Western society likes to view itself as sophisticated, educated, and domesticated. We turn on our HD T.V’s from the safe confines of our living rooms and watch newscasts of the appalling brutality of tribal and ideological warfare occurring in distant lands. For those who have grown up in a country where soldiers do not patrol the streets and where police are generally viewed as protectors rather than exploiters, it’s easy to assume that warfare and battlefields exist only on foreign continents.
The truth is, our neighborhoods are littered with battlefields while new fortresses are being erected daily. We live in a war zone. Millions of Americans have been made prisoners of war. The difference is that the conflict that is taking place in the streets of America is subtle, even if it is devastating.
Last month I had some profoundly impactful experiences. For three days I visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary, in Angola, Louisiana. Currently it houses 6200 inmates. I walked down Death Row and talked with inmates who have been waiting over twenty years to receive a lethal injection. I talked with an inmate who has served 30 years for a crime he committed when he was a teenager. I attended a funeral of a man who was incarcerated when he was 18 and whose family never visited him.
These peoples’ stories are diverse. Most grew up in broken, dysfunctional homes. Many had parents who were also convicts. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of broken people who seemed destined to spend the bulk of their lives behind bars.
In Louisiana, First Degree murder can land you on death row. Second Degree murder brings an automatic life sentence. In Louisiana, life means life. No chance of parole. For the remaining long-term prisoners without life sentences, the average sentence is over 90 years. In large part, society has decided to lock such anti-social people up forever so they never harm another innocent person.
The United States has more prisoners incarcerated than any other country. Cleary despite all of its health professionals, counselors, self-help books, health and wealth preachers, and community programs, it has failed to invent a way to set people free from their demons.
Enter Burl Cain. His story is well known. He arrived as Angola’s warden some 18 years ago. He witnessed the hopeless condition of thousands of inmates who would spend the remainder of their days behind bars. He met third generation convicts and drug addicts. He found men who had been exiled by a society that did not know what else to do with them.
Fortunately, Cain’s church was studying Experiencing God. The material teaches that God is always at work all around you. Sure enough, when Cain began looking, he saw God everywhere. Talking with Cain, you repeatedly hear phrases like, “I wasn’t smart enough to know what to do, but God showed us . . . God showed us we needed to do that . . . God led us to do something we’d never done before . . .” The result was changed lives, on a big scale. Violence in “America’s bloodiest prison” declined by 73%. Inmates were converted by the score. Many felt called into Christian ministry. A Baptist seminary was established inside the prison. Graduates became pastors and chaplains. The prison has even sent out missionaries. Today, the prison doesn’t allow profanity. What used to be a bastion of darkness has become what some inmates jokingly describe as “Louisiana’s largest gated community.”
The apostle Paul declared: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). He knew that society is covered with spiritual strongholds of darkness. But Paul was also aware that every Christian has been called to be a soldier for Christ who, by His power, demolishes Satan’s fortresses.
Last month I also spent a week in Hollywood. At first glance you cannot imagine a greater contrast to Angola prison. In fact, within two days I was driving down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and walking down Death Row at Angola. Yet it does not take long to discover that there are spiritual strongholds on Hollywood Boulevard just as there are in maximum security prisons.
Talented, attractive, successful young adults come to Hollywood by the thousands pursuing their dreams. Only for many it degenerates into a nightmare. Competition is fierce. Nothing is sacred. Lies are everywhere. Beauty is fading. Betrayal is common. A very few become fabulously successful. Most must learn to live with disappointment.
Here, people worship the gods of success, fame, sex, and wealth. Here too, they face the inevitable disappointment of idol worship. While the surroundings may appear more glamorous in the tabloids, the bondage is just as cruel.
Yet here, too, I met devout Christians who were determined to be salt and light in Hollywood. I participated in two different Bible studies and learned of numerous efforts to minister to the people trapped in that culture. Strongholds are coming down.
I witnessed how spiritual forces were being engaged both in the lowest places in society as well as in some of the highest. I was reminded that our calling as Christians is to engage the enemy, as God guides and empowers us. I also realized that Christians cannot remain safely in the bleachers or before their televisions, or in their churches, bemoaning the sad state of their country. They must intentionally go to the dark places. They must focus on being light, not complaining about the darkness.
To which spiritual stronghold of evil are you presently laying siege?