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.

More on Jesus and Religion – links galore!

I’m pleasantly surprised by the interest in my recent post in response to the “I hate Religion but Love Jesus” video. Thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting, and for linking to your own reflections.

In the spirit of fairness and follow-up, Rachel Held Evans drew my attention to this email exchange between the video’s creator, Bethke, and pastor/blogger Kevin DeYoung. In it, Bethke responds to DeYoung’s reflections on the video in a way that demonstrates thoughtfulness and maturity in the face of feedback. Kudos to him.

Here’s part of their exchange. Bethke emailed Kevin in response to the latter’s blog post, and gave him permission to share it:

I just wanted to say I really appreciate your article man. It hit me hard. I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100%. God has been working with me in the last 6 months on loving Jesus AND loving his church. For the first few years of walking with Jesus (started in ’08) I had a warped/poor paradigm of the church and it didn’t build up, unify, or glorify His wife (the Bride). If I can be brutally honest I didn’t think this video would get much over a couple thousand views maybe, and because of that, my points/theology wasn’t as air-tight as I would’ve liked. If I redid the video tomorrow, I’d keep the overall message, but would articulate, elaborate, and expand on the parts where my words and delivery were chosen poorly… My prayer is my generation would represent Christ faithfully and not swing to the other spectrum….thankful for your words and more importantly thankful for your tone and fatherly like grace on me as my elder. Humbled. Blessed. Thankful for painful growth. Blessings.

Grace and Peace,

Jeff

I love Jesus, but I kinda like religion too

A lot of folks on facebook have been posting links to this video, where political science graduate and non-profit worker Jefferson Bethke seeks to “highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion” (text of video description). Mr. Bethke is a self-proclaimed healed pornography addict, and attends the Federal Way campus of Mars Hill Church (dot com) in Washington. For those keeping track at home, that’s the mega church pastored by Mark Driscoll (as opposed to Mars Hill Bible Church [dot org] in Michigan, pastored by Rob Bell– man, did that confuse me for a while). I won’t try to articulate my concerns about pastor Driscoll, but will refer you to the excellent critique of his particular brand of (in my mind, masochistic) Christianity by Rachel Held Evans here and here.

Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video has some merits and some pitfalls in my mind, and so I’m torn when I see it on facebook on my friends’ feed or as a recommended link by The Christian Left. Here are my thoughts on religion and Jesus and this particular video.

Pros:

The video is thought-provoking and invites reflection and discussion. Case in point. Anything that encourages us to think about our faith instead of blindly following gets bonus points in my book.

The video challenges certain assumptions about religion and Christianity, which I think is helpful. For example, Bethke says that being a Christian and a Republican are not the same thing (nor are being a Christian and a Democrat!), and that we should be freed by Christ, not enslaved by what he calls “behavioral modification” through the rules and chores that he sees as religion. I think breaking free of the rule-based way of thinking about religion is important.

The speaker insists that Jesus doesn’t support self-righteousness. I agree, although I’m not totally sold that the video succeeds in demonstrating that.

The video clearly separates Jesus from religion with what I see as a beautiful distinction (if phrased in gendered language that makes me gag) “Religion is man (sic) searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man.” Further, the words separate religion, which Bethke says he hates, from the church, which he says he loves, and that makes for good reflection as well. I fully agree with leaving behind some or all of institutional religion to follow Jesus, if that is what is needed.

We are asked “Would your church let Jesus in?” Not a new question, but an important one.

Finally, there are some beautiful words, phrases, and ideas here. I like “Religion says ‘do’; Jesus says ‘done’.” But my favorite:

If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean. It’s not a museum for good people; it’s a hospital for the broken.

Preach.

Cons:

I’m not sure what the speaker thinks religion is. He distinguishes it from “Christianity” as well as from Jesus, says he hates it, calls it an infection, and blames it for wars. But I’m not entirely sure what he means by “religion.” I suspect he may mean “institution,” but it’s not clear. I would define the broad concept of religion as a set of beliefs about the Divine (theology) and a particular way of living out beliefs (praxis), held in common by 2 or more people in a given place and time.

The video then blames this ambiguous concept of religion for war and attacks it for failing to feed the poor. Since religion, as I define it, is a series of beliefs and practices, it doesn’t really *do* or fail to do anything. Rather, religious people carry out actions and explain them using their theology and praxis. Religious people have gone on crusades and committed genocide, slavery, and rampant discrimination, claiming religion as their motivator. Religious people have also preached civil rights, resisted apartheid, lived among lepers, and given all their wealth to the poor, claiming their religion as their motivation. Maybe this is a little like saying guns don’t kill people, but I see religion as a tool, an implement, and in the wrong hands, yes, a weapon. It’s what we do with it that matters.

Bethke also decries religion for being a human invention. While I like the above-mentioned distinction that religion is humanity’s search for God while Christ is God’s search for us, it is presented as if this is a bad thing. We cannot simply receive God’s searching for us separate from our human responses. Yes, religion, church, prayers, worship songs, cathedrals, ministry programs, global institutionalized church, and YouTube videos are all human-made. And they are imperfect. What else would they be? The fallible, broken, human construct of religion is humanity’s response to and search for God. We’re still working on it and we don’t get it right, but we’re in it together with one another and with the Holy. We might show *that* a little grace, too. We never know how the God of the Universe might be able to use even the broken vessels of the church, her people, and each individual person of faith. I hear God’s good at that.

Having rejected and resented “religion,” Bethke replaces religion with something else that looks a lot like… religion. He replaces it with a series of beliefs about the Divine and implies a way of living out some of those beliefs in practice.

Furthermore, I don’t like the theology he presents in place of “religion.” It’s very strong on substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus took on our sin and bled and died and did we mention the blood? for us– you can read some of my reactions to this theology here). It’s also very dominated by masculine, hierarchical, and violent language. I get squeamish about blood dripping down Jesus’ face and him dangling on a cross thinking of me. Just not my thing. It may move us away from adherence based on fear to adherence based on guilt, but I’m not sure that’s a drastic improvement.

Finally, rejecting religion undermines the important function of accountability it serves. The video itself suggests some good theology and some bad, and the praxis is largely unknown or perhaps irrelevant. In the context of a “church” or dare we say a “religion,” there are other believers present against whose wisdom we check our theology and praxis. If my relationship with Jesus teaches me to hate gay people or club baby seals, who is to correct me if “religion” is vile and my personal interpretation is all that matters? Rather, the institution of religion, for all its faults, serves as a clearing house, a sounding board, a discernment group. Call it what you like, but it keeps the crazies at bay. When corrupted, yes, it mistakes the prophets for the fanatics (because there are fine lines already), and Jesus is crucified. But when it tries to let God work, it can also lift up the Desmond Tutus and the Mother Teresas, and it can resist the false prophets of Fred Phelps and his ilk. All of us individually searching for God are bound to make mistakes. In the grouped-together theology and practice of religion, our mistakes can indeed be amplified and multiplied, and more to our shame. But the good that we do, the times that we reject discrimination and violence, the voices we lift for the outcast and oppressed, the compassion we extend in word and deed– these can also be amplified and multiplied and tested, empowered, and equipped.

In Summary:

I applaud the video for raising questions and provoking discussions, for challenging outdated assumptions about religion and for lifting important, beautiful, inspirational concepts about what the love and grace of God are like. I support the sentiment of serving Jesus, even where that breaks from the institutionalized church (perhaps especially there!). I agree with the critique against what the video’s text description calls false religion. I hate false religion, too. But I remain unconvinced that the theology and (lack of) praxis lifted up here in place of such false religion are better, or a place that I would feel comfortable, and I believe the demonization and rejection of religion as a whole is throwing the baby (possibly the baby Jesus) out with the bath water. Instead, I would affirm the rejection of false religion, and the call to make the church and individuals therein more faithful to the true ministry of Christ. Let us swim in the ocean of grace.

It’s. Still. Christmas.

People of faith, we have a problem. It’s not that people say “Happy Holidays” (as a contraction of Holy and Days, ‘holidays’ actually reveres all of the sacred and special days in this season, from Solstice to Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to Christmas to Watch Night to New Year’s Day). It’s not that there’s a war on Christmas.

It’s that there are two Christmases.

One Christmas season starts on the day after Thanksgiving, maybe earlier. It features songs about snowy weather and Rudolph and Frosty and poems about Saint Nick. For it, people decorate in red and green, put up lighted trees and wreaths, and buy lots and lots and lots of gifts. It celebrates in its own way the spirit of generosity, the specialness, even sacredness, of giving and receiving, of being with the people you love in the midst of the cold. Santa reigns supreme on this Christmas, which arrives with tremendous fanfare on the morning of December 25, when households are filled with light and merriment and food and presents. And then the holiday ends. By December 26, the trees are down, the lights shut off, the music off the radio.

I celebrate this Christmas. I will not begrudge you if you do as well, whether or not you consider yourself Christian. It is a fun and good holiday, and teaches good values and practices joy.

But it’s not the only Christmas.

The other Christmas begins not after Thanksgiving, but after the season of Advent. It starts, like all good holidays in the tradition of its ancestral faith, at sundown– sundown on December 24. For this holiday, people decorate first in blue or purple for advent, but most primarily in white and gold. People sing songs about angels, shepherds, and a certain baby. They put up trees and wreaths and lights, yes, but also nativities and candles. This season arrives sometimes with great fanfare, sometimes with solemn prayer, sometimes at 5:30 or 7 pm, or 11 pm (which we somehow call “midnight”), and again on the morning of December 25. On this Christmas, the one who reigns supreme is a baby, born to set his people free. Jesus own this Christmas. It’s his birthday, and as such, it too embraces giving and family and joy, but it also teaches holy expectation, God’s promises, new birth, and the presence of Christ in the midst of the world’s ordinary brokenness.

This Christmas does not end on December 26.

From a theological perspective, this Christmas does not end at all, of course, but in this context, I am speaking purely seasonally, practically, decoration-ally. This Christmas, Jesus’ Christmas, lasts for twelve days (there’s a song about that somewhere), and ends on January 6 with the celebration of the Epiphany, or the feast of the Magi– traditionally a more appropriate time for giving– as the Wise Ones reveal the global significance of the baby Jesus and present gifts to him out of love and reverence.

I want to pry these two Christmases apart. The “secular” Christmas and the “sacred” Christmas (how I dislike that language!). The Santa Christmas and the Jesus Christmas. I think they should have two separate names. We could name the Jesus Christmas lots of things: Noel, Nativity, the Feast of Christ’s Birth. But I’m not willing to say that Santa can have the name Christmas. Good luck getting it back from him and his holiday, but it’s not his to keep. I mean, it’s got the other guy’s name in it, and the word for church service. Christ. Mass. Christmas. It’s kind of a word owned by the Christian tradition, even if the holiday no longer is.

So I don’t know what we call SantaTide, the Season of Giving, St. Nicholas Day. It’s a great holiday, and I celebrate it with joy and find it holy.

It’s just not the same holiday as Christmas, a holiday that I am still celebrating, with songs of Gloria and twinkling lights. I think we can celebrate both faithfully– those of us who choose to– and I think we can, in pulling them apart, offer up ways for people who dislike Santa’s bent toward consumerism or people who find the baby Jesus a myth from a faith not their own, a way to celebrate their holy day, their holiday, without having to buy into the other.

This is my new mission, as I enter a new year, but not yet a new season of the church (nope, not celebrating Epiphany on January 1 either, lectionary watchers!). How do we tease out St. Nicholas Day (like St. Patrick’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day–  once named for a saint, but now cultural holidays with their own metaphors and themes) from the Nativity of Christ? Come to think of it, how do we reverence the beauty in our cultural celebrations and our religious ones, in ways that allow each to be holy in its own way?

And don’t even get me started on the Easter Bunny. We’ve got a few weeks before that candy comes out at least, so I have some time to prepare.

Spiritual but not religious, part the millionth.

In response to the whole “spiritual but not religious” conversation (links within my link), I just want to say exactly what Pam said.

That, and the funeral home in town sends all the grieving “spiritual but not religious” families to me for memorial services, and it’s all sacred to me.

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