The Debate in Christianity on Capitol Punishment

Today in the news we hear of how the Arizona convicted murderer Joseph Wood seemed to have suffered over 100 minutes during his execution by lethal injection before he finally died. It is quite a story that it seems to be getting harder and harder for the state to execute its criminals because the drugs that used to be so effective in killing are unavailable now.  Drug makers have either ceased production of them or simply refuse to sell them because they object to their use in these executions.

Capitol punishment has been a hot topic for many decades of course, but I am not really sure that people are all that aware of the philosophical debate generally, or the debate among Christians. Most people I think determine their view on the death sentence by how they “feel” about it… But it is really quite a fascinating topic if we stop to learn more – with good points on both sides!

The debate over capitol punishment actually has broader implications – implications for the whole of our criminal justice system. The question at issue is “What is the aim of our criminal justice system?” The historic view of almost every culture and society has emphasized the “justice” issue. If a crime has been committed then the purpose of any sentence is to administer punishment. This view has been called “Retributionism”. Sounds nice and simple.

But then in the last couple centuries another idea has begun to gain a lot of traction. This idea is that the main aim of the justice system is not so much punishment, but “rehabilitation”. A couple years ago I visited the Eastern Pennsylvania State Penitentiary in Philadelphia – and the history lesson there was summed up in its name “Penitentiary”. It was where criminals were to come and learn to be “penitent”, to repent of their sin and learn to reform their lives. Its original “Rehabilitationism” vision was not so much punish criminals, but to reform them and make them into responsible citizens. This view came out of the “Enlightenment” and a high view of human nature and the capacity for the will of man to change.

So which view is more Christian? Some Christians would argue that the main point of the Bible is that God hates death and that he loves mercy. It is plain that God certainly desires the reformation of the heart life through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. They would point to places in the scripture where God spared the murderer – such as with Cain and King David. But the Retributionist Christian certainly has lots of scripture to back their view up as well. Certainly capitol punishment was included in the laws given by God that governed the early Israelite nation. And certainly St. Paul admonished all Christians to respect the sword of the government that was instituted by God to keep the peace in the land.

I personally take the view that although God certainly does desire every chance for repentance and loves mercy, and that every opportunity should be taken to minister to the criminal so that he might repent and reform his life, all this does not take away from the principal of justice in the Kingdom of the Left (Civil realm) and that the government and society have every “right” to implement capitol punishment. HOWEVER: I also take the view that capitol punishment is not a requirement of government and that in mercy we might desire to cease its practice. I suppose the one thing that makes me hesitate the most in being a vocal advocate for it is that our Justice System is so fallible. The sinful and often corrupt law enforcement and Judicial system has proved so incredibly wrong so many times that you have to suspect that almost any conviction is suspect. It is so very difficult for me to think about how many people have been wrongly executed.

Ultimately with this and so many of our vexing problems in life, the reality is that there is most definitely no “good” answer. We desperately need good sound thinking on the subject, but we also need a fleeing to the Savior who loves us even though we can’t get a handle on life. Even the fact that we even NEED a criminal justice system is sobering! It drives me to repentance and love for my savior Jesus the Christ!

Ships Passing In the Night – Guns Blazing?

It was always encouraged in the seminary that every pastor should have relationships outside of the church. Although I have never had hugely important social outlets outside the church, for the last few years I have been a member of a local club of interest. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could. And I did enjoy it. It was important for me. I enjoyed it even though people generally don’t know how to handle being “friends” with a pastor. I felt the club members’ pain, and I gave them credit for at least trying to be nice to me – especially if they were not particularly religious themselves.

But something really sad has happened over just the last few months. With the rise of the gay rights issue, my relationships with several members of the club have just really soured. The problem started, of course, because being “friends” on Facebook exposes me to many of their views on marriage and their bolder and bolder expressions of anger and outward contempt toward the Christian faith and its opposition to “gay marriage”. But then, being the Christian fool that I am, I attempted to at least give something of a considered defense of our Christian faith and life. I tried valiantly to do this in a very humble way – but it was to absolutely terrible affect. This was so disappointing for me. It was disappointing not because I dreamed of actually changing the minds of these younger and seemingly quite articulate and educated individuals. It was disappointing because all I wanted to do was help them come to a basic understanding as to WHY a Christian could think the way he does on the issue. I failed miserably!

A few things disturbed me especially. Firstly, the basic tenants of Christianity were so incredibly foreign to the minds of these individuals. Sinful human nature, Repentance and Good Works, Grace, Salvation, Heaven, Hell – so much of it was completely misunderstood. Often it was like they had never even heard of these concepts.

Of course that was bad enough for me to come to grips with. But the worst of it was that they either didn’t have the mental framework or conceptual tools to understand the Christian faith, or they just so truly hated anything that smacked of religion that they simply could not – or would not – understand it. Nor could they consider how they might live alongside of someone who thought like a Christian. You get the distinct feeling that for some of them a Christian was trash and needed to be discarded.

Finally, the third issue that disturbed me was that absolutely no one else had anything to say in support of my attempts to dialogue and explain. Plenty of others had plenty to say about Christians (i.e. me) being bigots, etc., but no other person in all my discussions defended a Godly and reasonable point of view along with me. I heard someone today talk about a “silent majority” who are not well equipped to make a defense of what they believe… But at this moment, I am not sure I feel that is a good explanation – even if it is true.

This whole experience has been vexing for me. Not only do I just mourn for lost friendship, but I am struggling over how I am to live my very public faith out in the world where it is not accepted. How can I have meaningful relationships with those outside the church? The huge problem we have in our nation today is that we are becoming more and more polarized in our thinking and beliefs… and for some reason we can’t seem to communicate and understand each other. You would think that technology like Facebook would be a really great at bringing the world together. Unfortunately, studies have shown that, left to our own devices, people will gather only Facebook “friends” who have similar views and concerns. I know this to be true for myself! We have failed in the skills of both understanding each other – and disagreeing with each other!

I do believe it is important to have friends outside the church… But what are the limits? Sometimes I have no heart to go to another club meeting when it has been plainly said by a number of them how they feel about Christians. What am I to do when they do not want to be friends with me? It is true that Jesus said he came not to bring peace, but the sword and division… but am I really ready for that truth of the name of Jesus to come true? Perhaps I should I just be a “secret” Christian and just keep all my beliefs to myself? Haha… Now THAT will be the day! But this is my prayer… that the Lord help us in this difficult time to live with each other!

Observations at a High School Honor’s Banquet

My dear daughter Hannah is graduating in a couple weeks and earlier this evening we went to the award’s banquet. It was actually a fine affair and it should have been an encouragement to the top students of the High School. Some interesting things stood out for me as I observed the proceedings…

1) Wonder Women rule! Yes indeed. Eight out of ten students of the month were girls. Top five GPA scores were all owned by the girls. By far the most awards were given to girls. What was even more interesting is that many of the top girls were going on to study science. You hate to say anything that could be seen as taking away from all this excellence. But, there really is something pitiful about the fact that boys are so left behind. The consensus in my family is that there are plenty of smart boys, but many are just plain lazy, or they simply have no interest in their studies.

2) Vocational survey:

Out of all the 35 students honored tonight I counted not one going on to study the humanities (languages, literature, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts, history, anthropology, area studies, communication studies, cultural studies, law and linguistics) except Hannah (music).

Out of all the 35 students I don’t think there were any going into human service vocations, but two were going into teaching (including Hannah), three into nursing, two into physician assistant, two into pharmacy, and two into psychology.

Hannah was the only student going into a church vocation, and that was contrasted with 2 or 3 of the students going into vocations associated with sports management and training, vocations that 30 years ago I don’t even think were heard of.

3) The superintendent of the school district spoke at the end and encouraged the kids to be good leaders in society and to find the vocation they love so that going to “work” would never be a chore. He also encouraged the kids to forget doing what they do for the money. He told them of his mother’s advice to him when someone asked him the question “What do you make?”: She said “Look him straight in the eye and say ‘I make a DIFFERENCE!’” How wonderful is that! Even though I am not expecting anyone will ever remember to say that, I hope they do!

I am not sure exactly what you can draw from all of this, as it is only one school… but I am thinking that these stats are fairly pedestrian and I just wish that there was more “imagination” in the goals of these kids. The vocations that demonstrate beauty and life such as the arts and humanities are so lacking. We need to light a fire in our children’s hearts and minds!  The exception to these pedestrian results is those top girls who were going into the sciences. Kudos to them! And… of course I AM thankful there is my lovely Hannah, who herself truly excelled in the sciences and math, but has her eyes presently set on making music to the Lord and sharing its joys with so many! She is making a huge difference with a fabulous imagination!

Understanding and Dealing with Race

Recently there has been a lot of noise in the media about the owner of an NBA team for taped (private) comments he made to his mistress that were mysteriously “leaked”. These comments demonstrated an attitude toward African Americans that horrified the general populace and disgraced the NBA. They were ironic because the vast majority of this owner’s very team members is African American – and he makes millions of dollars off of them. The end result is that the NBA has banned him for life to have anything to do with the NBA (can’t even go to a game) and they are going to force him to sell the team.

But we are not being honest with ourselves in our outrage. It is a sad fact that no matter what we do as individuals and governments, no matter our high and good ideals to win the battle against racism, we are never going to be rid of this great division in society.

We publicly stand aghast at what people say out loud, but the reality is we all are guilty. We say and think we aren’t racist, but all the studies show that we actually are. Every one of us. We treat people who are different from us differently. I know I certainly do – even though I hate it. And mostly we treat others for the worse, not the better.

Then the other day I was reading another blogger and he was reflecting on the matter differently than I had ever thought. I had always just viewed the fact of different races as something neutral. But if we understand the different races that are located in the different corners of the world are connected with the Fall of Man into sin and the division and dispersion of humanity after attempting to build the Tower of Babel, we can conclude that the races we have are a direct result of sin and the punishment of God on humanity. Perhaps we can be brave and even associate the different racial characteristics and differences (even besides skin color) to this curse of God.

Now, of course this does not somehow give any of us excuse for racism! But maybe this understanding will give us the liberty to examine our own heart and repent of our sin without somehow thinking that the next fellow has somehow overcome racism. It will allow us to accept that perhaps our different races are (generally speaking) differently gifted (to put it positively). What it does is allows us to help each other forgive our neighbor who struggles with racism just like we do. And yes, as always, it points us to our Savior Jesus Christ who loves to forgive us.

A Call For Action on Memorial Day

On Memorial Day I am thankful for those who have sacrificed their lives for the privilege to live in this country. Heroes they are. But what about the rest of us? Are we letting them down as citizens? What did they fight for? I for one am calling on everyone to be laying down our lives every day for each other and our country – instead of simply living for ourselves as we are so prone to do.

Ultimately, of course, Christians love to serve their country because they love The Lord and because thy are members of a far greater kingdom – the Kingdom of God. They love to serve their fellow man and sacrifice their lives because of the sacrifice made for them by their Lord and Savior. May God bless us all with grace and strength for the day – and love and devotion to our fellow man within the borders of our country – and most certainly then beyond!

If there needs to be someone who falls on the battlefield for my well being and for the sake of peace and order – I want him/her to know that this country is grounded in Godly virtue and noble lives of service. It starts with each of us in repentance and a fleeing to Christ! May God help us!

There is a Good Kind of Discrimination!

Oh, the agony of our nation as we contort ourselves into knots trying to get to the bottom of the sexual orientation “rights” issue.

The latest fight has to do with new laws being pushed to protect those who, “on religious grounds,” refuse to do business with the homosexual community.  The proponents of these laws argue that what is at stake is the freedom of religion:  a matter not only of having an opportunity to worship the god of choice, but, fundamentally, the ability to freely live out and practice one’s religion – and not be forced to go against it.  The opponents of these laws are furious because they view these laws as allowing discrimination against the gay/lesbian community.  To them it is an issue of “civil rights” and “equality”.

So what is the answer to all this mess?  What we really need in this country are people who can discriminate!   To be discriminating has more than one meaning.  The negative meaning of discrimination is the treating of certain people groups unfairly on the basis of prejudice.  But “discriminate” also (positively) means to make fine distinctions and judgments.  We all need to take a breath and focus for just a moment.

The important distinction that needs to be clear (the one that is not being made by anyone in the mainstream media that I have heard) is that this really has nothing (or should have nothing) to do with gay people, but everything to do with the services and products being provided.  As a Christian photographer, for instance, I have no problem serving a homosexual person.  If a gay individual comes to me for a portrait session, I will be so very happy to oblige.  Why would I not?  However, if a gay couple asked me to photograph their wedding, I certainly would appreciate having permission to say “No thank you.” without being sued and taken to court.  When I shoot a wedding I am definitely taking part in the celebrations.  My photographs are going to be plastered everywhere and my name will definitely be associated with something I believe is not according to the will of God.  This is my religion.  I am not a homophobe to say that I do not desire to provide my services for something against my religion.  It is not that I am evil and mean hearted.

To prove the point that the problem is not about doing business with gay people, let us say that a heterosexual mother came in and wanted to sign the contract with me to shoot her gay son’s wedding.  Of course I would still turn the job down – even though she is heterosexual.  It isn’t the “doing business with gays” that is the issue… The issue is providing services that are against one’s religion – no matter who is asking for them.  As a fellow blogger has pointed out:  “Jesus would definitely bake a cake for a gay man’s wedding – to a woman!”

The politics and direction all of this is taking in our nation is quite alarming.  For Christians it really is critical that we communicate these things clearly and winsomely in our every day lives as well in the arenas of power.  If individuals and businesses lose their right to practice their religion (by the dictates of the government), we really will be living in a tyranny, and we can well imagine that the church will not be far behind.

Prejudicial discrimination against anyone will only reward us with hatred and dysfunction in our human family.  But there is the most blessed reward of the good kind of discrimination.  If we can just stop our recriminations, take a breath, and understand this properly, there is just a sliver of hope that some reasonable understanding of each other might come about, some prospect of a happy consensus on this issue.  We could at least try!

Respect for Human Life

This morning I was privileged to attend the annual Respect for Human Life Prayer Breakfast held here in Scranton. I have attended this (mostly Catholic) event previously, but not in a few years. A week or so ago I got a call from one of the organizers and asked if I might be willing to be the event photographer. I was very happy to have an excuse to attend since, in the end, I didn’t get to the March for Life in Washington DC this year. It was a lot of fun to be shooting my camera off, but I was much more thankful for the powerful speakers and the fellowship of like minded folks. My big regret was that I didn’t bring anyone else with me.

A few reflections and learnings:

+ David Madeira (radio show host) spoke about the Devil and how he (the Devil) hates babies. Yes. Hates them. Hadn’t thought about that before. But what else can the Devil do? Can he love anything? Can he do anything but hate those who are created in the image of GOD? And how it GRIEVES the Father in Heaven when the Devil convinces a mother to turn against her own baby and snuff it’s precious life out!

+ The keynote speaker was Dr. Anthony Levatino, a doctor from Arizona, who recounted his life story and how he came to be an ardent defender of the unborn. It was quite the account. As a doctor he spent years performing hundreds and hundreds of abortions (and he explained in graphic details the horror that an abortion really is.) He recounted how he and his wife, as a young couple, struggled to have a baby. He shared how he sent her to all the best fertility doctors and spent thousands of dollars trying to adopt a child… all the while, day after day, he was literally ripping limbs off of living babies and crushing their sculls. Ultimately it actually worked out that instead of performing an abortion on one of his patients, he convinced her to carry the infant to term and he and his wife adopted it. And then a month after their adoption was final, his wife became pregnant! But even at this point, he did not stop performing abortions altogether. What finally made him come to his senses was when his precious six year old daughter ran into the street outside his house and was hit and killed by a car. Life is so precious. Children are gifts from God. This is the undeniable truth.

Dr. Levantino had a powerful message and he challenged every one of the 550 in attendance to understand the evil that abortion really is. What impressed me was the courage that this man had to disavow and admit his sin after killing so many infants by his own hand! Who are we when we can stand aside and not be strong and courageous in pleading for those who have no voice? He spoke that old but true line: “How many of you believe that with God’s help we can accomplish anything? Well… then we need to start acting like we believe it!”

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you… (Jeremiah 1:5)