Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sunday Sermon

June 20, 2010

The Third Sunday after Trinity

(Father’s Day)

Intent: God as the Ruler of the Angels

“A barrage of bullets tore into Ronnie Lee Gardner’s chest where a target had been pinned over his heart. Two minutes later, the twice-convicted killer was pronounced dead as blood pooled in his dark blue prison jumpsuit.”

That macabre was printed in yesterday’s Union Tribune. I thought we put away the firing squad for the death penalty. Well, this shows how much I know. Does doing this senseless act really deter crime? Studies have been done and proven over and over again, that life in prison is far less expensive that simply keeping them in prison. I understand that the families of the victims need some sense of closure, even revenge, whether it is Christian teaching or not, however things like this doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

Further, one would think that killing them is far too lenient. Lenient, simply because once you kill them, they no longer live with the guilt of the crime; they die, and no longer have to think about what they did. Seems to me that keeping them alive and punished with life in prison without parole and very few amenities to make their life comfortable in prison, they would be punished far more. They would have to live with that memory. However, that’s too deep a topic for today, so let’s simplify it in Jesus terms.

Some criminals today are doing more than sitting sullenly in a cellblock. They're accepting the challenge to repent, make restitution, restore relationships, and change their ways. But, are we ready to shift our focus from revenge to reconciliation?

When I was just a baby,
my mama told me, "Son,
always be a good boy;
don't ever play with guns."
But I shot a man in Reno,
just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin'
I hang my head and cry.
I bet there's rich folk eatin'
in a fancy dining car.
They're prob'ly drinkin' coffee
and smokin' big cigars,
But I know I had it comin',
I know I can't be free,
But those people keep a movin',
and that's what tortures me.

That's "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash. Most people would probably say that anyone who'd shoot "a man in Reno, just to watch him die," deserved prison and a lot more. So what if he envies people on the outside "drinkin' coffee and smokin' big cigars." He did the crime, he does the time. Period.

Pierre Allard understands, perhaps better than most. In 1980, his brother Andre was brutally murdered - shot in the face and then dumped in a field outside Montreal. His killers were never found. Pierre went to see the frozen body of his brother because he wanted, he says, "to see the ugliness of evil." Pierre had been a chaplain in one of Canada's roughest prisons, Archambault Penitentiary, and the whole experience nearly drove him out of the chaplaincy. He had been preaching about reconciliation and forgiveness, but all of a sudden he wanted something else. He wanted revenge. Raw, naked revenge.

Who can blame him? Certainly not some outspoken Christians. Some advocate tougher justice; not only longer jail sentences and work camps for young offenders, but also capital punishment. There are many devout Christians who agree with this approach, absolutely and enthusiastically.

Fact is, you can go straight to Scripture if you are looking for support for tougher justice. If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise. "Life for life". That sounds like crystal-clear justification for capital punishment ... if not raw revenge.

But Pierre Allard found a different foundation in the faith. One night, back on the job, he found himself alone in the prison chapel, looking at the cross; looking at an ancient means of capital punishment. "I started crying," he confesses. "It was a real healing. The feelings of revenge just melted away."

Pierre started to reflect on the true meaning of justice, and decided that it must include both the victim and the offender. He discovered that within Christianity, you don't have the freedom to exclude anyone. Even if you become enemies, you're challenged to love your enemies. Jesus didn't call for revenge on his killers, instead, he said "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing".

This isn't "tougher justice," but it sure is tough. In fact, it may be the most difficult type of justice to achieve. But a growing number of people are trying to pull it off, including Pierre Allard, who now says that he would like to meet those who killed his brother and tell them: "I forgive you." Revenge has been replaced. Replaced by reconciliation.

The apostle Paul approves. In fact, if there is any biblical character who benefited from reconciliation, it is Paul himself, who started his career as a violent anti-Christian. On the road to Damascus, he was "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord", having just approved of the killing of the deacon Stephen. A light from heaven caused him to fall to the ground, but he was not killed - he was given a second chance. He converted and went on to serve the first-century church.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul recalls that "before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed". Call this the "tougher justice" approach. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, following the divine law that Paul describes as a "disciplinarian" for us. "But now that faith has come," he goes on to explain, "we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith". In Christ Jesus, we are all children of God. Jew and Greek. Slave and free. Male and female. Victim and offender. All one in Christ Jesus.

This is tough justice. It's tough because it doesn't feel fair. It doesn't seem right to lump together good, law-abiding citizens and bad, law-breaking criminals, and say that in Christ Jesus we are all children of God through faith.

But listen to what a woman named Wilma Dirksen has discovered, just a few years after losing her daughter to an abduction and killing. She realizes that many people believe that there are certain people who are bad, and if we get rid of them we'll have a good world. "But the Bible says, for good reason, that if we extend our hand to our enemy, we will eventually find that our hand is extended to ourself." She confesses, "That's what I found when in the end I had to face myself."

All are one in Christ Jesus. All. One. Good and bad. Saint and sinner.

It's an idea that benefits us. We ourselves are a forgiven people, so why is it so hard to believe that what works for us might not work for others? If God forgives us, requiring only confession and repentance and a restored life that bears witness to our repentance, then why can't such an approach work between ourselves in the human family.

This is so alien to our current justice system, which emphasizes the punitive approach. These days, if you commit the crime, you do the time. Three strikes and you're out - locked up for life. But evidence is mounting that where feasible, restorative justice has a chance to alter criminal behavior.

There's nothing naive or touchy-feely about it. It can actually work. Thirty years ago, when he was a young reporter at the Edmonton Journal, Bob Harvey took on the task of starting a program for teens at a neighborhood church. One of them confessed a deep, dark secret: He and several other bored teenagers had broken into a number of nearby homes. Bob Harvey and a co-leader met with these young offenders and made a surprising suggestion: Let's go in a group to the homes that had been broken into and apologize.

Now the homeowners had suffered damage to their homes, loss of property and a sense of violation, and the teens quickly realized that a simple apology was not enough. So they started holding bottle drives and car washes so they could at least pay back the cash they had stolen. They also received a lecture from a couple of burly detectives about what would have happened if they had not worked so hard to repair the damage: an appearance in juvenile court. The result? That was the last crime committed by any of those teens, and their victims became some of their biggest supporters. Restorative justice.

The key to dealing with most criminal behavior may well be the application of basic Christian principles: Repent, make restitution, restore relationships and change your ways. In our rush to extend jail sentences and build more prisons, we have forgotten that offenders are people and that people can be transformed by the love and discipline of a committed community. "Crime is not primarily a breaking of the law," claims Chaplain Pierre Allard. "Crime is primarily a breaking of relationships in a community, where real people have hurt real people." The secret to healing broken relationships is restorative justice, not punitive justice.

So, should we let criminals off the hook, provided they show sincere faith in Jesus Christ? Hardly. They still need to repent, make restitution, restore relationships, and change their ways; and this work can be much tougher than sitting sullenly in a cellblock. Not all will be willing. But to those who want to change, we should give chances.

Faith and love. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Restorative justice. They're never easy. But they are the call of a convict named Paul.

And a crucified Lord. He willingly went to the cross for you and me. He went to the cross innocent and suffered as one of those who were not. On that cross he hangs dying, but still he asks his Father in heaven to forgive them. Can we do that if and when we are called to? On Father’s Day, I think we are being called to do just that, just as the father forgave the prodigal son.

God Love You +

+The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor - St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.