Tag Archives: Forgiveness

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

 

September 11

It was, by all accounts, a beautiful late summer morning.  The temperatures were in the upper sixties, and the sun shone brightly against a brilliant blue sky.  At 8:46, American flight 11 traveling from Boston to Los Angeles crashed into the North Tower.  There were 91 passengers aboard.  At 9:03, United Airlines flight number 175 flew into the South Tower.  It carried 65 passengers, as it travelled from Logan Airport to  Los Angeles.  Then, at 9:30, American Airlines flight 77, which carried 64 passengers, crashed into the Pentagon. A total 2,996 people died, including the 19 hijackers.  At 10:10 a.m., United Airlines flight 93 crashed in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing all 44 passengers aboard.

I thought we might consider those events ten years ago, about the consequences of that day, and particularly the changes in our spiritual lives as a result of that morning.  Among those consequences, our nation has been at war for the last ten years.  4,442 soldiers gave their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and over 1,600 died in Operation Enduring Freedom.  It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of civilian casualties of these wars, but most calculations range somewhere between 150,000 and 1.2 million.  Estimates of the costs of these wars range between one and three trillion dollars, and they continue to mount.

We mourn the deaths of the 2,996 Americans who lost their lives ten years ago, and we may also mourn the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who have died since then.  We might also mourn the shameless treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and the wisdom of a place like Guantanamo Bay.  We might mourn the loss of our civil liberties in the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Services Act, which now authorizes searches of emails and wiretapping without judicial review.  We actually engaged in a national debate about whether torture was acceptable, and somehow that debate seemed to hinge on a cost-benefit analysis.

The September 11 attacks led to a remarkable resurgence of faith, or at least faithful activity.  People across the nation filled our churches and rediscovered a need for a spiritual answer to a very worldly problem.  We are right to wonder why people turn to God in times of crisis, but cannot sustain that conversion.  The biblical witness, however, teaches that we have been doing that for thousands of years.  Somehow, as our fears are calmed and our wounds are bound, our spiritual indifference resumes.  While time has healed some of those wounds, we have also acquired a sort of national amnesia about how sorrowful, broken and vulnerable we felt.

One of the other consequences of that day is our national fear, and perhaps prejudice, of those who practice the Muslim faith.  I’m not sure who the boogeyman was on September the 10th, but after September 11, he clearly had a middle-eastern face.  Somehow, these men became “Muslim terrorists,” although we did not use the term “Christian terrorists” to describe the Ku Klux Klan.  As Kofi Anan, has observed so wisely, the problem lies “not with the faith but with the faithful.”

We might look to the reflection of the Archbishop of Washington on this subject.  He said:

All violent acts of injustice, acts of destruction, and the taking of innocent life find their origin in the attitudes of the human heart. Evil dwells within. Jesus told us it is not what enters in from outside that defiles a person but the things that come from within are what defile. (Mark 7:15).

The great cosmic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between peace and war, between harmony and violence, between love and hatred, begins first in each human heart, is waged there – and true peace depends on the outcome.

I am deeply troubled by the observation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “We failed the biggest test posed by the 9/11 outrage: In our anger and dismay we failed to recognize our common humanity, that we are made for love and that acts such as those committed on that day are an aberration.”

There’s a certain irony in the name of the massive bureaucracy we created in the wake of September 11:  the Department of Homeland Security.  To create that department and fund our wars, we have incurred a national debt of trillions of dollars.  We might well ask about the security risks posed by that debt.  I suspect the people of Jericho felt very secure behind their walls, and the Philistines probably felt very safe with Goliath on their side.  The Egyptians probably rightly thought of themselves as a superpower as they approached the Red Sea.

I wonder if we really ever will achieve security, and I think the Scriptural witness suggests that our only security, our only real safety, lies in God.   Our spiritual efforts to move forward and get past that day may require us to take a great many risks.  Then again, the Cross is full of just such risks.

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis