Thursday, March 21, 2013

Defining people…

After visiting the execution chamber in Angola prison earlier this month, our prison chaplain guide sat us down for a talk. I wrote last week about one haunting and hard story he told us. But there’s another he shared that seemed just as morally complicated, but perhaps more hopeful.

This story involves the teenage step-daughter of a death row inmate. Apparently, one night, not long after the man and his new wife wed, the daughter was dropped off at home by a family friend after a school event. Only the man was around, and he used that fact to kidnap the young woman. Drove her into Louisiana, raped and killed her, then hid the body. Thankfully, he was caught. Turns out he’d sexually abused women before. So he was sentenced to death, which occurred not long ago. His was Angola’s most recent execution.

The unique fact of his execution, though, was that he didn’t fight the sentence. The chaplain said he’d never met another death row prisoner who actively worked against efforts to save his life. But this man told the chaplain, “I deserve what I’ll receive. If they let me out, I’ll do it again. I’m sorry for it. But that’s who I am.” Further, the day of the execution, he called the former family friend, said, “I’m told you feel guilty, think the young woman would still be living if you hadn’t dropped her off that night. I’m sad to say that if it wasn’t that night, it would’ve been another. So please don’t feel guilty. It’s not your fault. It’s entirely mine.” Chaplain Toney told us that he believed this man felt real remorse, hence the phone call and no appeals. Whatever you think about capital punishment, that’s an extraordinary tale.

But what the chaplain said next has stuck with me since. In response, he claimed, “We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

A Plymouth Creeker told me last week about her former church. Small town, not too large, yet had multiple ties to incarcerated persons. One had been the woman’s former Sunday School student, now in jail for drugs and theft. Another had twins whom she taught in school, now serving time for corruption. To other people, she told me, these were bad, bad men. She, however, remembers kind words and times one did work on her house. “Society” deemed them inescapably unworthy, defined them by their worst ever deeds. Her church, though, would visit and write, look after family, care. And as we talked about those tough circumstances, it was clear that personal connections matter. Other high profile crime cases, I’ll admit, lead me to cringe, rage or judge. But when someone, however justly incarcerated, grew up singing “Jesus Loves Me” at your prompting, something shifts in how you respond. At least, that’s this church’s experience.

And it seems right to me. We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I’ve met former convicts before at church and was impressed by their renewed faithfulness. I’ve known addicts who’d hurt others during their lowest of lows, yet have cheered their recovery and honored their attempts to make amends. I’ve interacted with people I knew abused children and struggled to not lash out. Yet I also knew they’d done other things, positive things for family or their community. It is right that we punish and jail criminals or denounce unhealthy behaviors. But how do we define the people who do the deeds? How do we define ourselves?

Psalm 139 defines us as “fearfully and wonderfully made.” When looking in the mirror, it’s good to focus on the “wonderfully.” When confronted with others’ terrible acts, the “fearfully” is hard to ignore. Yet I suspect God’s goal is keeping all parts of our complex selves in sight. Not ignoring our sin, but neither allowing that to define us fully. The question, then, is how does God reconcile our worst deeds with the others? Hold all sides of our lives in balance without one overwhelming the other?

My best answer- Grace. Amazing, radical, threatening grace. Is grace the defining idea of God’s relationship with God’s broken, beloved children?

Grace and Peace,

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