The Death Penalty and The United Methodist Church

In addition to being proud of my state, I am proud to be part of a denomination that takes a strong stance against the death penalty.

On the subject of capital punishment, The United Methodist Church says:

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

This powerful and prophetic stance of my denomination reflects both our deep commitment to grace– the possibility that people can be transformed and forgiven, even after the most terrible actions, and our commitment to restorative justice– the belief that healing for the victims, survivors, and perpetrators of violence comes not through punishment and perpetuating the cycles of anger, pain, and violence, but through building new life and new relationship out of the ashes of past injury. Of restorative justice, we say:

Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community. Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.
(2008 UMC Book of Discipline, accessed online here)

Most importantly, both the opposition to capital punishment and the practice of restorative justice stand in the legacy of the biblical witness and the life and teachings of Jesus, and are echoed by the giants of non-violence (Christian and not) such as Gandhi and King. For Christians in general and United Methodists in particular, Christ’s example of radical forgiveness is a challenge and a model toward which we strive. For those who consider themselves non religious or participants in other spiritual and religious traditions, the witness of great moral teachers and the desire to live with compassion and love lead us in the same direction.

People of faith and believers in love have an opportunity to speak a powerful word of challenge to the world: it is not easy to forgive and to find healing and restoration after terrible violence, but it is the hope to which we are called.

Justice with Temperance (the Death Penalty and our Better Angels)

Melissa and Ty Jenkins, photo accessed from WCAX.com

I’m proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty. I’m a staunch pacifist, and I believe that nonviolence isn’t weakness, but requires profound strength. It is by no means easy.

Vermont State Police arrested a couple yesterday, and charged them with second degree murder in the death of Melissa Jenkins. Allen and Patricia Prue allegedly worked together to lure Miss Jenkins out of her home, calling to ask her for assistance with their vehicle. Mr. Prue confessed to strangling the young woman outside her vehicle and then the couple allegedly worked together to dispose of her body and other evidence.

What they have done is beyond belief, defies understanding. It literally disgusts me. There’s no apparent motive,  just deranged behavior, cold-blooded and brutal slaughter. It’s inhuman. On the simplest, most reactionary level of myself, I want to see them suffer for what they did to Melissa and to her son, Ty.

But wanting them to suffer and actually advocating for it, making it happen, are entirely different things. That difference, thin a line as it may be to walk, represents for me the fullness of what it means to live with compassion, temperance, justice, and love. It is what it means to be human and to yearn for the Holy.

The comments sprout up wherever the stories about Melissa Jenkins and the Prues are posted, calling for mob justice for Melissa’s killers (“string them up in the streets!”), advocating torture, hoping for them to be strangled as Miss Jenkins was strangled, and bemoaning the fact that Vermont does not have the death penalty. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone those feelings. They come from our deep sense of moral outrage at a senseless and unthinkable crime. They bubble up out of our shared humanity and the horror of how profoundly the Prues violated the injunction to care for and protect our fellow human beings.

Allen and Patricia Prue, murder suspects in the case of Melissa Jenkins, photo accessed at WCAX.com

But we cannot become the sort of monsters who act out of our most primal instincts. That accomplishes nothing. That doesn’t separate us from the alleged murders.

I categorically oppose the death penalty. My opposition falls into two main categories.

1. The death penalty does not serve any practical purpose. It does not save money to execute criminals as compared to housing them in prisons for the durations of their lives. This is because of the lengthy (and often economically and racially biased) appeals process associated with convicted inmates on death row. Furthermore, it does not deter people from committing murder, as most murders are committed by people who are either criminally insane (and therefore incapable of grasping and being deterred by consequences), or in the heat of passion (and are therefore not thinking about consequences and not deterred by them).

But more importantly in my opinion,

2. The death penalty does not enact justice, and reduces the community seeking justice to the same level as the killers.

It’s not that we are holier-than-thou. We’re not. As I said in my post earlier this week, the fact that we all have to face is that this evil we are confronting, this instinct or propensity toward violence, is in all of us. From that post: “We are the unknown killer[s] on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.” Somewhere deep in our reptilian, fight or flight brains, we all have the potential to be monsters.

What makes us human, what makes us better than our brokenness, is the choice to act not out of that base, reactionary brain. What makes us a human family, a people of faith in something other or more than our own fears and faults, is the choice to live out of love.

We think, in the moment, that vengeance is justice, that it is fair to give to others what they have dished out. Even when we can acknowledge that killing the killers cannot bring back the victims, we can’t help but think it would feel really good to see that kind of retribution served. If everybody in the Northeast Kingdom got to watch the painful execution of Allen and Patricia Prue and then dance around in a modern day Purim ritual, we think that might help us heal. But the truth is, it won’t. Time will help us heal. Compassion will help us heal. Helping Melissa’s family and her son Ty (for example, there is a trust fund set up here) will help us heal. Learning to somehow trust again enough to pull our cars over and lend a helping hand– and I tell you, that will take some time for me– will help us heal.

I said on Monday that there is something stronger than violence and death and despair: Love. Love has the power to pull us up out of the darkness, away from the worst of ourselves. But we have to let it. For people of faith, we have to ask ourselves: if our religion doesn’t make us better people, doesn’t challenge us to rise above instinct, what good is it? If God– whose nature is Love– doesn’t make us more loving, then what sort of god do we serve?

We aren’t any different from the murder suspects unless we choose to be.

Will you join me in calling for justice– seasoned with temperance– for Melissa’s killers?

Spirituality that speaks to the rest of us

I have bad days. Bad weeks, even.

Last week was one such example. I was feeling like “church” was an old, dead concept (I still think this, at least in the way most of us think about church), and that progressives/liberals like myself would have no space whatsoever in the spiritual culture of the future– I even uttered the phrase “Maybe Rick Santorum is right; there are no liberal Christians.” I contemplated entering my backup profession, tending bar, since I would still lend a listening ear, be around people, and have an excuse to mix a mean martini.

But yesterday, more than 3,700 people read a blog post of mine, more than tripling the previous record for most-active day on this blog. And this was not a post about some of the things I normally yammer on about that drum up controversy: homosexuality and abortion and racism and church metrics (hey it drums up *some* controversy).

This was a post about faith. It was a spiritual response to tragedy in my community, and I discussed evil and violence, hope and love, and the need to cling to something stronger and truer than the worst of ourselves: Love, which I name as a synonym for God. I didn’t tone down or hide what I believe and how I understand faith. These are my actual spiritual beliefs.

And apparently, I’m not alone. Like, in a big way not alone. People from my church and other churches, people from my community and other communities, self-professed atheists and agnostics and practitioners of all sorts of different spiritual beliefs read the post, shared the post, emailed and commented and said my words touched them, spoke to them.

And that touched *me.*

Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only ones who thinks faith can be something other than adhering to a set of laws, and screaming those laws at other people until they adhere to them too, that faith is not so much about what we think, but who we are and how we live, and that the things we name as sacred: God, love, the human heart, the gift of the natural world around us, the power and vastness of the cosmos– that these are all really the same thing, and we call them by different names. But in drawing together around the tragedy of Melissa Jenkins’ death, you all have shown me that none of us are alone. In my extended circle of connection, there are more than 4,000 5,000 people (between yesterday and today) who believe in the power and sacredness of love to conquer over fear and pain, like little ripples of hope spreading out. We’re a megachurch without the churchy part, a living body of heart and soul, bound by compassion and tenderness and fragile hope in the face of terror. We represent a new spirituality, one that lifts up the ways we are connected, not the ways we are apart.

You may not dig on Jesus like I do. That’s okay. It’s never been my goal to convert others to what I believe. It is my goal to build connection between hearts and other hearts, and between those hearts and what is holy and sacred and life-giving and true. It is my belief that faith in anything should inspire us to be better versions of ourselves and to live together with more tenderness and compassion and justice. In this tragedy, and in all the tragedies and triumphs to come, you all have reminded me that we are stronger because we are together, and no one who holds on to the hope in Love does so alone.

The Problem of Evil

Photo from Burlington Free Press

The community where I grew up, affectionately known as the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is reeling this morning.

33-year old Melissa Jenkins, a single mom and a high school physics teacher and basketball coach, disappeared Sunday night. Her car was found late in the evening, pulled alongside the road near her house, running, with her two year old son snug and safe in the back seat.

After a day of searching, police announced last night (press conference on WCAX news) that they believe a body found in the woods a few miles away is that of Jenkins (Burlington Free Press article).

I’m trying to place Melissa. She is less than a year older than I (I’ll be 33 in May), and she grew up in Danville, a few towns away, and taught high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, neighboring and rival high school to my own Lyndon Institute. Our sons are almost the same age. I don’t know that we ever crossed paths, but I went to school with one of her cousins.

Nothing is known or released about the circumstances of her disappearance and murder, but one suspicion that fits with a series of disappearances a few years ago in southern Vermont and New Hampshire is that she may have pulled over to help an apparent stranded motorist, leaving her son in the car to check someone or something (family are now suggesting she may have received a phone call from someone she knew, asking for help or requesting that she meet them someplace). That’s a behavior we pride ourselves on in Vermont: stopping to help a person in need. It’s just a random guess, but might explain why a devoted mom was separated from her son, a circumstance that saved the boy’s life.

A friend posted on my facebook wall late last night, asking what “Pastor Becca” would say to people in pain right now. This was my response:

I don’t speak about or preach about evil often. I don’t buy into some dude with horns and a pitchfork, and I don’t think “evil” has anything to do with political parties or contraception or who marries who. But days like today remind me that evil is real. We don’t get to blame some amorphous devil; it lives in us, in places where we thought it could never be. And the story of faith– any faith, really, not just mine– is that evil doesn’t have the last say. Death and violence and brokenness and grief and pain overwhelm us for a time, but they don’t win. They don’t get the last word. There is something more powerful, more true. I call it Love, which is just another synonym for God in my book.

Our news these past couple of weeks has been filled with violence and tragedy, and as those in the Christian faith prepare for Holy Week, we walk headlong into a story of violence and tragedy. Yes, there is hope at the end, an empty tomb, an open sky. But first there is a mob, a betrayal of trust, a denial of love, a mock trial, a beating, a gruesome execution. Before we revel in the glory of Love triumphant, we must face the darkness of evil. Not evil personified in a person or thing. Evil that lives in us.

It doesn’t matter if a person is 17 or 33, a teacher, a student, or an Afghani civilian, with a baby in the backseat, skittles in the pocket, or carrying a jug of water. No one deserves to die. And the suffering inflicted on them is not some random disaster, but is human evil, the worst of ourselves.

Yes, we are Trayvon Martin. We are Melissa Jenkins. We are the Afghani children. But we are also the soldier who cracks under pressure, firing into a group of his allies. We are the neighborhood watchman, overzealous in pursuit of his vision of justice, harboring prejudices about skin color and clothing choices. We are the unknown killer on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.

I don’t believe in a talking snake and a tempting fruit. I see all the evidence I need to of a fallen humanity, desperately in need of love, grace, and a way to start again.

This is the problem of evil. It is not God’s problem, but ours. It is not God’s creation, but ours. It lives in us; it maims and kills through us. We are a broken, brutal people, and we need a light of hope.

The story of faith– of any faith– is that there is something stronger, truer, deeper, than the darkness that lurks in our communities, our safe places, our very selves. There is something we can hold on to, to pull us back out of the pain and grief and anger and fear. There is something that has the last say over death and violence and despair.

I name that something. Its nature and name: Love.

Sermon: Heart Transplant

“Heart Transplant”

(March 25, 2012) Submitting oneself to a heart transplant procedure must be a terrifying thing, and submitting ourselves to God’s heart transplant and transformation is also daunting. It requires a death of the old so that something new can be born. Are we ready to have new hearts? (John 12:20-26Psalm 51:1-12, Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Letter to the Editor– Associated Press

An article appeared yesterday in the Associated Press with a headline that I felt was way off. Here is my letter to the editor of the AP.

Photo of Trayvon Martin (accessed from abcnews.com)

Dear Editor,

I am writing to express my disappointment and anger over a very poorly worded headline “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or good neighbor?” article by Mike Schneider, published 3/21/2012.

It seems to me that the outrage and tremendous sorrow that this case has generated stems not from questions about the confessed shooter’s vigilantism or neighborliness, but whether or not that vigilantism tipped over into racially motivated and unprovoked killing. A vigilante, by definition, is a person who takes it upon him or herself to suppress or punish crime outside the sphere of law enforcement (Miriam-Webster). This term indicates taking the law into one’s own hands *when a crime is being committed or is about to be committed.* In the case of the slaughter of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, unfolding evidence– which was in the public eye yesterday prior to the publishing of this article– reveals that this young man neither committed nor was about to commit any crime. In fact, he expressed on the phone to a young woman moments before his death that he felt unsafe because he was being followed.

A more accurate question might have been, “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or a murderer?” or “Was Fla. shooter a good neighbor or a cold-blooded killer?” The use of two suggested motivations– fighting crime and protecting the neighborhood, neither of which are borne up by the facts (no crime was committed prior to the shooting, and the neighborhood was not in danger)– negates the other side of this conversation, denying that there is something far more sinister and fearful behind Zimmerman’s actions, be it fear, racism, megalomania, or some combination thereof.

Language is powerful, and as our society wrestles with the terrible truth of what happened to Trayvon Martin, we must be as careful as possible to be respectful of both the nuances and the strong emotions enveloping the families of both the victim and the shooter, the community in which this killing took place, and a nation that still has a lot of work to do when it comes to overcoming violence and racism. I feel that your headline yesterday missed the mark, and missed an opportunity to contribute to this national conversation in an informative and sensitive way.

Sincerely,
Reverend Rebecca Clark

I contacted the AP as suggested on their website by emailing info@ap.org. You can also take action by signing a petition at Change.org calling for prosecution of the shooter, and by sending a letter as suggested by the Open Letter Campaign to the Sanford Chief of Police calling for justice (as a tribute to Trayvon, we are asked to send an empty skittles wrapper with each letter): Chief of Police, Sanford Police Department, 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, FL 32771

Sermon: Foolishness and Frustration

“Foolishness and Frustration”

(March 18, 2012) In a passage that reveals a great deal of Jesus’ humanity, we see him angered by how far off people can be in their attempts to live lives of faith. This reminds us that there are times and places for righteous anger, and there are many, many places where we are the ones who are foolish, broken, or downright sinful, and we have really missed the mark. (John 2:13-22)

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