This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.
Excerpt from chapter 4 of the book:
Dear child of God, if we are truly to understand that God loves all of us, we must recognize that He loves our enemies, too. God does not share our hatred, no matter what the offense we have endured. We try to claim God for ourselves and for our cause, but God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion. And our prejudices, regardless of whether they are based on religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else, are absolutely and utterly ridiculous in God’s eyes.
This past week was one of those weeks for me when current events caused me to rethink my entire Sunday sermon. We’ve been making our way through this book, God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu, and I was already planning to preach this week on chapter 4: “God Loves Your Enemies”. I had planned on using historical figures and events in order to illustrate my points about justice and forgiveness, but then we all woke up yesterday morning to news reports about a brutal massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. With 71 people wounded or killed, some of them children as young as 6, this is now being called the worst shooting spree in U.S. history.
Integrity prevents me from ignoring this awful headline while I extol the virtue of forgiveness in your presence. I’m a firm believer that anything we talk about, sing about, or pray about “in here” (i.e. in this sanctuary on a Sunday morning) has to matter “out there” (i.e. in places like Aurora, Colorado) or else it just doesn’t matter.
In moments like this, I think justice and forgiveness matter now more than ever. However, unlike some other preachers you might hear, I won’t be offering you Bible verses or bumper-sticker slogans designed to help you get around or get over horrible tragedies like this. Instead, just like we’ve been doing these past few weeks, we’ll be talking today about the kinds of spiritual values that can help us get through the horror.
The main value I want to talk about today is one that guided Archbishop Tutu and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in their work of rebuilding South Africa after the fall of the racist Apartheid regime. They knew that if they were going to create a new society where people of all races could live together in freedom and equality as “the rainbow nation”, then they would need a different model of justice than the one most commonly associated with western culture.
You see, the model of justice to which we westerners are most accustomed is technically referred to as retributive justice. You might not have heard that term before, but you are almost certainly familiar with the concept. Retributive justice is built on the principle of crime & punishment. “You do the crime, you do the time” is one example of retributive justice. “An eye for an eye” is another example of the same principle. The idea behind retributive justice is that, if a perpetrator suffers to the same extent that he or she has caused others to suffer, then justice has been served.
On the whole, this isn’t a bad starting point for thinking about justice. It’s based, first of all, on the principle of reciprocation. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is a positive example of the principle of retributive justice in action. Many of our professional and business relationships are solidly built upon this idea. The promise of reciprocation provides people with an incentive for cooperation, since they can accomplish more together than they can alone. Reciprocation works out pretty well for most people, most of the time.
When it comes to crime and punishment, this same principle seems to apply as a good foundation for fairness: “If you give me something, then I owe you something of equal value; If you take something from me, then you owe me something of equal value.” All in all, it sounds pretty fair.
Over time, we’ve managed to build a complex criminal justice system around this basic idea of fairness. The development of governments means that some offenses aren’t committed just against individual people, but against society as a whole. We’ve come up with multiple ways for offenders to pay back the debt they owe to society: through paying fines, performing mandatory acts of community service, serving time in prison, or (in extreme cases) paying with their lives. Some other cultures who operate with a retributive model of justice still make use of physical suffering as a means of restoring the balance of fairness. In those societies, thieves have their hands cut off and delinquents are publicly whipped, although most people in our country find the ideas of maiming and torture distasteful, to say the least.
So, while the basic principle of retributive justice tends to work pretty well for most people, most of the time, it does have its limits. There comes a point when we need to go beyond it in order to serve the causes of real peace and justice.
For example: what do you do when a perpetrator commits a crime so heinous that no amount of retribution can restore the balance of fairness? I think we’re all finding ourselves in just such a situation this weekend as headlines pour in about the massacre in Colorado. 12 people are dead and dozens more wounded. Even if James Holmes (the shooter in Colorado) was to receive the death penalty, there’s no way for him to be killed 12 times. It’s just not possible for the balance of fairness to ever be restored through retribution in a case like this one.
Here is another example: what do you do when retribution brings no peace? Larry Whicher, whose brother Alan was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, was present for the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for that attack. After it was over and McVeigh was dead, Larry said, ”I expected more of a sense of closure and relief than I had. It was weird.” “An eye for an eye” was not enough to serve justice and bring peace to Larry Whicher.
Jesus seemed to have an inner sense that retribution was not enough to right all the wrongs of this world. In defiance of his own culture and religious tradition, he called upon his followers to move beyond the “eye for an eye” principle of justice. He seemed to indicate that something more is needed if people truly want to find peace in the wake of injustice. What could that “something more” be?
Desmond Tutu ventures a guess, drawing on his own cultural traditions. He says:
We have a had a jurisprudence, a penology in Africa that was not retributive but restorative. In the traditional setting, when people quarreled the main intention was not to punish the miscreant but to restore good relations. For Africa is concerned, or has traditionally been concerned, about the wholeness of relationship. That is something we need in our world, a world that is polarized, a world that is fragmented, a world that destroys people. It is also something we need in our families and friendships, for restoration heals and makes whole while retribution only wounds and divides us from one another.
The end-result, the goal, of the justice process, according to Desmond Tutu, is not punishment but forgiveness. Justice is served and peace is found when genuine friendship between victim and offender is able to emerge.
This is difficult. Forgiveness is far more difficult than mere punishment. Some might even call it impossible. But if we are going to call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus, then we have to at least allow for the possibility that he was onto something when he said what he said about moving beyond “an eye for an eye.” The call to Christian peacemaking is a call to trust that forgiveness is much more foundational to the fabric of the universe than retribution. We might even say that forgiveness lies at the very heart of God. Therefore, when we mere mortals choose to walk the hard road of forgiveness, we aren’t just laying the foundation for greater peace in our hearts and justice in the world, we are drawing near to God. In fact, I would venture to say that we are never closer to God than when we find it in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us. Forgiveness is the single hardest, yet most worthwhile, calling of the spiritual life.
While I was preparing for this sermon, I came across the story of Rais Bhuiyan, a gas station attendant from Bangladesh, living in Texas in 2002. One day, he was working behind the counter when a man came in and pointed a shotgun at his face.
The man with the gun asked him, “Where are you from?” Before Rais could answer, the man shot him in the face at point blank range. Miraculously, he survived, although he was horribly scarred and lost his right eye. The man with the gun, Mark Stroman, had already killed two other men in the same way. Mark called himself “the Arab Slayer” and claimed to be carrying out these killings as vengeance for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
While he was recovering in the hospital, Rais Bhuiyan promised Allah that he would make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca if he was allowed to live. As it turned out, Rais lived and made good on his promise to Allah. During his pilgrimage, Rais came to the conclusion that God was calling him to forgive the man who shot him. From then on, Rais formed a relationship with Mark Stroman and tried to stop his execution.
“This campaign is all about passion, forgiveness, tolerance and healing. We should not stay in the past, we must move forward,” Rais said, “If I can forgive my offender who tried to take my life, we can all work together to forgive each other and move forward and take a new narrative on the 10th anniversary of 11 September.”
In response to this, Mark Stroman had this to say, “”I tried to kill this man, and this man is now trying to save my life. This man is inspiring to me. Here it is, the attacker and the attackee, you know, pulling together. The hate has to stop – one second of hate will cause a lifetime of misery. I’ve done that – it’s wrong, and if me and Rais can reach one person, mission accomplished.”
Ultimately, Rais Bhuiyan’s attempts to stop Mark Stroman’s execution failed and Mark was put to death by lethal injection. The article I read was published on the day he died and I was shocked when I looked up at the date it was published: July 20, 2011. Exactly one year to the day before James Holmes opened fire on a movie theater full of people in Aurora, Colorado.
This is what restorative justice looks like. This is what we get when we move beyond “an eye for an eye”.
I’m not saying that it comes easily or quickly. The road to forgiveness is a long one. It’s full of twists and turns and pot-holes along the way. Sometimes, it feels like you’ve been traveling it forever with no end in sight.
When I think about the struggle to forgive, I think about the closing scene from the movie Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The scene takes place at the funeral of Matthew Poncelet, a young man who has just been put to death for murder. Sister Helen, the main character of the film, looks up to see Mr. Delacroix, the father of the murder victim, standing on the outskirts of the cemetery during the service. After it’s over, she walks up and talks to him.
He says to her, “I don’t know why I’m here. I got a lot of hate. I don’t have your faith.”
Sister Helen responds, “It’s not faith. I wish it were that easy. It’s work. Maybe we could help each other find a way out of the hate.”
“I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t think so.” And then he walks away.
But then, in the very last shot of the movie, we see Sister Helen walking into a church. The camera peers through one of the windows from the outside. Inside the church, we see Sister Helen and Mr. Delacroix kneeling together in prayer. I love this final image. Here we have a man who is not there yet, when it comes to forgiveness, but is walking the path and working through the problems. I love this image because I think it’s a perfect analogy for where we are today: you and I, together in this church.
Only two short days since a brutal massacre, you and I are not there yet when it comes to forgiveness. Yet, we have come together this morning because we choose to have faith in “that which is within each of us and yet greater than all of us.” We have come here today because we suspect that there is more to this universe than senseless violence, that life itself has meaning, and that the powers of death and hatred will not have the final word. We have come here today following a “holy hunch” that there is more at work within us and around us than the blind forces of reciprocation and retribution. When it comes to forgiveness, we may not be there yet, but we are walking the path, participating in the process, and working through the problems.
We are here today, we are together, and we are not alone. That fact, by itself, gives me hope and strength enough to keep going on the journey toward forgiveness.
I love you.
God loves you, God loves each and every person who was in that movie theater on Friday, God even loves James Holmes, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Be blessed and be a blessing.