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Perspective from prison Law in Popular Culture Collection - E-texts

Legal Studies Forum
Volume 25, Nos. 3 & 4 (2001 reprinted by permission Legal Studies Forum)



In World War II, Japanese military authorities ordered two thousand allied civilians living in China into a civilian internment center near Weihsien, China, in Shantung province, where they lived for approximately two-and-one-half years before being liberated by American soldiers. Twenty years later, one of the internees, American theologian Langdon Gilkey, wrote Shantung Compound to recount the experience of this community of prisoners.1 "[I]internment camp life," writes Gilkey, "seems to reveal more clearly than does ordinary experience the anatomy of man's common social and moral problems and the bases of human communal existence. . . ." (ix). Gilkey not only provides an account of the events at Weihsien but also offers his insights on human nature, law, politics and government, work, religion and morality. Although Shantung Compound was originally published in 1966, the book remains a vivid and timeless study of human beings and their relationships.

While teaching at Yenching University near Peking in February 1943, Gilkey, like other foreigners, received notice of his impending detention at the center, where "every comfort of western culture" would be available. As it turned out, about the only thing "western" was the camp's origin as a former Presbyterian mission compound.2

The Weihsien camp was small (about the size of a large city block) containing a diverse community-ethnically, economically, profession-ally, and spiritually. There were Americans, Brits, and Australians; singles, couples, and large families; and representatives from practically every profession-bankers, lawyers, doctors, monks, missionaries, and hookers.

Adapting to a New Life

How quickly man makes his life-whatever its character may be-into what he can call "normal." What would have seemed a fantastic deprivation to a man comfortable, well fed, and serene in an easy chair at home, had by the end of the few short months become just "Life" for us. (48).

Two qualities evident in the first days at Weihsien were the internees' resourcefulness and ability to adjust to difficult conditions. One pressing problem was the need for a working hospital. Gilkey recounts the "astounding" ability of the medics and volunteers to set up a hospital within eight days, and a working laboratory within two more, using only broken and scattered medical equipment left over from the compound's former days. Within ten days, the medical teams were delivering babies. (13-14).

Hygiene was another immediate problem: "We expected a disaster in public health every day." (13). Gilkey recounts the dilemma posed by the initial shortage of latrines and the consequent overflow and odor: "I recall clearly my relief that a providential case of constipation during the first ten days of camp saved me from having to test the strength of my stomach." (14). Although the problem was staggering, individuals stepped forward to serve. In this instance some priests, nuns, and missionaries-equipped with boots, mops, and handkerchiefs to cover their mouths-cleared the area.

Gilkey describes many other instances in which individuals sacrificed and acted creatively for the good of the community. He does not, however, ignore the many examples of contrary behavior or the internees' clever rationalizations for such conduct. Overall, however, Gilkey celebrates the remarkable strength of the human spirit manifested in the many acts of courage, service, and perseverance at Weihsien.

Gilkey's observations leave readers to consider how they do or how they might react when deprived of daily needs, comforts, and desires--a power outage, a flood, a debilitating snowstorm, the loss of a loved one. Where or in what do we find our deepest comfort? What do our actions tell us about ourselves? What do we value most and what motivates us? Such questions permeate, at least implicitly, Gilkey's account.

Law, Politics, and Power

Politics is seldom dull; in Weihsien camp it was never so. From the day we arrived to the end of our stay, the issues of power, law, and government were the most fascinating and baffling that we faced. Day in and day out we were confronted with many problems that most students of society discuss in the abstract. We, however, had to solve them in practice. How do you form a government? How are leaders best picked? Why is democratic rule preferable, if it is? How does a government generate enough power to rule and yet not be allowed too much power lest it become despotic? How is the moral dimension of life interrelated with the role of law and force in human community? (117). As one of their first orders of business, camp members established a decision-making body. From the first decisions that were made, and just as importantly, from the manner of their making, a power structure emerged, providing Gilkey (a member of the first leadership group) with abundant examples of how people, even in extreme circumstances, hunger for and use power.

[The] finding of leaders constitutes the first act of the drama of politics. During our stay there, this problem of politics, of our own self-government and self-direction, remained to me the most subtle, the most frustrating and baffling issue we had to face. It was also the most fascinating, as I discovered very early. (24).

Gilkey notes with interest the way some men cleverly jockeyed for positions of formal authority. There were four major internee groups within the community: three were geographically related, with groups from Peking, Tsingtau, and Tientsin, and one was religious--the Catholic monks and nuns. (Representatives from this last group were prohibited by their superiors from serving in leadership positions.) The first formal deliberative gatherings involved nightly meetings of approximately twenty representatives from these four groups, "probably picked hastily and arbitrarily," notes Gilkey. These meetings offered Gilkey, at Weihsien, his "first sight of how men behave in relation to power" as individuals "sought to influence, by their opinion, the decisions to be made."3 (25). Gilkey notes how, whenever an individual spoke about a particular problem, it was evident that "he was also anxious that his be the germinating mind that provided the resolution, and that his be the voice that ended the discussion." (26). Gilkey describes the "hierarchy of power" that evolved over time "as a few men attained a subtle but real dominance." (26-27).

The emerging governing authorities at the camp struggled not only to organize, but also to establish credibility, impose effective and equitable solutions to problems, and enforce their decisions. Gilkey expresses amazement that clearly equitable and rational decisions were repeatedly rebuffed by internees offering, oftentimes, very clever and sincerely held rationalizations (e.g., opposing the transfer of a resident from one crowded room of eleven to a slightly less crowded room of nine to even the numbers in both rooms). Based on his observations, Gilkey concludes:

First, that any stable government or system of law must seek to guide itself as best it can by the principles of justice and equality.

Secondly, that in the last analysis government can rest only on the united moral strength of the community which it governs. But, thirdly, that the capacity to rule is also dependent upon the possession of force. . . . In the creation of legitimate governmental authority, the interplay between these moral and compulsive elements creates the most fascinating of problems. Morality can never replace force, but it must provide the deep basis for the creative use of force. (118-19).

Such conclusions reflect a moral and political "realism" often associated with Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Gilkey acknowledges as an influence on his intellectual and theological development. Gilkey's observations about human motivations and machinations involving the acquisition and exercise of political power resonate, particularly in light of the recent American presidential election. It is not difficult to see the relevance of his insights, particularly the manner in which individuals seek their own self-interests and aggrandizement in the name of community well-being. Gilkey has a profound ability to sift through and identify the many motives of individuals and groups in the political process. What is missing from the Shantung experience, of course, are other elements that influence the exercise of political power-wealth, social and economic status, and party affiliation.4

Calling, Cooperation, and Creativity

The other interest, besides our personal relationships, that fill our human days, whether we be in a city, on a farm, or in a camp, is work. Work and life have a strange reciprocal relationship: only if man works can he live, but only if the work he does seems productive and meaningful can he bear the life that his work makes possible. The work in the camp was, then, central to each of us. (52).

Gilkey describes how everyone in the camp performed common tasks to meet basic needs. Former ministers, financiers, surgeons, and business-men, like everyone else, peeled potatoes, stoked the ovens, cleaned latrines, and performed other mundane tasks. In these tasks, individuals responded differently depending on the meaning they attached to their work. After several months on the housing committee, for example, Gilkey felt the need for physical work and volunteered for kitchen duty. He describes the creative and energetic crew of workers he joined and their long days of work to prepare meals for 300 people. At the end of the day, he left "tired but full of the satisfaction of one who has worked with his muscles all day." (53).

Although there were "shirkers" throughout the camp who seemed to take no pride or find any satisfaction in their work, many others found significance in the most menial tasks. For those who found meaning in these menial tasks, there was, says Gilkey, a sense of "calling," a religious dimension to their work that transformed it beyond its immediate value to the community.

For the man who knew nothing of divine Providence, coming to camp was an arbitrary fate that separated him from every familiar meaning by which he had lived his life. To those-and there were many-who found this new situation to be a strange work of Providence, however incomprehensible these purposes were, there could be no such loss of significance in the new and unexpected situation. Here, too, there could be an opportunity and a significant task to be performed-it might not be that of teacher or architect, but it could be that of stoker, cook, or master baker. A sense of significance that is rooted in the purposes of God cannot be lost in any situation.

* * * *

On these two bases, therefore-the universal lordship of God and the universal presence of the neighbor with whom we can establish community-a significant vocation or task with religious roots cannot be removed by the ups and downs of historical fortune. (240-41). In these passages, Gilkey clearly casts his lot with the traditional Protestant understanding of calling. This view considers all morally acceptable work to be God-given and significant; the God who directs our lives also directs us, through our work, to fulfill the creation mandate to "subdue the earth"5 and to serve our neighbor.

Although Gilkey's analysis is not an extensive Christian apologetic for Divine providence, it does demonstrate a consistent and meaningful application of that principle to the material and mundane realm of work. It has a certain intuitive resonance because of its ennobling explanation of our work that ties it to divine purposes.

Religion and Morality

For even saintly folk will act like sinners Unless they have their customary dinners.
-Bertholt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera

Gilkey begins his book with this quote from The Threepenny Opera to introduce a dominant theme in Shantung Compound--the frailty of human moral nature.

To be sure, the people at Weihsien did not continually snarl at each other, nor were they obviously brutal or continually selfish. As a matter of fact, they remained surprisingly cheerful. We found that a sense of humor, incidentally, is the most pervasive and most welcome of men's better qualities. Good will did manifest itself in many features of our life. People showed a genuine consideration for others in many ways: helping their fellows to fix up their rooms with useful gadgets; making a stove for a person too old to do for himself; helping an invalid to make his coal bricks or to do his laundry; standing in line for one another. On this level, common trouble did bring out an admirable generosity.

When, however, the point at issue was not an hour's work but a basic condition of life-such as the space a man lived in or the amount of food he had to eat-then this good will tended to recede and in most cases to disappear. This is why in our larger society the same people who . . . appear to be extremely generous in their personal relations, can become intractable, prejudiced, and even vicious on the deep social issues of national security, economic privilege, housing restrictions, or racial justice. Here the basic conditions of life become involved, funda-mental securities are threatened, and we are all much more touchy and skittish than when merely an extra piece of pie, a church benevolence or the donation of some of our time is at stake. (92-93).

Gilkey's Weihsien experience confirmed for him people's inability to avoid excessively self-interested conduct and the profound impact this has on our social relations and communities. Gilkey recounts the evolution in his own thinking about "moral man" and his dissatisfaction with simplistic explanations and solutions.

The most obvious dilemma had been the moral one: men must be just, fair, and generous if a creative and stable society is to be possible at all, and yet apparently this is for us a supremely difficult if not impossible task. How are we to understand ourselves; why does such an obvious necessity seem so unattainable and even unnatural to our present nature? As in camp, I continued to find both the humanistic and the rigidly pietistic answers to these questions unsatisfactory.

Those humanists who insist that men are naturally wise and good enough to be moral seemed to me to be continually refuted by the patent persistence of dangerous selfishness among people whose intentions were good. Those religious perfectionists who believe that pious Christians are holy and holy people are good were refuted by the intolerance and lovelessness of many of the pious. Against both, therefore, the evidence revealed that it is above all things difficult to be good, and that in all of us-the wise, the idealistic, and the religious alike-lie deep forces beyond our easy control which often push us seemingly in spite of ourselves into selfish acts. (229-30).

For example, by the winter of 1944-45, food and other supplies were low, and so, consequently, was camp morale. One day, without notice, approximately 1500 American Red Cross crates stuffed with basic food and health supplies, plus many comfort items (e.g., blankets, chocolates, cheeses, cigarettes), arrived at the camp. Many Americans believed that each of them should receive seven or eight of these large crates. The non-American prisoners believed, however, that the crates should be distributed equally among all the internees regardless of their source. The tension between these contingents grew quickly. Gilkey quotes one American defiantly protesting, "Damn it, you limey, that's American stuff, and you lousy spongers aren't going to get a bit of it. Why doesn't your Red Cross take care of you?" (101). After several days, the Japanese authorities decided the question by authorizing the distribution of one-and-one-half crates to each American (200 of them) and one crate to each non-American. (By this time the population had decreased to about 1500 internees.)

This news elated all but the Americans and immediately improved camp morale. "It was as though everyone were living through every Christmas Eve of his lifetime all rolled into one." (102). The next morning, however, when the distribution was to occur, the camp commander posted a sign indicating that "due to protests from the American Community," the parcels would not be distributed to members of the non-American community. Apparently, seven Americans had persuaded the commander that he lacked authority to declare a broad scale distribution. Gilkey describes the chaos and conflict that ensued in the following ten days and surmises that even the prison guards must have been amazed at the gross selfishness of the Americans. Until then the internees had generally disregarded their national identities in the cause of cooperation. Now, suddenly, nationalistic claims surfaced to justify hording the prized parcels. Says Gilkey, "For the first time, I felt fundamentally humiliated at being an American." (104).

Gilkey uses this episode to discuss the general causes of national and international conflicts that result from disparities in wealth. "The American claim for all the parcels, and its devastating effects on our social fabric, had taught me at last the true significance of moral character in any human community, and I would never forget it." (106). He observes further that people in general, historically, act in immoral ways when their own interests are threatened, and yet, by their rationalizations, "remain at least moral enough to be hypocritical, to wish to seem good-even if it is beyond their capacities to attain it." (112).

Gilkey's most explicit religious analysis of his Weihsien experiences comes near the end of the book. As he explains, his prison experience helped shape his perspective with respect to the balance between spirituality and human material pursuits.

A healthy spirituality . . . must affirm the material order, and concern itself with it-with housing, food, warmth, and comfort. At the same time, a healthy material order is possible only where there is enough moral strength to maintain a responsible integrity with regard to property, a just distribution with regard to goods, and as free an exercise of each one's creativity as is possible. (229).

Citing theologian Paul Tillich, Gilkey concludes that our excessive self-love arises from fears of losing the objects that we value most and that provide the greatest personal security or satisfaction. Like the gods of primitive religion, this ultimate concern is something which a man worships with his whole being because it is the source of all value to him [and] determines in turn the decisions a man makes and ultimately the way in which he behaves.

* * * *

When, in this sense, a man gives his ultimate devotion to his own welfare or to the welfare of his group, he is no longer free to be completely moral or rational when he finds himself under pressure. Whenever the security of the object of this commitment is threatened, he is driven by an intense anxiety to reinforce that security. (231). Gilkey maintains that such behavior-our excessive devotion to self-interest-is religious: "For religion concerns men's ultimate loyalty; those things, be they gods or idols, to which men give their final devotion and commitment." (232). Injustice toward others, he says, is a "social consequence" of such "idolatry." Gilkey then offers a solution to the problem.

The only hope in the human situation is that the "religiousness" of men find its true center in God, and not in the many idols that appear in the course of our experience. If men are to forget themselves enough to share with each other, to be honest under pressure, and to be rational and moral enough to establish community, they must have some center of loyalty and devotion . . . beyond their own welfare.

* * * *

Only this is certain: If a man is too sure that he has, through his religion, surrendered his concern for himself and achieved virtue, it is fairly safe to conclude that his security no longer rests in the love of God but in his own holiness. His life then merely re-enacts the sin of self-idolatry in a Christian garb. The final pinnacle of faith, therefore, is to recognize our continuing self-concern and thus to trust our inner peace to the love of God alone. In this way even our anxiety about our own holiness and our own salvation is surrendered. The insight that the man of real faith knows he is justified by a grace from beyond himself and never by his own works is the heart of the message of God's love in the New Testament. It is the deepest answer to the dilemmas of man's moral life . . . . (234-35).

The reader must decide not only if Gilkey's experiences at Weihsien accurately reflect our common experiences and relationships but also whether his analysis makes sense. On one hand, some readers may find Gilkey's theological perspective misplaced (or overemphasized). One book reviewer, praising Gilkey's "fascinating, well-written, and thought-provoking" account, nevertheless refers to his analysis as "jarringly ill-conceived gibberish."6

On the other hand, readers who share Gilkey's religious beliefs may question whether his explanation is thoroughly Christian or biblical. For instance, Gilkey presents only a part of the historically orthodox Christian explanation for and answer to man's moral dilemma; he clearly embraces the central biblical tenets of God's love and grace but discusses neither their relationship to God's justice nor the relevance of Christ. Romans 3:22-26 (NIV) offers a succinct articulation of these mutually related dimensions of God's character and the related work of Christ. [The] Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this . . . to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies [i.e., declares as righteous] those who have faith in Jesus.

Gilkey affirms aspects of the human need for and God's provision of forgiveness-"all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" and are "justified freely by [God's] grace." He excludes, however, the biblical-stated means of this forgiveness (i.e., that it "comes through faith in Jesus Christ") as well as its moral and legal basis (Christ as the "sacrifice of atonement" for sin). In sum, Gilkey calls for a faith in God's love but not in God's Christ. Whether this is deliberate and whether Gilkey would reject these added dimensions is unclear.

Others may find Gilkey's analysis politically or economically hyper-extended. Gilkey does not explicitly endorse a socialistic or politically liberal politics, but he clearly implies that true morality requires a more generous distribution of national resources and aid from privileged countries to those in need. He equates the failure to do so with national-istic idolatry. Because he does not analyze specific programs or schemes, it is difficult to determine precisely what his political position is. He seems content to assert general moral principles and not get bogged down on details regarding specific political programs or issues.7

Despite these possible objections, it is hard to dispute that Gilkey's Shantung Compound compels the reader to reflect on matters of profound moral and spiritual significance.

Free at Last

How completely certain kinds of news-that a loved one has died, that a war has begun, or that a war is over-can stop one world and begin another! (205).

On August 12, 1945, two-and-one-half years after entering Weihsien camp, news first leaked into the camp that the Japanese had surrendered. Shortly thereafter an American plane was spotted and seven army parachutists floated down near the camp. Pandemonium erupted. The soldiers-"godlike figures"-soon entered that camp. After several moments of uncertainty as to how the Japanese guards would respond when "split-second decisions" had to be made, the Japanese acceded to the American soldiers, who took charge of the camp. About these American soldiers, Gilkey humorously comments:

When gods come to visit the children of men, it is only to be expected that the men will readily obey their slightest wishes and also that the women will be enraptured with them.

* * * *

As always, it was wonderful to have gods in your midst--unless like the writer and a few others, you lost a girl friend in the process. (211-12).

Suddenly everything changed: outsiders were allowed into the camp, internees were free to roam within and without, and all food rationing ceased.8

Yet despite this newfound freedom, Gilkey records how quickly he and others found themselves, by nature, quickly losing their appreciation of the misery from which they were being delivered. It was amazing to me, however, to find how quickly one slips back into the old indifference. I can remember on my second trip to Weihsien city telling myself to wake up and enjoy myself. This was stupendous, just what I had long for! And yet, already I was taking it for granted and not feeling it at all.

* * * *

Now we had all of these delights in abundance; yet we continually had to remind ourselves of this fact in order to appreciate them. We were not really any happier. Our wants and desires had only become a little harder to satisfy. Instead of freedom we now wanted "home"; instead of enough to eat, we now dreamed of cocktails and seafood. Now that we had the necessities of life, we tended to take them for granted and look for the luxuries-such are the insatiable desires of the human animal. Ironically, it is quite true that man does not live by bread alone; as soon as his craw is filled, his restless appetite will yearn for cake. (213).

On September 15, 1945, Gilkey and many of his fellow prisoners departed the camp and began their transition to normal life. Gilkey describes his difficulty in relating to insensitive or oblivious Americans insulated from deprivation. Upon Gilkey's arrival in the United States, one State Department official with "well-fattened jowls" questioned if Gilkey had allowed himself to be imprisoned to avoid fighting in the war. Gilkey wondered aloud how the official had chosen "diplomacy" for a career. (225-26). Gilkey also recounts the struggle to adapt to American affluence in which he "felt engulfed in food, drowned in immense and inexhaustible wealth, [and] stuffed and bloated with so many fats, calories, and vitamins." (226).

Gilkey's comments in this regard remind us of the average American's insulation from real deprivation and discomfort. They recall the experience that many Americans have when traveling in economically deprived countries. Thus, they prompt us to consider the moral dimensions of this reality.


Over the next twenty years following his release, Gilkey had reflected upon and discussed his Weihsien experiences before writing Shantung Compound, a timeless and valuable work that will help readers not only understand a part of 20th Century history, but also better comprehend human nature and relationships.9 Although the author did not suffer extreme deprivation or inhumane punishment, Shantung Compound is still a riveting narrative of imprisonment. We are indebted to Gilkey for his provocative account and profound insights.


* Director of Legal Services and Humanities Seminars, Principals' Executive Program, University of North Carolina.

1. This review is based on the first edition of Shantung Compound, published in 1966 by Harper & Row, San Francisco.

2. The compound purportedly was the birthplace of American publishing magnate, Henry Luce.

3. Apparently, no women were appointed to such positions; a point on which Gilkey interestingly offers little substantive comment, despite his extensive discourses on principles of justice, equity, and democracy.

4. Gilkey acknowledges that the Weihsien community was essentially classless. (24-25).

5. Genesis, 1:28.

6. D. Lawrence, A Fascinating Look at How Humans Behave Under Pressure, (customer reviews visited March 8, 2001).

7. Gilkey does provide an interesting account regarding a talk he gave to a women's church group in a wealthy Chicago congregation. After Gilkey made a case for providing United States economic aid to needy countries, the leader of the group patronizingly rejected this as contrary to the country's mission to share its "spiritual," not material wealth. (227-29).

8. "[P]lagued by stomach upsets only because of the rich food . . . we could not eat a full meal without vomiting-but valiantly we kept on trying." (212-13).

9. The April 24, 2000 edition of Christianity Today includes Shantung Compound in its list of the 100 most significantly influential American books of the 20th Century.

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