The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

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Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

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The War on Christianity or: Tweet Others As You Wish To Be Tweeted

My family and I were away from the church last weekend while on vacation and I asked one of my lay members, Melissa Clark, to preach in my absence. Apparently, her sermon was met with audible “amens!” and applause at the end.

For a regular preacher this brought me great joy and great envy!

Her sermon was on Mark 8.31-34 and she graciously allowed me to post it here on the blog…

Mark 8.31-34

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any way to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

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I know that Taylor did not announce that he wouldn’t be here this week and I am not sure if that is because he through that if people knew I was preaching more people would show up than for him or less! Either way, you’re stuck now!

I hope all of you saw the sign out front this week. If you did not it says “Tweet Other As You Wish To Be Tweeted.” I have to say that I first saw it posted on our church Facebook page and when I read ti I assumed that it was directed at me. Now I will admit that I am not on Twitter, or Instagram, or many of the other social media outlets, but I am on Facebook, a lot. A lot. If you are not familiar with Facebook or the process of making friend on Facebook you may seem surprised, or maybe not, that I do not have a lot of friends on the site, only about 150. Some people consider it an achievement to get as many friends as possible and thus end up with thousands. I have made it a practice not to be friends on Facebook with anyone that I work with and I do not send out friend requests because I am concerned that what I post might offend some of the people that I am friends with in polite society. If you are not familiar with how to become friends on Facebook, you would send a friend request to someone you know or want to know and they have the opportunity to accept or deny your request, that being said, if you send me a friend request this week I am going to accept it, but consider that you have all been warned!

On of the things I have learned about myself on Facebook it that I am extremely judgmental and extremely unapologetic when I think I am right.

And I always think I am right.

I am therefore, part of the problem that I am about to complain about.

The problem that I am focused on right now is the loud voice of people that continue pushing this pervasive idea that there is a war on Christianity. My first thought is that that is absolute rubbish – there is no such thing.

How can people who believe in a God that rules over all and is the most powerful force in the universe believe that God could be under attack or much less win that that war. But the more I think about it, maybe there is.

Maybe the war began when we removed prayer from public schools, or maybe it was when the Supreme Court affirmed the their decision in Roe v Wade? Maybe it was when the gay marriage was made legal? Or maybe all the trouble started 100 years ago when women were given the right to vote? That sure changed things.

Actually, it must have started when retail stores that live or die by the money they make between Thanksgiving and Christmas forced all their employees to stop saying Merry Christmas.

It sounds a little ridiculous don’t you think?

I am beginning to that think there is a War on Christianity but I am also beginning to think that the war is being waged by Christians.

It is only Christians that are yelling at the top of their lungs that prayer has been removed from schools, but that is not true. Children are allowed to pray they are just not being forced to pray. And, lets face it, would we want our tax dollars paying some of these teacher to pray with our kids? How about the school principal in Boca Raton, Florida who told a parent that “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened” or the music teach in Chicago that posts videos on Youtube denouncing non-Christian religions saying that are only two religions in the world, “God’s Way” or man made religions like Islam, Judaism, and Scientology. These are not the kind of people that I want teaching our children anything, let alone prayer.

Many people want to blame the decline of society on the removal of God from schools and public places. But I would argue that there is not a single person in this church, community, state, country, or world who could move God anywhere that God does not want to go.

The idea that there is a War on Christmas because we’re not allowed to say “Merry Christmas” in our places of business is another myth being screwed at us by Christians. I have worked in retail all my life and I assure you that I say “Merry Christmas” all the time. The only time I don’t say it is when I am not sure that the person I am talking to is Christian and I don’t want to offend someone of a different religion. If I don’t say “Merry Christmas” to you it is because I don’t recognize that you are a Christian, and you should ask yourself why that it. Is it because I can’t recognize you as one, or are you not behaving like one? And yes, I don’t want to offend my non-Christian customers by saying the wrong thin, and the idea of not wanting to offend someone, or being “politically correct” is the absolute tenant of Christianity: “Love you neighbor as yourself.”

The greatest commandment, as Jesus reminds of, is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves – on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

We are surrounding ourselves with worldly ideas and calling them Christian ideals and claiming that they are being attacked in a war. We scream about there being no prayer school but we do nothing when children show up hungry day after day because there is no food in their home. We get all offended because no one said, “Merry Christmas” to us but we snap at the cashier cause the sale price didn’t ring up. We scream about illegal immigrants at the southern border without acknowledging that that are also our neighbors and are in danger. They need our Christianity hospital and not our American hatred.

Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You do do not have in minds the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Are all of these not human concerns? Prayer in school? Merry Christmas? Red Starbucks cups? Complaining about whether or not someone “hates America” because they are critical of the government?

These are not the concerns of God. These are made up battles in the so-called war on Christianity designed to create conflict that separates us from Jesus Christ and it is all being done in the name of Christianity.

Jesus also said, “Whomever wants to be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I don’t believe that when Jesus says, “deny themselves” that he is saying “give up everything you own and follow the teachings of the closest church you can find.” I believe that Jesus is saying you must deny the worldly things that separate us from the Lord and then we can follow the cross that he already took up, for us.

Now, I said earlier that I would be compiling about myself in this sermon. I give in to worldly ideas all the time. If you become my friend on Facebook you will learn that I use language that is probably not acceptable to God’s ears, frankly its probably not acceptable in a sailor’s bar, but I rationalize it as “I am who I am.” I am not forgiving of people that I think support un-Christian ideas and I often decide for myself what I believe is un-Christian. So, I repeat, I am part of the problem! Just like the rest of you, I am a work in progress, and as part of that work I will continue to say what I personally believe to be the truth of Christ.

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Whosoever.

There is no qualifier in that sentence, whosoever is for God to judge, not you and not me. And with Jesus’ help I’ll keep trying to be the best example of Christian that I can. Will you?

Bedazzle Your Crosses

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with David King about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Amos 7.7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1.1-14, Luke 10.25-37). David is a 21 year old college senior who is currently studying philosophy and religion. Our conversation covers a range of topics including plumb lines, persistent pursuits, sycamore trees, justice for the marginalized, easy Christianity, hearing hope, poor parable preaching, and dying to save. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bedazzle Your Crosses

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The Dude Abides

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ryan LaRock about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost (1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69). Ryan serves as one of the pastors of Christ UMC in Fairfax Station, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including movie quotes, reminding God of God’s promises, dwelling places, mundane worship, unhappy people, dressing up for Jesus, passive Christianity, and offensive grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dude Abides

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

Make The Church Weird Again

Jeremiah 31.31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 

I’ve been in ministry for roughly 5 years and I’ve finally figured it out. After all the sermons and all the meetings, after all the prayers and preparation, I know how to fix all the church’s problems.

It’s time to do a new thing.

Now, before we get to the solution, we need to talk a little bit about the problem that needs fixing. Churches everywhere, not just here at Cokesbury, are suffering under what I will call the paralysis of analysis. We spend far too much time looking at what we’ve done, evaluating past strengths and weaknesses, such that we don’t spend enough time looking forward. We don’t even ask if God is doing a new thing. Instead we assume that God did all the things God was going to do, and if it worked in the good ol’ days then it should certainly work now.

Here’s an example: Communion

Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the month, we had communion like we usually do. I stood here at the front of the sanctuary, and I prayed for God’s anointing on the bread and the cup. We all prayed together, we stood together, and we began feasting together.

One by one you came forward with outstretched hands recognizing the incredible gift that you were receiving. I took the bread, placed it in your hands, you dipped it in the cup, partook of the meal, and returned to your pews.

It was a holy thing.

However, there was a young family with us in worship two weeks ago, a family who has never ever been to church. They sat patiently during the service, though I’m sure that a lot of what we did must’ve sounded and felt strange. But nevertheless, when the time for communion arrived, they stood up like everyone else, walked to the front, and prepared to celebrate the joy of the Lord’s Supper.

I reverently handed a piece of bread to the mother, who bowed penitently before dipping the bread in the cup. I then knelt down close to the floor to hand a piece of bread to her son, but the longer I held it in front of him the longer he stared at it. I motioned for him to take it, which he eventually did, but before dipping it in the cup he frantically looked between his mother’s eyes and the brim of the chalice back and forth, back and forth.

When finally I said, with every bit of pastoral bravado, “My son, this is Jesus’ gift for you.” To which he said, “Yeah, but you said this is his blood, and I don’t know how I feel about drinking it.”

            And he promptly swallowed the un-dipped piece of bread, and jogged back to his pew.

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            We have been doing what we do for so long that many of us neglect to think, at all, about what we are doing.

We, in many ways, are exactly like the Israelites during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke.

God had to do a new thing, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the first covenants, but there was something wrong with the participants within the covenant. Their faithfulness, their days of living as the people of God, had become so repetitive, that the Law God offered them was nothing more than a clanging cymbal, instead of the lifeforce it was meant to be.

Many of them followed the Law, they ate the right food at the right times in the right places, they abstained from foreign worship, and they wore clothes without mixing fibers, but it was done simply because that’s what they were supposed to do.

They were going through the motions.

They, to use God’s analogy, were like a spouse who no longer remembered what drew him or her to the marriage in the first place. They were waking up every morning to make breakfast, rushing to get the kids out the door, and maybe even stopping to give their beloved a kiss on the cheek, but without love, without intention, without grace.

For the people of God during the time of Jeremiah, it was all about the external and rarely about the internal. It was assumed that if you did all the right things, life would work out accordingly. Day to day experience was rationalized through objective realities – children exist to help the family, the community exists to maintain order, the worship of God exists to move life along.

There was no “why?”

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

God looked out on the people, a people for whom the law was written on stones and parchment, a people who did what they were told without it providing life, and decided the time had come for a new thing.

The days of laws written on stone came to an end. There would be no need to write them down for all to see and few to follow.

Instead of attempting to adhere to a code of do’s and don’ts, instead of the Law being the thing they worshiped, instead of the marriage dissolving into routine rather than romance, God writes the law on their hearts, on our hearts.

No longer would the people need to shout at one another until they were blue in the face, “Know the Lord!” No longer would the marriage partner scream at the spouse, “Do your duty!” No longer would the people walk around as if God wasn’t there with them all the while.

This was the beginning of a new day, one in which all people would no longer know about God, with the right words and right theology. Instead they would know God, with all the intimacy needed, in which the “why” would become more important than the “what,” in which a new covenant was established.

            So now to the solution… The time has come to embrace the weird.

WEIRD

If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.

We are pretty weird.

But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”

But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.

The time has come to make the church weird again. To embrace all that separates us from the expectations of the world. In no other place, in no other gathering, do we willfully consider how far we have fallen from what we could be. In no other arena of our lives do we say, and believe, that there is something inherently powerful about gathering even just to sit in silence for a few moments. In no other community can we find the power and the bravery to tear down injustice and overthrow corruption and evil.

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The time has come for us to re-evaluate our “whats” and begin to shore up our “whys.” Instead of going through the motions of our faith, instead of taking the church for granted, we have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing all of this?” “What does this have to do with the kingdom of God?” “How does the church make tangible the new covenant of God?”

If we can’t answer those questions, then we need to dive deep into the “why.”

            Better yet, we should, at the very least, start with our “why.”

Why are we here? Are we here because we don’t have certainty about anything else and we’re looking for answers? Are we here because we’ve always gone to church and we don’t know how to live any other way? Are we here hoping to get something out of church?

Or, are we here because we know God is getting something out of us? Are we here not for ourselves, or our families, but for the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are we here because God found us when we were lost and showed us a better way?

The people during the time of Jeremiah were lost. They were lost in themselves, lost in their exile, even lost in the Law. They were a people of “what.”

            God saw their suffering, God saw their heartless practices, God saw their injustices, and ultimately saw it fit to do a new thing. The new covenant was inscribed on the hearts of God’s people, such that they would remember the “why.”

Perhaps God’s Spirit is moving again in such a way that the new covenant will break our hearts of stone and we might know that God is ours, and we are God’s. Maybe the time has come for us to question every little thing we do as a church so that we break free from our bondage to doing what we’ve always done such that we can ask why we do what we do and start over with God’s new covenant.

Perhaps the time has come to make the church weird again. Amen.

The Last Jedi – Spiritual or Religious?

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A few week ago I was able to share a conversation with Jason Micheli and Chaim Saiman for our podcast Crackers and Grape Juice about the theological dimensions of Star Wars, and in particular The Last Jedi. After seeing the most recent Star Wars film, Chaim was struck by some of the subtle (and not so subtle) religious motifs within the movie and wrote an article for The Atlantic titled, “Why The Last Jedi Is More Spiritual Than Religious.” Chaim is a law professor at Villanova and is interested in the intersection between law and faith.

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Our conversation covers a range of topics including Jesus and the Law, growing up in the bible belt, the First Commandment, Jesus as the proto-Christian, the religiosity of Star Wars, and how our faiths and cultures are tied together. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Fact Checking Star Wars

Devotional – 1 Peter 4.13

Devotional:

1 Peter 4.13

But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

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“Who are you?” That is without a doubt one of my favorite questions to ask, because the way someone responds to that simple question says a lot about how the individual understands who he/she is. If I asked you the question right now, how would you respond? Recently, I’ve discovered that when I ask the question, the first response is almost always “I’m an American.”

This is, of course, true for many people in the context I serve, and it speaks volumes about priorities and identities. If someone’s immediate response was “I’m a mother” or “I’m a father” we could assume that they understand their parental role as their most important and therefore the identity they identify with most. Similarly, if someone’s response was “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” we could assume their political identity is their most important identity.

And answering with “I’m an American” can be a good and right thing, but if that is our first thought or response, it often shapes our understanding of Christianity rather than the other way around.

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Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about their fears regarding change in the cultural ethos and most of it has to do with feeling safe. For instance, “We need to have that wall on the southern border to keep us safe” or, “We should’ve elected Clinton because she would’ve kept us safe.” But as Christians, being consumed by a desire to remain safe is strange and almost unintelligible; we worship a crucified God!

Peter calls the church to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” In America, as Americans, we fell so safe in our Christian identities that we assume being a Christian and being an American are synonymous. Therefore we are more captivated by a national narrative (Freedom, Capitalism, Democracy) than by the Christian narrative (Suffering, Patience, Penitence). But to call ourselves disciples implies an acknowledgement that, if we want to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we might find ourselves on top of a hill with a criminal on our left and on our right.

Taking our faith seriously is a difficult thing to do when it appears normative in the surrounding culture. Instead we fall captive to the other narratives that we believe dictate our lives. But the truth is that God is the author of our salvation, that the Holy Spirit determines our lives far more than any country, and that Jesus is our Lord.

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