Tag Archives: Forgiveness

To an Immeasurable Extent

 Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith.  He must shake the yoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord.  He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.
Don’t hesitate to declare yourself sinners.  Thereby you will be put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error.  And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with the creator.

The regeneration of which I am speaking is not the rebirth of the body, but the second birth of the soul.  Bodies are procreated by the father and mother, but souls are recreated by means of faith, since the Spirit blows where it will. [John 3:8]
God is kind and he is kind to an immeasurable extent.
Don’t say: “I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offenses innumerable time.  Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them? Listen rather to the Psalmist: “How great is your love, O Lord.” [cf. Ps. 31:19]
Your sins piled up one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love.  Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.
There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” [Ps. 32:5] Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: “Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain).

We think St. Cyril of Jerusalem lived between 313 and 386 A.D. He has been venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. At a time of great strife and discord within the early Church, he worked for peace and reconciliation. He became the bishop of Jerusalem, and was loved there for his works of charity (which included feeding the poor at the expense of selling the church treasury).

I love this little piece of his, in part because it echoes one of the major themes of this blog: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s deep and abiding love. The Cross teaches us how much God cares for us. We will never be able to reason, or to behave, our way into God’s love, which He pours out like a steady rain onto all of us.  I hope we can all hear God’s voice calling to us, affirming us as His beloved.

We can never go so far down the road to ruin that we cannot turn back, and our Father who sees us from a long ways off, will come running to meet us. As Cyril said, our wounds are not too deep for the Doctor to heal.  Never.  Never ever.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

P.S.

I’m going to be taking a break from writing for  a while.  You will remain in my prayers, and in my heart.

“Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.”

The Keys We All Carry

When you hear the words: “Peter, do you love me?” [John 21:15] imagine you are in front of a mirror and looking at yourself.
Peter, surely, was a symbol of the Church.  Therefore the Lord in asking Peter is asking us too.  
To show that Peter was a symbol of the Church, remember the passage in the Gospel, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. [Matt. 16:18]
Has only one man received those keys?  Christ himself explains what they are for: “Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matt. 18:18] If these words had been said only to Peter, now that he is dead who would ever be able to bind or loose?
I make bold to say that all of us have received the keys.  We bind and loose.  And you also bind and loose.
Whoever is bound is separated from your community; he is bound by you. When he is reconciled, however, he is loosed, thanks to you because you are praying for him. 

Augustine, Serm. Morin 16 (Miscellanea Agostiniana)

My travel schedule remains quite hectic, so once again this will be a short post.  I found this bit of wisdom in Thomas Spidlik’s wonderful little book, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain.

I think Augustine points out several things that matter a great deal for our spiritual lives.  As we read Scripture, we should read it as if Jesus were speaking to us personally.  Jesus wasn’t only explaining to the a first century audience about the kingdom of heaven: He was speaking to you and to me.

I think too often we think of the keys to the kingdom as something that Jesus left as an inheritance to Peter, or to the Twelve, and perhaps we might even go so far as to think our clergy have inherited it.  Augustine suggests, and I believe, that those keys are our inheritance, yours and mine. So, when I withhold forgiveness from my brother or sister, I hold that sin bound.  (I think one could seriously question exactly who is bound up when forgiveness is withheld, but perhaps we’ll talk about that another time.) On the other hand, each of us have the power to loose our brothers and sisters.

We can loose them by forgiving them; we can loose them from the burdens they carry; we can loose them by righting an old wrong or through our acts of charity and kindness.   Jesus left us these keys, left them to you and to me.  So, I wonder, what locks will we open today?

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Living In Love

Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

The New Testament reading from the Lectionary is taken from the Letter to the Ephesians.  Most scholars date this letter between 80 and 100 A.D., as the Church is maturing and struggling to practice a Christian life in community. The writer (perhaps Paul or perhaps one of his disciples) is deeply concerned with the notion of relationships, and the idea that our relationships with each other mirror our relationships with God.

The lesson begins with the notion of truth, of “putting away falsehoods.” Deception inhibits any chance for real love, and dealing with each other honestly provides the foundation for our relationship with God.  The call to the Christian life is more than a call to avoid lying or manipulation; God calls us to live our lives transparently.

Ephesians offers a unique theology behind this call to the truth–not simply that deception makes God angry or will keep us out of heaven.  Rather, Christ calls us into the truth because our lives are intertwined, because we are each other’s limbs. Deception infects the entire body, of which we are a part.  By setting aside falsehood and deception, therefore, we avoid self-mutilation, the destruction of the body of which we are a constituent part.

Ephesians then warns us against anger, and against allowing it to fester. The text cautions us against letting the sun go down on our anger because allowing resentment to build up makes “room for the devil.”  In my family, we used to joke about Irish Alzheimer’s:  that’s where you forget everything except the grudges.  Ephesians cautions us to work out our difficulties with our brothers and sisters quickly, before the infection of rage and resentment begins to spread.

The writer of Ephesians cautions us about our speech, warning us to avoid quarreling and slander.  The language of encouragement should provide the fundamental grammar of Christians. Rather than gossip, criticism or idle speech, we should immerse ourselves in the vocabulary of comfort and inspiration. We must all become wildly proficient in the language of blessing.

Ephesians then directs us:  “be kind to another.” There’s nothing new in this message; Jesus gave the same direction regularly. For the Christian, compassion and forgiveness are the fundamental currency of our economy. Grace must become our lingua franca: the basis of all our relationships. The text calls us to imitate God’s love in our dealings with each other.  We are called into a kind of profligate, extravagant love in Christ.  As the Dalai Lama has said:  “Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”

The Letter to the Ephesians teaches us about the profound correlation between this new relationship the early Church had discovered with Christ and the everyday, concrete relationships in the world.  It teaches that we can never divorce the our spiritual lives from our workaday associations in our families and communities.  Authentic Christian spirituality is never simply ethereal or private: we live it out every single day, with every person we meet and with every word we speak.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Season For Everything

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;  a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.  Eccles. 3:1-15.

Today’s reading  from the Daily Office is taken from the book of Ecclesiastes.  We don’t know much about the writer of this book, who is generally referred to as Qoheleth, often translated as The Preacher or The Teacher.  Although the early Church attributed these writings to King Solomon, The Teacher probably lived much later, about 200-300 years before Jesus.

In the first section of the poem, The Teacher offers 14 pairs of events and their antipodes (keeping and throwing away, killing and healing, seeking and losing), which seem to offer a vision of a sort of balance within the universe.  Throughout the ancient world, the belief in specific, appropriate times ran very deep.  They looked for the right time to plant, to harvest, to build a house, or to begin a battle.  

Aligning one’s actions with divinely set times offered the best chance for success.  In a way, Jesus himself seems to have echoed this notion, having on one occasion told his mother “My hour has not yet come.”  John 2:4; see John 7:6. .  Later, in the Upper Room with the disciples, he said, “Father, the hour has come.”  John 17:1.  At a minimum, Jesus had a keen sense of divine time, and of working within God’s chronology.

The Teacher suggests that both within our lives, and within time itself, creation moves toward a kind of equilibrium.  The teacher also struggled, as many of us do, with questions about the real point of our existence, about the meaning of our sorrows and our joys.  Throughout all the seasons of our lives, God remains the only constant, and God alone remains sovereign.  Jesus announced that quite clearly when He told us, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near ….”  Mark 1:15.  (Interestingly, these are the very first words the Savior speaks in Mark’s Gospel.) 

Although we struggle and strive, our efforts are mere vanities, as though we were “chasing after the wind.”  Eccles. 4: 16. None of our efforts will add to or subtract from God’s work.  As Rabbi Heschel taught, we will not be able to locate the meaning of our lives abstracted or apart from God.  As the Teacher observed, most of our work, and almost of all of the things we worry about, will pass away.  He tells us, however, that “whatever God does endures forever.”  Because we know that God loves us, we know that His love for us therefore will live forever.  In that, we find the good news, the Gospel.

May we feel that love today and throughout our time,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Touch Me and See

While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”  Luke 24:36b-48.

Today, we encounter the Risen Christ in the Gospel of St. Luke. This passage follows directly after the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  As is true of so many stories of encounters with Jesus after the resurrection, the disciples do not appear to recognize Jesus immediately, and “thought they were seeing a ghost”.  In the Emmaus story, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  Luke 24:16.

We’re left with the impression that there was something about the resurrected Jesus which was contiguous, and yet discontiguous with the man they knew.  While they struggled with the apparent discontinuity, at times this resurrected Jesus seemed quite familiar.  The resurrected Lord could be apprehended, but always escaped both recognition and understanding.  And yet, He bore the marks of his entry into human history; the scars bearing witness to His torture were unmistakable.

Just as the wounded Christ still bears the marks of human history, for the disciples, the trauma of the cross still remained brutally fresh.  He bore the marks of death, but had vacated the tomb.  The resurrected Jesus proved that death itself was nothing but an empty shell which could not separate us from the Source of Life.

Jesus offered to the disciples exactly what he offers to us today.  He told them, “Peace be with you.”  He offered them the peace that comes with knowing their friend still lived, and this wasn’t some ghost.  He showed them that He was “flesh and bone” and he ate some fish with them.  And lots of folks correctly point out that Jesus did this to assure them that he wasn’t simply a spiritual apparition, that He was real.   While that’s certainly true, I think it misses a big part of the story and the import of that broiled fish.

We remember that in the 22nd chapter of Luke, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, asking that we celebrate the Eucharist in His memory.  He told the disciples that he would neither eat nor “drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Luke 22:18.  Thus, when Jesus dines with his disciples on the road to Emmaus and in this passage, He announces the arrival of God’s kingdom.  He calls the disciples as witnesses, not only to His bodily resurrection, but also to the inauguration of the kingdom He spoke about so often while He walked among them.  In the language of an everyday meal, He told them the reign of God had begun, and invited them to share in it.  Thus, he directs them to share the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins to everyone.

Of course, one passage from this reading resonates particularly with me.  Having lived through the bone-chilling barbarity of the crucifixion, the confusion of confronting their resurrected rabbi, Jesus offers a simple prayer for his disciples:  “Peace be with you.”  The disciples surely felt a miasma of emotions:  terror, shame, failure, regret and doubt.  Although escaping comprehension, Jesus offered them a bit of sanctuary within that simple shalom.

Luke describes the disciples thus:  “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering….”  I think that description applies to many of us who have had a variety of encounters with Christ, and still wonder.  Even the very faithful are sometimes very fearful.  And yet, Jesus calls such people (people like you and me) to be His witnesses.   I hope and pray that as we touch Him and see, that same peace Jesus offered to His followers arises within each of us.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

What Was From the Beginning

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us– we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.  1 John 1-2:2.

Already within a generation or two of Jesus’ life, questions arose within the Christian community about the reality of the experience of Jesus.  Some had begun to question His humanity, others questioned His divinity, and many questioned exactly what this all meant.  In today’s reading from the Lectionary, St. John wrote to address those concerns, writing in the shadow of the Cross.

First, he assured his audience that Jesus was a very real human person.  He writes about the Jesus that was seen “and touched with our hands.”  John’s letter offers a deeply incarnational theology. For this reason, this passage complements the reading from John’s Gospel, which I’ve previously written about (here).  St. John describes Jesus as the “word of life”, and we hear the echoes of the opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.”

John writes to assure that community, and us, that the resurrection involved a very tangible, physical reality.  John and the apostles shared in that divine life.    In that remarkable moment, the spiritual world and the physical world collided.  St. John tells us that this union, that fellowship, remains available to us all.

He addresses a couple of false claims that circulated throughout the Christian community at the time.  The first of these was the contention that sin was unimportant.  To this first claim, St. John responded that we cannot claim our share in God’s fellowship if we walk in sin.  Life with Christ, walking with Christ, will require that we walk in the light, and turn away from the darkness.

Secondly, John addresses the notion that of how our relationship with Christ (our fellowship) will change our lives.  Christianity does not inoculate us from sin.  Rather, “walking in the light” will expose our failures and open a path toward the grace of forgiveness.  Thus, St. John notes that we’re fooling ourselves if we deny our sin.  “If we confess our sins,” however, “he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

A number of scriptural passages refer to Jesus’ role as the judge of the world.  John offers a more comforting view of Christ:  that of an advocate.  Advocate may have had legal connotations, suggesting Jesus arguing for us as an attorney might do.  I’m inclined, however, to think of Jesus more as a friend who’s been down this road and has my back.

1 John, perhaps more than any other epistle in the Bible, is a love letter.  St. John wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” 1 John 4:7-9.

The Easter message  echoes throughout St. John’s letter.  He offers us a vision of Jesus welcoming us home, always ready to forgive, always ready to make a place for us.  We need only ask for it, and God’s mercy will fall down around us like a mighty river.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Unblemished, Unqualified Mercy

But when a man with all his resolution rises up from his sins and turns wholly away from them, our faithful God then acts as if he had never fallen into sins.  For all his sins, God will not allow him for one moment to suffer.  Were they as many as all men have ever committed, God will never allow him to suffer for this.  With this man God can use all the simple tenderness that he has ever shown toward created beings.  If he now finds the man ready to be different, he will have no regard for what he used to be.  God is a God of the present.  Meister Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment (Counsel 12).

My Dominican brother, Meister Eckhart, lived from around 1260 to about 1327.  A teacher, a preacher, a mystic and a theologian, he wrote on the subjects of metaphysics and spiritual psychology.  Along with St. Bede the Venerable and St. Anselm, he serves as an icon of the intellectual spirit of the medieval period.  Like many who challenged the Church to think in fresh ways, he paid a heavy price for his ideas.  The Franciscan-led Inquisition charged Eckhart with heresy, although he apparently died before the verdict.

In this passage, Meister Eckhart writes about the stunning nature of God’s forgiveness, offering us an appropriate Lenten reflection.  Most of us are accustomed to thinking of forgiveness the way it works in the world.  The forgiveness of our brothers and sisters is often reluctant, half-hearted, and  incomplete.  Eckhart assures us that God’s forgiveness operates immediately and without reservation.

We often struggle with this notion, just as we strain against the idea of the “good thief” who was crucified alongside Jesus.  Jesus assured him, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke 23: 43.  There’s something about this last-minute conversion that we really struggle with.  After an entire lifetime mired in sin, as death approaches, the notion that one can turn things around upsets our sense of fairness.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) similarly challenge our notion of equity.  Like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal, this just doesn’t seem right to us.  As Eckhart points out, however, God will not refuse those who repent with all their resolution.  Our instinct tells us there’s got to be some penalty for all that history of sin and disobedience.  Meister Eckhart answers that God is just not interested in “all that history.”

Mother Teresa said, “We need lots of love to forgive, and we need lots of humility to forget.  It is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also.  As long as we cannot forget we really have not forgiven fully.”  We pray for God to forgive us as we forgive those who’ve harmed us.  As we live into the Christian life, we encounter in God’s kingdom something much richer and more loving than fairness or justice.  We find mercy and grace.  If we will only place our feet in this water, the river of forgiveness will sweep us away.

Most of us will find this notion of complete forgiveness terribly challenging.  We struggle to let go of past wrongs and insults.  We strain to share the grace of the present moment.   It’s not an easy way; it’s the way of the Cross.

Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Greater Danger

We see also that the greater danger does not come from outside us.  It comes from within.  It comes from our very selves.  The enemy is within us.  Within us is the very progenitor of our error; within us, I say, dwells our adversary.  Hence, we must examine our aims, explore the habits of our minds, be watchful over our thoughts and over the desires of our heart.
Let us therefore not seek for causes outside ourselves nor blame others for them.  Let us acknowledge our guilt.  For we must willingly attribute to ourselves, not to others, whatever evil we can avoid doing when we so choose.  St. Ambrose (Bishop of Milan), The Six Days of Creation 1, 31-32.

Again, I found this bit of wisdom in the Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church.  St. Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan, and lived in the fourth century.  He fought against the Arian heresy (which held that Jesus had not existed eternally and was subordinate to God the Father).  He often stood against imperial authority and was one of the four original Doctors of the Church.

Ambrose rightly points to one of our great shortcomings:  our willingness to justify ourselves by blaming others.  It’s a very old problem, dating back to the first sin recorded in Scripture.  When God asks Adam whether he has eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam replies:  “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate.”  Gen. 3:12.  Adam thus inaugurates our primary strategy for dealing with sin:  justifying ourselves by spreading the blame.  In essence, Adam said that Eve bore the real responsibility for this offense, along with God who gave her to him.

Scripture offers a very clear witness on this point.  Jesus asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’seye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”  Luke 6:41.  Perhaps more to the point, St. John reminds us:  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  1 John 1: 8-9.

Our desperate efforts to justify what we’ve done, to justify ourselves before the Almighty, place our souls in grave peril.  Christ invites us to drink from the cup of forgiveness, and yet we turn away and deny that we are thirsty.  As C.S. Lewis observed:  “We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument…Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege.” We want so fiercely to be “good” people, and perhaps even more frantically to appear to be “good” people.  I think in part we feel this way because we do not really trust in God’s infinite capacity to love and forgive. 

I wonder, at our core, how many of us really trust God?  The psalmist wrote that our Father would not refuse a broken and contrite heart.  The real risk to our spiritual lives lies, as St. Ambrose observed, lies in our stubborn insistence on externalizing evil, rather than recognizing the ways in which we’ve separated ourselves from God.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Life and Death Decisions

On August 19, 1989, Mark MacPhail, a former Army Ranger, worked for the Savannah Police Deparment. That night, with his wife and baby daughter at home, MacPhail was working as an off-duty as a security guard in a Burger King restaurant. When MacPhail learned of a man being assaulted in the parking lot, he intervened to defend the victim. Seven witnesses testified that they had seen Troy Anthony Davis shoot MacPhail, and two others testified that Davis had confessed to the murder. Davis, a black man, stood accused of killing MacPhail, a white police officer.

Some of the witnesses who testified at trial later recanted their sworn statements. Two of the jurors indicated that had they known 20 years ago of the facts that have surfaced since then, they would have voted differently. Nonetheless, some 20 years after he was originally sentenced to receive the death penalty, the State of Georgia ended Troy Davis’ life on September 21, 2011.

Sometimes, history entangles strange stories together. You see, back on June 7, 1998 James Byrd accepted a ride home from Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer and John King. Mr. Byrd knew the driver, Shawn Berry, from around town. But instead of taking him home, the three men took Mr. Byrd out into the country. They beat him viciously, urinated on him, chained his ankles to their pickup truck and dragged him for three miles. They then went to a barbeque. As you probably know, the incident took place in Jasper, Texas.

In one of those historical ironies, the State of Texas executed Lawrence Brewer on the same day Georgia executed Troy Davis. Brewer, a white supremacist, had previously served time for drug possession and burglary. He had apparently joined a white supremacist gang during this earlier prison term, and it was there that he met John King. When interviewed by the media the day before his execution and asked if he had any remorse, he said “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”

As a lawyer, I think I understand the legal issues in most of these cases, and it’s hard for me to avoid the notion that the death penalty is constitutional. There are also a number of practical issues involved, like the question of deterrence and the relative cost of life imprisonment versus the total costs of carrying out the death penalty. One of those practical issues is the remarkable disparity in the racial application of the death penalty. There’s also the question, in fact the probability, that we have executed several people who were innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted. But I don’t think that answers the question, the bedrock question I’d like us to consider this morning: what kind of people do we want to be?

The scriptural witness in this regard is somewhat ambiguous, forcing us, as Scripture so often does, to struggle with the text and its meaning. Proponents of the death penalty find solace in the commandment of Leviticus: “Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17). (It’s worth noting, however, that the Old Testament similarly provides for the execution of those who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15) or for one who curses one’s parent (Exodus 21:17) and even for a rebellious teenager (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).)

Those who oppose the death penalty can look to the notion that God has reserved vengeance for himself (Rom. 12:19). We find in the Biblical story of the first murder that God spared Cain’s life, although Abel certainly seems like an innocent victim. Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel records the only time our Savior’s encounter with capital punishment in the case of the woman caught in adultery; and Jesus put a stop to it.

It’s worth observing that there are good people, and there are people of faith, on both sides of this issue. As so often happens, we find that we must struggle with the biblical text on this issue. I think that’s a good thing, because the Bible isn’t a book of recipes that will teach us how to prepare a good life, nor is it an encyclopedia where we can go to look up the “right” answer. In Holy Scripture, God speaks to us in a collection of stories, a narrative about how people struggle to find their sanctification and how we struggle to find ours.

Three overarching themes, however, strongly suggest to me that capital punishment is the wrong answer. The first of these is an understanding of what it means to be human. We are told that we were made imago Dei, “in the image of God.” That probably doesn’t mean that our elbow looks like God’s elbow. But I think it means that all of us have some spark of the divine within, no matter how well we try to hide it. In other words, we are all instances (no matter how blurred) of something sacred and holy.

Secondly, we have the Biblical meta-narrative of God’s reaching again and again to redeem people, not because of their merit but because of His love. This happens over and over in the Bible, often enough that I believe God is trying to tell us something. We see it in the story of Cain, in the Exodus (which remains the overarching narrative for the Jewish people), in the story of David, and in the story of Christ’s calling St. Paul. Jesus preached “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1.) While I’m not smart enough to have considered all of the implications of that commandment, I think at a minimum that we are not to judge the content and character of another man’s soul. God knows who can be redeemed, and I do not.

Finally, I oppose the death penalty because I honor the Christian virtue of hope. I am hopeful that God can redeem the even the shame of the murder of James Byrd, and the horror Lawrence Brewer’s unrepentant racism. I am hopeful that God’s love can reach into Brewer’s life, and into mine. I believe in “the means of grace and the hope of glory.” I think capital punishment reflects a despair at the possibility of Christ’s redemptive love reaching into the very darkest places of the human heart, and I am compelled to reject that.

In the final analysis, I think the real question is one posed by Sister Helen Prejean: “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?'” I pray the answer is no, just as I pray for Mark MacPhail, for James Byrd, for Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Laying Down Our Arms

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Luke 15: 18-19.

Without a doubt, the story of the Prodigal Son is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, in part because it provides a well from which I can always drink.

In the last post, we considered the many ways we try to bargain with God. I believe our sin provides one of the clearest examples of this. We try and dicker with the Almighty: “Well, I may have fudged on my taxes, but look at how often I’ve gone to church.” Or, “I may have driven my car when I was drunk, but no one got hurt, and that’s not something you really care about, is it God?” Part of the problem here is that we’ve begun to see sin as doing something naughty, or as a minor punch list item that we need to tend to before we can consider our lives complete. That vision of sin overlooks its fundamental nature: sin separates us from God. We need to re-think the nature of sin, regarding it as something that moves us further away from the source of our lives, making it harder and harder to return home.

The story of the prodigal son teaches exactly that lesson. The son wrongfully asks his father for inheritance while the father is still living. (In the culture of that day, such a request would amount to telling your father, “I wish you were dead.”) The son then goes to “a distant country.” I don’t think that’s a coincidence, nor do I think Jesus is just using a narrative device. I think Jesus is teaching us something fundamental about the nature of sin. Our sin always drives us away from our heavenly Father. And one of the truly horrific things about sin lies in how easy it is, once we’ve taken that first step, to keep moving further and further away. We find ourselves in places where it seems truly impossible to ever get back home.

But Jesus teaches us about the way home in the story of the Prodigal Son. It starts with his recognition, while still in that distant country, that he nothing about his life works anymore, and that he has become a stranger even to himself. He tells himself to get up and return to his father and tell him: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son….” The recognition of his own betrayal of his father leads the prodigal to a humility and a recognition of broken bonds. He makes no excuses for himself; he offers no defenses for what he has done.

The parable teaches us that the path back home begins with the recognition that our sins aren’t minor flaws that require a few slight adjustments. Rather, as Newman observed, through the sins which separate us from God, we have become rebels and must “lay down [our] arms.” As Newman also noted, “The most noble repentance (if a fallen being can be noble in his fall), the most decorous conduct in a conscious sinner, is an unconditional surrender of himself to God—not a bargaining about terms, not a scheming (so to call it) to be received back again, but an instant surrender of himself in the first instance.” J.H. Newman, Parochial & Plain Sermons (vol. 3, Sermon 7).

There’s nothing easy about this. None of us wants to give up on the notion of defending ourselves, of building a case for what we did and why. We want to convince God that it wasn’t so bad or that we had good reasons for what we’ve done: that we really are good people. That’s part of the reason why the Church has stressed the virtue of humility for centuries. It’s the only way we’ll learn to trust God, and trust that He will always take us back. The Psalmist noted that we can’t bargain or dicker with God; we can’t earn our way back into our home with our sacrifices. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. ” Ps. 51.

My prayer for you and for me is that we learn to trust God and lay down our arms. What would the world look like if we did that? I suspect it would look a lot more like the Kingdom.

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis