Friday, April 26, 2013

Why this Conservative Evangelical Stopped Supporting the Death Penalty



    I used to support the death penalty.  After all, that’s what good Christians did, right?  Murderers received what they had measured out to others.  The death penalty was in the Bible and that was good enough for me.  But as the years went by, I began to wrestle with facts and ideas that didn’t fit.  It took time, years, even decades before I realized that I was changing my mind.  Even then, as a member in, and then as a pastor of, conservative congregations, I didn’t talk much about it. 

    I was troubled as I wondered how grace and mercy were served by the death penalty.  I was also troubled as I heard more about the costs of a death penalty conviction.  I suppose the last straw was when I first heard about the number of convictions being thrown out as DNA testing was first being used in the legal system.  Over the years, the evidence piled up until I had to surrender a notion that I once thought was reasonable.  I am not any different than I used to be.  My political and religious leanings are not significantly different than they ever were but I now believe that it is both logical and reasonable to oppose the death penalty from both a practical and a religious point of view.  Here’s why…

The Death Penalty is Not a Deterrent –Crime statistics in places where there is a death penalty are not statistically different from places where there is not.

Cost – It costs more to incarcerate a death row inmate.  Prisoners convicted under a death penalty statute are granted mandatory appeals and that process is expensive.  Estimates are that a death penalty inmate costs 2 to 5 times more over his or her lifetime than one who is incarcerated for life.

Fairness and Justice – The scriptural standard of evidence, particularly for murder, was from the beginning (Deuteronomy 17), two eyewitnesses.  In our modern world, having two witnesses is rare.  Mistaken identity is now one of the leading causes of error in our legal system.   Add a host of other errors, and suddenly a lot of people find themselves wrongly convicted.  For the last decade or so, an average of 18 death row residents per year were cleared by DNA evidence.  It’s so bad, that nationwide, a Columbia University study found serious errors in 68% of all death penalty cases and 2 out of 3 death penalty cases were overturned on appeal.  Of those overturned, 82% were retried on lesser charges.  Granted, no system is foolproof, but when ours is so messed up that we get it wrong 2 out of 3 times, its time to try something else.

Consistency – The church is usually among those who proclaim the sanctity of all life and declare to the world how God loves all people.  If we really believe that, then why is the life of a murderer not just as sacred?  Does God love murderers less? 

Grace, Forgiveness and Redemption – If we believe (and I do) that the Gospel message is all about grace, forgiveness and redemption, how do we justify the state sponsored killing of incarcerated criminals?  Where’s the grace and forgiveness in that?  How can God do a work of redemption in someone’s life when they’re already dead?  If we believe that God can change the hearts of human beings, then why are we so quick to assume that these men and women are unredeemable?

    As I wrestled with these questions, I realized that I didn’t have any answers that could make my continued support of the death penalty make any logical or spiritual sense.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a part of me that thinks the perpetrators of particularly horrible crimes shouldn’t die in some particularly painful way.   

What it means, I think, is that I’m beginning to understand the difference between retribution and justice.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Letter to Sugar Grove Church



   This week I mailed a letter to the church where I attended while I was away at college more than twenty years ago.  Although I attended Ohio Northern University for six years, I attended Sugar Grove United Methodist Church for only two or three.  I tried other churches and I tried not going to church at all for a while.  Nothing felt right.  Some churches were just cold and no one talked to me.  The big Methodist church downtown was friendly enough but the pastor was a pacifist and I was in the military so it was often awkward.  Finally, I found Sugar Grove.  My welcome there was a little unexpected.  Sugar Grove was several miles outside of town in the middle of miles and miles of wheat and corn.  No students attended Sugar Grove nor did any professors or university staff... just farmers and local folks.  Nevertheless, that is where I was made to feel right at home and a part of the family.  Even though I haven't had any contact with the good folks from Sugar Grove for a very long time, I wanted to let them know that I will be ordained in June and that they had a part in God's unfolding plan.  Below are some excerpts from my letter.
...
Sugar Grove United Methodist Church                                                                                  

Ada, Ohio 45810



Greetings to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, from John Partridge, a student you might remember from long ago.



Many years ago, sometime around 1986, I first visited your church at Sugar Grove.  I had been a student since 1982 and, although I had attended many of the churches in town, I had never felt particularly at home in any of them.  I don’t remember whether I came just to give it a try or at the invitation of Don Spar, but the latter is more likely.  In any case, I remember Don telling me that if I wasn’t going home for Easter that year, his mother insisted that I come to church with them, and then follow them home for Easter dinner.  I also clearly remember, after church, seeing an older man, make eye contact from me from the other side of the sanctuary and make his way to me, weaving his way through the maze of pews, just so he could shake my hand and welcome me to Sugar Grove.  I knew that I was, finally, at home.




Whenever I share my call to ministry story, or tell others of what the church has meant to me in my journey, I often share stories about Sugar Grove.  Sugar Grove has always been a part of my story and a part of my call to ministry.  I thought I would write to let you know about my upcoming ordination, because chances are, none of you knew.



I am not sure that there is anyone at Sugar Grove that remembers me, and that’s okay, but I know who you are and what you have meant to me.  Your faithfulness to the message of Jesus Christ is, and always will be, a part of my story.  May God richly bless each one of you and your ministry.  I hope that you will remember that no matter your size, every day you are a part of a thousand stories that you might never hear on this side of eternity.  Never forget that every day you are making a difference in the lives of others just like you made a difference to me.



I hope that Sugar Grove United Methodist Church will always continue to love like Jesus.
....
 
Sugar Grove isn't unique.  I have known other small country churches that were more loving and more welcoming than other, larger, urban and suburban churches. There's a lesson in that for all of us.

No matter who you are... 

Love like Jesus.
                                    
 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Called to a Different Path




“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson 

    I am a Cleveland Indians fan.  I follow the Indians, not because they their winning record (obviously), but by accident of geography. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, went to high school in Akron, and my first job after college sent me to Cleveland for ten years.  As a Cleveland fan, Boston is considered to be an evil empire second only to the New York Yankees.  This week’s attack on the Boston Marathon (a very different thing than baseball) stirs in me the sort of protective feelings that siblings have for one another.  Feelings such as, “Nobody messes with my brother but me.” We don’t yet know who committed this horror, but the reaction of most Americans is, like mine, anger.  This is, I think, a natural and instinctive reaction, but a dangerous one as well.  As Christians, we need to carefully gauge our reactions so that our emotions do not draw us away from the path we have been called to follow.

    Anger is not evil.  Nor is it wrong or sinful to feel angry, but how we allow anger to motivate us, in what direction we allow anger to push us, may well be.  Anger over the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into a war with Japan.  Anger over the attacks of September 11th provided support for wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.  These may, or may not, be proper if we judge them as a means of seeking justice or resisting aggression, but we cross a line when we allow hatred and revenge to become our motivation.

    As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe, as some of my friends do, that we have been called to a path of non-violence or pacifism.  I do believe, however, that we have been called to a different path, a direction different than our instincts alone would lead us.

    In Leviticus, a book often noted for its violence, we find a warning that revenge will lead us astray.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”  - Leviticus 19:18
 
    But what if the perpetrator of this horror is not “among our people” but someone else?  Well, Jesus had something to say about that…

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

    This is hard.  Jesus wants us to do good to people who insist upon doing us harm.  Why?  Every fiber of my being wants to hit back when I am hit, to hurt the guy that hurts my family and to put the smack-down whoever did this thing to the people of Boston.  But that isn’t what Jesus had in mind.  Our calling is to a different path.  If you read the rest of the passage I just interrupted we get a few more details…

 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. - Luke 6:27-28

    This is hard.  Why should we do good to those who seek to harm us?  Why should we be merciful?  Because we are called to follow a different path, a radical path, a path that calls us to love not only those who love us back, but everyone, whether they love us or not.  We are called to love the way that Jesus loved.

    Paul echoes these same feelings in his letter to the church in Rome and summarizes it by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

    I don’t think that any of this means that we cannot protect ourselves or seek justice, only that we must guard ourselves from seeking revenge and retribution instead of justice, and being driven by hatred and vengeance instead of mercy and compassion.  

This isn’t the place our instincts would lead us.

We are called to follow a different path.



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Do Not Lose Heart



    Americans are a resilient bunch.  Throughout our history we have been known to roll with the punches.  Our fights with the British roamed halfway across the continent from 1776 until 1812.  During the American Civil War between 600,000 and 700,000 lives were lost, then more through other wars including a devastating attack at Pearl Harbor and the more recent attacks in September 11, 2001.  While we have always come back after such horror, it is difficult for us to grapple with death on our home soil.  It has been a long time since 1812, but we understood that we were at war with England and the English, generally, only fought those who chose to fight.  Pearl Harbor was hard but it was, at least, an attack on a military target.  September 11th was different.  It shook us and caused many to begin looking for revenge.   Many joined the military to be a part of finding the perpetrators or at least to do something to be a part of our national defense.  

    After September 11th most everyone expected that there would be more of the same.  We knew we were in a “War on Terror” and so we expected that there would be more frequent attacks on American citizens and on American soil.  It is a huge credit to law enforcement and military personnel across the country and around the world that nearly all of the expected attacks since 2001 were discovered and averted before they could be carried out.  Until now…

    With this latest attack during the Boston Marathon many of our feelings revert to what we felt on September 11th.  At this time we do not know anything about the attacker(s), who they are, or where they are from, or why they did what they did.  We heard that a suspect has been arrested but that too, was premature.  We want revenge, we want retribution and a few may feel that somehow we should run away, or give up fighting.  Any of these responses will cause us to lose our way.  As Christians we are called to something different, to follow a different path.  Today I specifically want to speak to those who are frightened by these events.

    In scripture our temptation to surrender because of our fear is referred to as losing heart.  It is ‘heart’ that makes us who we are and what we are, it is ‘heart’ that makes us move forward in the face of fear.  In Hebrews 12 we are encouraged, when times are hard, to consider all that Jesus endured for us, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:3)  The prophet Jeremiah offers similar advice, especially in times like this, saying…

 “Do not lose heart or be afraid
    when rumors are heard in the land;
one rumor comes this year, another the next,
    rumors of violence in the land
    and of ruler against ruler.”
(Jeremiah 51:46)

    Remember that we are citizens of two nations, one is an earthly kingdom ruled by men, and the other an eternal kingdom ruled by the creator of the universe.  Our King has not forgotten us.  The Savior of the world still cares for us and watches over us.  Jesus knows your limits.  He knows how much you can take.  Find comfort and reassurance in knowing that even though…

He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:19-21)

A bruised reed he will not break.  

A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  

He knows what you need... and how you feel.

He hears your prayers and he understands your fear.



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