Archive for category Crime and Punishment
Posted by Christian Beyer in Bible, biblical literalism, Calvinism, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Crime and Punishment, Culture, Current Events, damnation, Emerging Church, Ethics, Evil, Faith, Fundamentalism, God, Gospel, grace, Heaven and Hell, Hell, Heresy, Heterodoxy, Jesus, Justice, Morality, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, reformed church, Religion, Religious Right, Religious Tolerance, sacrifice, salvation, Sin, Spirituality, Substitutionary Atonement, Theology, Universalism on March 10, 2011
As long as I can remember my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is there.” This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine. Though she didn’t know it, this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy that says all of us, even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing: Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.
Not long ago Rob Bell was in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics) because his recent book, “Love Wins”, suggested that no one goes to Hell. He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.
The ensuing progressive Christian defense of Bell was great. Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine obscures a lot of the Gospel message. But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.
Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable. Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation. Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God. As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.
I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality, Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus. Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?
No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in. Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18
Not for the first time have I been perplexed by the Church’s long affair with torture. Is this just a case in which flawed and sinful men, having taken control of the Church, used brutal and violent means to achieve their own ends? Or is there some warped thread woven into the very fabric of Christian doctrine that twists the Church’s understanding of the Gospel?
Heather Kirk-Davidoff, pastor and writer, raises this question in her blog article entitled “Why Do Christians Love Torture” :
Rosa and I were in the car yesterday when the top-of-the-hour news came on with clips from President Obama and Vice President Cheney’s speeches about torture. Rosa started paying attention when Cheney’s said:
“I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work…”
At which point Rosa broke in and said with total incredulity, “Who said THAT??” At ten, Rosa still has a sense of how ridiculous it is to say that anyone would be proud of torturing anyone else. I know that some would argue that torture could be justified, but to say that it’s praiseworthy? How have we come to that?
Rosa’s comment stayed on my mind because, like her, there is part of our nation’s conversation about torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques” as Cheney likes to call them) which I just don’t get. It’s not just that I disagree–I simply can’t figure out how anyone could agree with the use of torture. I can’t empathize with the proponents of torture which makes me pretty useless in public conversation on the topic. My opposition to torture is based on two things that are utterly essential to my morality: the importance of the rule of law and the sacredness of human life. (Plus, everything I’ve read leads me to be opposed on pragmatic grounds as well. I just am not convinced that torture leads to any useful information.)
But a couple of weeks ago, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life came out that really disturbed me. You can go to the link to see the actual survey results, but in summary, the more often a person goes to church, the more likely they are to support the use of torture (and they used that word–not “enhanced interrogation techniques”). The Americans most likely to support torture are white evangelicals (62%) and those unaffiliated with a religious group are the least likely to support torture.
As I was ranting to Dan about this, he pointed out that the study showed that party affiliation is a MUCH stronger determinant of support of torture than religious affiliation is. Basically, Republicans are likely to support torture, and the survey just showed where the Republicans are. And while his point is correct, I don’t think it’s the whole story.
Here’s the thing: Jesus was tortured. This is one of the reasons while it blows my mind that any Christian could support torture since we all know that at least one innocent person has been tortured under false accusations by the state. But what if our religious teachings tell us that while it was unfortunate that Jesus was tortured, it did, in fact, serve a good purpose. It had a good outcome because (in the words of Isaiah 53:5):
…he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Could it be that by talking so much about what we’ve gained by way of Jesus’ torture we’ve actually taught ourselves that torture can actually be a good thing? A useful and important thing?
This is serious, people. Obama and his people have their work to do rooting torture out from the practice of our government. But I think Christian churches and Christian leaders have our work to do too. We need a better theology of suffering, a better understanding of Jesus’ suffering, if we’re ever going to clearly oppose it’s use by our government.
-by Heather Kirk-Davidoff, “Grounded and Rooted in Love”
In 1974, during the robbery of a Royal Farms store in Baltimore, a security guard was shot to death with his own gun. Witnesses at the scene, including the cashier on duty, described the assailant as a light skinned black man around 5 feet 8 inches tall. Michael Austin, a very dark skinned man over six feet in height was arrested for the crime. He was subsequently tried for first degree murder.
The cashier picked out Michael from a book of police mug shots. When confronted with the disparity in size and complexion he claimed to be mistaken the first time.The prosecutors held this witness up to the jury as being a very civic minded young college student and they readily chose to believe him. Besides, although Michael, was now married and gainfully employed he had a significant record of prior arrests and convictions. In spite of his employer providing him with a tight alibi (he was working at the time of the robbery and there were time cards and multiple witnesses) it made little difference. He looked good for the crime.
His family had a little money and they hired an attorney. Unfortunately the only attorney they could afford happened to be a drug addict and alcoholic. Michael assumed that he was drunk throughout the trial. He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years – no chance of parole.
It turned out later that the cashier was not actually a civic minded young college student but, according to his own family, a violent offender and drug addict. He also happened to be a paid police informant that may have been primarily interested in pleasing his employers and erstwhile antagonists. (Apparently the police wanted Michael for another crime but could not indict him for it.) A few years later this police informant died of a drug overdose.
A few years after the sentencing, the prosecuting attorney on the case went on record as saying that he should never have tried Michael. But nothing was done.
For the first five years of his incarceration Michael was an angry and bitter young man. He bucked the system every chance he could, was often involved in fights and spent much time in isolation. Somewhere in that period of time a change began to take place and eventually Michael began to settle down and take stock of his life and his situation. His says that this change was because of God.
Michael understood that, although not guilty of this crime, his past actions had made him vulnerable. His mother told him once, when visiting, that he only had himself to blame for this situation, that you are only as good as your reputation. And it was true that Michael had not been a good boy growing up.
Having been made a ward of the state he was placed in a foster home where he suffered physical and mental abuse. As a teenager he became involved with drugs and crime and spent plenty of time in juvenile lock up and even a little time in the state penitentiary. But at some point he began to settle down, got a steady job, found a woman he loved and got married.
In prison Michael began to study philosophy and music. He earned his G.E.D. and then later he earned a Bachelors Degree in music theory from Coppin State University, which had programs available within the penitentiary. He became an accomplished trumpet player.
An organization out of Princeton called Centurion Ministries took up his case. www.centurionministries.org/index.html Centurion is devoted to that particular part of Jesus’ ministry that addressed freedom for the prisoners, in this case the innocent ones. In 2001 Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke became aware of Michael’s plight and that year he was set free. Michael waited one year to ask for a pardon from the Governor. He wanted to prove first that he could be a contributing and law abiding member of the community. The state of Maryland awarded him 1.4 million dollars in restitution for the 27 years of freedom that he had taken from him. Although his first wife is now remarried (he is happy for her) Michael has met someone and they are engaged.
He was 25 years old the day her reported to do his time and he was 52 years old when he finally walked out the prison doors. Since 2001 Michael has started his own business, a successful recording studio in Baltimore. He also leads a jazz band, where he plays trumpet. His band spends a lot to time playing charity benefits up and down the East Coast. Michael himself devotes his free time talking with young people in schools, churches and civic events. www.inthis2gether.com/index.html
This is where I met him, as he came to our school to speak to the students and staff. His message is simple; don’t let other people, don’t let circumstances, define who you are or make your decisions for you. At some point you must learn to respect yourself, and even love yourself, in order to start doing those things that will earn the respect and love of others. He also said that they needed to understand that so many of the people that they thought of as being part a dominating system were actually there because they loved them. It was time for them to start showing these people the respect that they deserved.
Most of the students in our school (around 90 or so) are ‘troubled’ youths from blighted urban areas and his message seemed to resonate with them. After he spoke, some of the kids, mostly the hard cases that have done time and are probably close to doing some more, gathered around him, shaking his hand, hugging him, asking him more questions. It touched them that this guy seemed to give a damn about them. I hope they understood that we give a damn about them as well.
At the time of Michael’s conviction, Maryland had no death penalty, but it was reinstated not much later. If the death penalty had been in effect at the time he would not have been able to earn his G.E.D., get his college diploma, learn to read and write music or play the trumpet. And our kids would never have met him.