards, as events in South Carolina demonstrated when some prisoners there made a rap video that was released to the outside world and went viral, only to lead to solitary confinement and longer prison sentences from an embarrassed prison management.
In the Bible, imprisonment is not often discussed as a manner of punishment within Israel itself. There is an example of a man put under temporary restraint for flagrant Sabbath-breaking, for example, in Numbers 15:32-36, pending the verdict from God for his sin. Then there is the example of Jeremiah being put in various improvised prison circumstances under guard, like the miry pit of a dry well, where he nearly died. Yet it does not appear as if systematic imprisonment was common among the people of Israel. It is mainly in either Gentile societies or Judah under Roman rule where we find imprisonment being more common, as with the example of Joseph being imprisoned for a crime he steadfastly refused to commit, and the apostles like Paul and Peter finding regular imprisonment for preaching Christ and being considered a threat to public order, which was a matter the Romans considered of extreme importance. Yet even here, imprisonment was usually a temporary expedient pending some sort of trial and punishment, or was done in expectation of receiving bribes for one’s release. Being thrown in prison was a way of restraining someone prior to judgment, similar to the way that we would see a holding cell in a jail while prisoner intake is being conducted. For people, at least, prison was not the general mode of punishment in the biblical world.
Yet there are prisons discussed in the Bible as a form of punishment for a particular group of beings, namely the demons. It is in the realm of demonology, in the Bible’s discussion of these rebellious spirits, that the use of imprisonment itself as punishment is particularly notable. A few examples should suffice. There is, of course, the bottomless pit in which Satan is chained for a thousand years discussed in Revelation, perhaps the most familiar example of a long prison sentence in scripture. Then there were the demons Jesus cast out of the two men in Luke 8 who pleaded successfully with Jesus not to be cast out into the abyss. Then there is the matter of various demons reserved in chains for the judgment of the last day, constrained from interfering in human society because of their wickedness that led mankind into great judgment. Is this the sort of message we are trying to send to people, that we consider those worthy of punishment in our age to be worthy of the treatment meted out to demons, where we do not hope for their restoration into society and their restitution for the crimes that they have committed, but rather that we simply do not wish for their presence at all?
In that context, therefore, we are to examine our duty to keep our thoughts under constraint. As humans we are all mixtures of good and evil, and in order to live decently and virtuously, there are some thoughts and impulses that do not come naturally that we have to cultivate through practice and habit and others that come naturally that we have to restrain within ourselves. It is this process, by conforming ourselves to an exterior model of perfect moral virtue, at least as close to that perfect as we can arrive, that allows us to live without the need for external restraint, because our internal self-control is such that we vindicate every desire we have for freedom. For us to be free to live as we want, the darkness and evil within us needs to be restrained and chained. Otherwise, the threat that we offer to others will prevent them from letting us speak and act freely, for fear of the harm that we will do to others. In the absence of widespread moral virtue, there will eventually be some sort of regulation from above that serves to restrain people from acting freely in society, and in whatever institution where that darkness may be found.
This does not only have personal implications for us when we are suspected, whether rightly or wrongly, of being threatening people lacking sufficient self-control, but has even larger societal and political implications. It is no surprise that our age is not one where a great deal of self-restraint is practiced by people in their free time. Whatever sort of check on our behavior the need to earn a decent living provides, in our own personal lives our society is not known for restraint, whether that is shown in our eating habits, the sort of media we like to watch, or our behavior when it comes to seasonal or international travel. Perversely, we have enshrined an illusory right to privacy as a way of justifying our lack of moral restraint and the illegitimacy of laws that are designed to enforce that restraint against our inclinations, so long as there is consent between two (or more) adults in whatever we wish to do. The lack of restraint in society in the mid-1800’s and beyond led to temporary popular support for various temperance and prohibition movements given the widespread prevalence of alcohol abuse at the time, and its perceived focus within certain ethnic groups. In our present age, it is smoking tobacco that has come under growing restrictions based on the damaging effects of second-hand smoke. If, in the future, links should be found between a lack of restraint in the addictive behaviors of people and some sort of measurable suffering to others, one can expect that there will be regulations to limit or prohibit the abuse of those substances or the practice of those behaviors. The price of freedom is virtue, and virtue requires restraint, since we all have at least some pull towards some form of evil. Let us therefore keep ourselves under sufficient restraint so that we can live and serve freely, and so that our presence and activity does not lead to reasonable fears and concerns for the safety and well-being of others.
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