Why I’ve change my mind on the death penalty

In honor of my good friend Mark, who, I’m pretty sure is the only person who checks my blog now and then, I write this, my first post in almost a year. He called me one day a few weeks back to let me know that my blog had been hacked. So, I finally got around to fixing it and in honor of this new, clean, web-log and a good friend noticing, I write this post.

I, like Mark, though we be on different sides of the political spectrum, care not what others think if we dare to think openly and change our mind on something. Believe it not, “changing one’s mind” is not a crime. I’m not running for office, though, even if I were, I’m not sure it should matter much. There’s such a false stigma associated with it as if it were actually important what I thought in the first place. This is, of course, why we think it matters if a candidate changes their mind, in that they, unlike you and me, actually could affect some changes in the law based on their changing their minds. This is true, no doubt, but I see no evidence that it is somehow dangerous or even prevalent. So, friends seem to somehow hold other friends accountable on the big issues. This is what I’m claiming just doesn’t matter much.

The topic is the death penalty; capital punishment.

I’ve change my mind on capital punishment. I used to support it, now I don’t. Here’s why:

It all started when the introduction of DNA evidence began uncovering innocent people being wrongly incarcerated, some on death row. I’m sure there are many other Christians such as myself who had managed to convince themselves that a small number of mistakes were inevitable and acceptable. But, they kept coming, more and more. I soon supported the calls for a moratorium on all executions. We were in uncharted territory with DNA evidence and it was time to just stop until society could catch up with the science.

Well, in the meantime, I continued to reflect on capital punishment. My Bible is full of ideas and concepts about punishment. I’m sure you’re aware that the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for all kinds of things that we would never accept in today’s society. But, it’s also full of ideas about the concept of punishment in general. We Christians use words like Grace and Mercy and have a little saying to help us keep it straight: Grace is receiving something you don’t deserve and Mercy is not receiving something that you do deserve. Our God is both full of Mercy and full of Grace.

That being said, we don’t believe in sin without consequences. In fact, we believe that consequences inexorably follow sin. (Look up Jonathan Haidt’s talks for a good secular explanation of this. Especially his Bill Moyer interview. He uses the word Karma, or “what goes around, comes around.”)

But, these consequences come along with the Mercy and Grace; so, one can be both guilty and forgiven. The Bible is full of these illustrations too: Jesus interfering with the capital punishment of the prostitute; he did not claim she was innocent, but forgiven, and she was shown mercy.

So, let us consider a person incarcerated in our country today and on death row. Let us also consider him guilty. The reason for this little thought experiment is to turn the corner from the above mentioned moratorium to the final abolishing of the death penalty. So, our hypothetical person is indeed, very, very guilty. He’s a monster. He’s confessed. The DNA evidence is in and convincing. Whatever you need to conclude that he’s guilty, there you go. Why shouldn’t he receive the death penalty?

The fact is, he should. Rather, he deserves it.

And, this is how I turned the corner on this issue. Since I actually believe in a loving and just God, I actually believe that his sin has consequences for him personally. So, I’m convinced that he really does deserve the death penalty. I no longer need to jump through moral hoops to says that. He really does deserve it.

If you’re a Christian, I’ve got some bad news for you: you deserve it too. Furthermore, you’re gonna get it. You’re going to die. Your Bible tells you why in Romans 6:23: “For the product of sin is death…..” And don’t act like your shocked by all this; the very earliest parts of the Bible tell us we’re gonna die because we disobeyed God; commonly referred to as “The Fall.”

A note to my secular friends who may be put off by all the religious-speak: if this is something you’re actually interested in, as in, why the Bible says things like this, you cannot dismiss it easily as outdated crazy-talk. Very learned and experienced people throughout all of history have contemplated and written on these subjects, and continue to do so today. If you start with the assumption that it can’t mean anything for you today, then I can’t help you understand it. A better starting place would be: that all sounds like crazy-talk, I wonder if it mean anything to me today? If you sat in on one of my Bible studies, we would acknowledge that it sounds like crazy-talk, but since we know it’s not….thus begins the study.

So, considering a death row inmate, they really do deserve the death penalty, if they’re guilty. For me, it’s no longer an issue if the guilty deserve to die or not; they do. But, the combination of doubt and the valid Christian debate as to whether or not the state has the right to justifiably murder a criminal has led me to change my mind on supporting the death penalty in my state.

If a truly guilty criminal is executed tomorrow, I will not shed a tear. But, we know that DNA evidence is resulting in more and more innocent people being let out of prison and the thought of a person being unfairly incarcerated for years is more than I can stand. The thought of the state executing an innocent person? That possibility has to stop.

 

John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

Put me to doing; put me to suffering;

Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,

Exalted for you, or brought low for you;

Let me be full, let me be empty;

Let me have all things, let me have nothing;

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

You are mine and I am yours.

So be it. And the covenant made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

A Prayer for the homeless

As I get to work each morning, I enter the Post-Dispatch and take the stairs on the south-side of the building. The stairwell includes large windows that look out towards the St. Patrick Center and Interco Plaza. The St. Patrick Center is a provider of services for the homeless and some of these homeless had taken to camping in this little plaza right outside the center.

One day last fall I stopped on the second floor window to peer out onto this sight and say a quick prayer for the people living on the plaza. As is typical of my prayers, I didn’t include any specifics, just that they would know God and see that He loves them.

Imagine my surprise when, the next morning I walked up the same steps to find that the little plaza was swept clean. It looked like no one had ever “lived” there.

“Whoa,” I thought, “…God, what did you do?”

A bit later it in the day I realized that it was all the talk on the local radio waves. Turns out, some rather insensitive park rangers had orders to move the residents out of the park and had simply thrown away all the belongings of these homeless individuals. The homeless folks were even there while the rangers tossed everything in the compacting trash truck. Well, needless to say, there was outrage across the board, including the Mayor’s office. I felt sure the outrage would turn into something positive for these people and felt confident that God was looking out for them.

From today’s Post:

ST. LOUIS — The two men once bounced from one downtown park to another, sleeping in tents or under cardboard in relative anonymity.Then last fall, Tremayne Gates and Clint Smith briefly became the center of a debate over how the city should treat its homeless and their possessions. …read the rest of the story -

Good Friday

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

“I am thirsty.” Our Lord, the creator of the universe, was thirsty. I don’t even pretend to understand the fullest meaning of that.

I do know what it’s like to be thirsty; I was thinking though, have I ever been really thirsty? I think profound thirst would be an entirely different experience than most of us have ever imagined.

But here, beaten and crucified some of Jesus’ last words were “I am thirsty?” Are those words out of place? I mean, isn’t the physical pain He’s enduring just off the charts? Well, if we could imagine some of our weakest moments, maybe some acute sickness or pain, I think any of us could see ourselves uttering what otherwise might be considered irrational statements.

But, even here, in this very human moment, in the very same sentence the Scriptures tell us there’s more. “…so that the Scripture would be fulfilled…” So, now I’m imagining Jesus rationally thinking, “Ok, now before I die, I have to remember to say ‘I’m thirsty’ so the Scriptures will be fulfilled.”

No.

Now I realize that He isn’t fulfilling the scriptures, He is the fulfillment. His actions don’t fulfill God’s plan, He is God’s plan. He didn’t carry around a checklist: “OK, let’s see, suffering servant, check, read from Isaiah in the synagogue, check, ride a donkey into Jerusalem, check. Mutter ‘I’m thirsty’ right before I die, check!”

No, Jesus is, as philosophers like to say, “The thing itself.”

So, He was really thirsty, and He was the fulfillment of the Scriptures; both at the same time. That just says it all; human and divine.

Do I know what that means? No, I don’t. But, I know that these things exist. I know that humans exist and I know that the divine exists. And I know that they were not created apart from each other.

It is me that has driven a wedge between the two. It is my sin that keeps them apart. And, it is my sin that drove Jesus to this moment of agonizing thirst.

Jesus is thirsty and I can’t save him. He is up there because of me. Lord, forgive me; I wish it was just a matter of giving you some sour wine to drink. But you’re asking so much more. Tonight, I can scarcely take it in. Seeing you up there, thirsty, crying…I just want it to be over.

Dinner with my 13-year-old self

I had the good fortune of having a nice talk with my 13-year-old self. We met at an abandoned restaurant; the food and the service were terrible.

My young-self ordered pizza, of course; but some kind of strange…pizza…I guess. Cilantro? Provolone? I don’t know what that is. My older, fatter self assured me it would be fine. And, it would have been…had the restaurant not sucked! The mature-me ordered some Black Bean Dip with Tortillas. They were just bad. How do you serve bad tortilla chips?

Anyway, we wanted to talk about church and religion and stuff. Mini-me was really wondering why I should belong to the church. Or, any church for that matter. After all, I mean, you know, evolution, science, not to mention the horrible boredom! The boredom! Save me from the boredom! Big-me didn’t blame him. It can be boring.

So, I had to remember that I did feel that way at one one time and yet here I am now spending all my time and energy on this church. And, I’m asking him to belong? Why? Am I just being selfish? I “need” him to join, so there’ll be a future? No, it’s much more than that; but how to put it into words? Words for the 13-year-old.

Well, the first item was the inevitable: evolution. I guess it can’t be helped. The Theory of Evolution as taught in our schools seems to contradict the story of Creation in Genesis. When young-me said, in response to my general question as to what problems he has with Christianity with, “you know, like evolution…” – well, I smiled a gigantic smile on the inside. I felt like Michael Jordan must feel with 2 seconds on the buzzer and the ball is passed to him.

“I got this.”

I told him of my love for science and evolution in particular. How that love hasn’t waned since I was his age. How, at first, it seemed like a stumbling block to faith in Christ, but turned out not to be. I told him of the story when I prayed that God would “give me the answer.” That’s right, I wanted an answer.

I got one. An answer, however, that mini-me might not appreciate just yet. I felt it sufficient for now that he trusted that I loved both science and Jesus.

The little guy’s brain moved fast. Enough of this evolution stuff, what about Satan and Hell? Yeah, what about that?

“My Mom thinks everyone goes to Heaven,” he said.

“I know,” said I. She’s a good person.

I wanted so bad to tell him that goodness like that is very hard to find out in the world. I knew no better when I was his age. I thought everybody was good. Why not? Why shouldn’t they be? I felt sad. But, I’m sorry, at thirteen, he’s still got some kid years left and I’m not going to despoil them.

Instead I wondered aloud if he’d ever read the Book of Job. He laughed, “Job?” pronouncing it j-o-b, like going to work job. What do kids care about old names? No one is named Job. Anyway, I told him to get a paraphrase Bible and read Job, he’d like it.

He deduced on his own that if there’s no Hell, then Hitler’s in Heaven. He didn’t like that. I don’t either. See, the crack? We can handle, or prefer, that there be no Hell, but not that there’s no Heaven either. Why, that would be atheistic.

After that came the obligatory Buddhist/reincarnation/nirvana/new-age/i’m not really sure what I saying stuff. I know, I know, I get it…God I’m bored with that stuff.

I think I’ll stick with art. He says he likes art. Why did the artists of yesteryear paint people in such “primitive” ways? Well, that’s how they saw the world. Why did we used to think that the sun rose in the east? Because that’s exactly what it looks like. Why did the writers of Genesis write such a primitive story?

I’ll keep you posted….

If Jesus could do it

I figure if Jesus could get up after three days in a tomb, I could maybe write a blog post.

I had my usual Holy Week schedule this past week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For me, the usual combination of playing guitar and cooking. It’s what I do.

Saturday morning I was watching the History Detectives on PBS and one of the stories got me thinking about mythology and religion.  The story starts like this:

George Washington’s cherry tree, Betsy Ross’ flag, Paul Revere’s ride…now Muhlenberg’s Robe may be added to the list of debatable Revolutionary War legends.

The story goes that in January 1776, Lutheran Reverend Peter Muhlenberg turned his pulpit into a recruiting station for revolutionary fighters. During a fiery sermon, he tore his robe from his shoulders to reveal a uniform, and at once rallied 300 able-bodied congregants to the patriotic cause.

So, off go the history detectives to discover that a.) Though the robe is made of the right material and is of the right age to be the robe, there’s no way to prove whether it really is or not and b.) Rev. Muhlenberg most certainly did not tear it off during the sermon to reveal the uniform and likely did not rally the 300 right there on the spot. The story is probably a concoction derived seventy-plus years later when German immigrants needed to feel special about their role in the war up there in Pennsylvania.

But here’s my beef: we all too often ignore the plain obvious facts right in front of our face. 1.) Rev. Muhlenberg was a Lutheran Minister who lived and preached during the birth of our nation 2.) He gave up (took off?) his robe to wear the uniform of revolution and 3.) he convinced many of his congregants to fight against the British.

So, you see how the “myth” compacts and teaches us the story? The real story. The myth is good. Leave it alone.

On another note, I felt obliged to defend the Methodists a bit during this story. As the story goes, the “American Anglicans” (aka Methodists) would not fight the king. This is true enough. One must look inside John Wesley’s head a bit for the answer though.

I won’t bore with all the details, but we could safely say the Wesley simply did not like our founding fathers. He thought them buffoonish hypocrites. His main moral contention was, of course, their ownership of slaves. They demanded “freedom?” …right. The Wesleyan movement had already played a role in abolishing slavery in England years before.
Anyway, sometimes it’s healthy to read about people that our history books tell us are heroes, saints practically; to read Wesley just cut them down and insult them…well, it’s good for you sometimes.

Alleluia!

Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!

A Story About Workers

God’s kingdom is like an manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his warehouse. They agreed on a normal day’s wage, and went to work. Later, about 9:00 am, the manager saw some others hanging around. He told them to go to work in his warehouse and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, “Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?”

They said, “Because no one hired us.”

He told them to go to work in his warehouse.

When the day’s work was over, the manager instructed his foreman, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.”

Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a day’s wage. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one day’s wage. Taking the money, they groused angrily to the manager, “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.”

He replied to the one speaking for the rest, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage, didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?”

Again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.

December Blogging

As I’ve said many times, my life is repetitive. As I sit here thinking about writing a “slice of life,” well, I already did that. Last year, or the year before. I’m working on the exact same things as I was at this time last year. Christmas songs, of course. What key to play them in? Too high, I can’t lead the group, too low, folks can’t sing along. Make a decision and move on.

Early December makes me remember Pearl Harbor, of course and also John Lennon’s death. I’ve written a bit on both previously so I won’t again tonight.

Reading my post about John from two years ago though, I was reminded that I wanted to write more on the nature of sin.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was (and is) belittled by some theologians for his concept of “Christian Perfection.” It basically states that there’s nothing physically stopping you from obeying God and not sinning. The reason theologians would argue against this is because it goes against the idea of “Original Sin.” That is, that we’re born with sin, inheriting it from Adam and it is a part of our make-up. I believe that Original Sin speaks not to something that is inherited like a genetic disease, but more to the idea that Free Will is a part of our make-up and that, in turn, provides the ever-ripe opportunities for doing wrong. Wesley further argued that, logically, (methodically?) if Christ “finished” the work of atonement, which can hardly be argued, then what is in your way? What stands between you and a sinless life? God himself has provided the work for at-one-ment, so what gives?

Well, something gives, right? This world is a wreck. And, I don’t mean this “modern world.” I mean this whole world is and has been a swirling mess of sin, lust, greed etc. Wesley’s point and the hope of most of us is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Imagine the best person you’ve ever known. A real person, I mean. You know they’re not perfect, but they’re better than most. They’re honest, loving, giving etc. All the things that we all know make up a good person. Now imagine that everyone in the world was like that. Is this not meta-physically possible? Wesley says it is.

Someone else will sing your song

What does it mean to say that God is punishing someone for something? I see this in two different ways. The first is what I might call the naturalist’s view; you know, things your mother probably told you: If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll get sick. If you spend your time disobeying the rules, you’ll die. To the naturalist, these are simply the laws of the universe, like gravity. To a religious person, since God created the natural world, these are God’s laws.

The second sort of punishment is personal. By this I don’t mean personally directed at you, though it might be, I mean personally communicated to you by God. So, if you say something like, “God is punishing that person for doing that thing,” then I assume that God told you that. If He didn’t tell you that and you say that He did, you’d be guilty of a rather profane act and could find yourself on the receiving end of some punishment of your own. A more subtle version of this is when someone says, “I believe God is punishing that person for doing that thing.” They’re not claiming the God talked to them, they’re just offering a personal opinion. For example, I sometimes think that the Civil War in the US was God’s punishment for the sin of slavery. I don’t know this to be true as God has not contacted me on this matter. I’ll let you know if He does. How do I come to this conclusion? It’s just a general idea shared by some folks who read Lincoln’s thoughts. It’s just an opinion of mine, I would never say that I know it to be true.

But sometimes, especially when it involves something personal, you know God is communicating to you. One of things that God is particularly sensitive to is when we “covet” something or someone. God warns us that only He is good and we are to worship no other. In a general way, we could say that this is the root of many ills. For example, a drug addict is coveting or worshiping something that is against the rules. It could be the drug itself, or a any one of a host of other things. Social ills are many indeed, but the God-shaped hole inside us all is at the root of all of them.

You might think that a fine upstanding Christian guy like myself would have all this down. You’d be wrong. God has a song that he wants you to sing. If you can’t or won’t sing it, someone else will.