Two Thieves Out of Time

Looking over the strata of my life, I can see very clearly now that growing up I had an Old Testament (OT) view of life.  Early on I began to indoctrinate myself with lists of things which were not right for a person to do.  If I erred, which I often did, then subsequently I would receive in my conscience the requisite judgment and punishment. Basically, I saw myself as a sinner in the hands of an angry God. My life was abundant with shame and lacked mercy toward myself or others.  My thoughts on the rightness of capital punishment fell in line with this uncompromising understanding of my sinful self and the judgment I deserved. I thought, “An eye for an eye?  So be it. It is just.”  But now, though I continue to be politically and socially conservative, I have since changed my view on this life and death matter.

A lot of my early misconceptions about God and the balance sheet I thought that he kept came from my own projections onto God, my father’s own upbringing being infused in me and from the churches we attended.

 My father was raised in a strict Dutch Christian Reformed home. He knew even more shame and punishment under his father’s iron rule of their home.  My dad’s family dutifully attended a Dutch Christian Reformed Church (CRC) situated at the end of their street. The church’s moral code was much like River City, Iowa’s morally proper society as portrayed in the musical The Music Man. Movies, dancing, pool halls were all considered taboo. Sunday was considered the Sabbath and no work was to be performed on that day. Unlike River City, Iowa though, drinking, smoking pipes, cigars and cigarettes were openly enjoyed right after the church service.

In his twenties my father broke away from the Dutch Christian Reformed Church and started attending a Baptist church in the  Andersonville area in Chicago. He soon met my mother at this church.  They married and later attended the Moody Bible Institute together. I was born while they were students.

Over the years our family attended a Baptist/Bible church. There were still OT rules and regulations but the boisterousness of the Baptist church (as compared to the almost absolute silence of the Reformed church service) sounded merciful and more accepting of one’s sins and foibles. To redeem yourself from destruction, there were the constant pleas from the pulpit to walk the aisle and to repent of your sins or to come forward and rededicate your life to Christ or to come forward and vow to become a missionary. Those were the options I remember.  Dealing with personal shame and guilt, the inner man, never seemed to be on the agenda. But, knowing your Bible in and out and cover to cover was on the program. And, in those days, talking about the Holy Spirit was almost taboo. Everything still had to be done decently and in order, every jot and tittle of your life was parsed against the black and white of the Scriptures.

 I am thankful that my dad walked away from the Dutch CRC and not from the Lord. I am thankful for the grace and mercy he has shown to me.  My father never acted in anger or in harsh judgment of me.

I am thankful for some of the time I spent in the Baptist church and for my immersion in the Scriptures. It was in the Baptist church as an eleven year old that I believed and called Jesus my Lord.  I was baptized not long afterward. But I too would later walk away from what I had been brought up in to look for more grace and mercy, to look for the REAL and not the pretentious. In my case, a load of sinfulness and a sense of reckoning ever mounted.  Walking down the aisle of a church was fruitless exercise. Over time, though, I found these two paramours, grace and mercy, in a close relationship with the Lord. And, I found my REAL self by taking the Eucharist every week.

My intimate relationship with Jesus was born out of a lot of personal suffering.  Some of the pain came out of my own sin and folly and some of it came Job-like out of the blue. I have incurred some major crippling losses in my life including the death of a child. I realize now that some of those hard times were acts of mercy – losing what was precious to me at the time but not losing everything as I rightly deserved.  These and other losses helped me to see that mercy and grace were always there with me. And because the weight of what I was dealing with was so enormous I could finally feel God’s hand beneath me. With this safety net underneath I began to cast out my fear.  I was able to give up my sin, my shame and my anger. I began to have mercy on my self and toward others. All of this past reflection brings me to my current view of capital punishment:  no capital punishment, no death penalty.

Without going into balance sheet retribution or what’s owed to society or to the victim’s rights or into capital punishment as a crime deterrent or into the enormous cost of operating the penal system I simply believe that every person should be shown mercy, whether they are in the womb (the most innocent) or on death row (the most guilty).

Mercy is not the absence or negation of justice. Mercy is the outcome of justice which acknowledges the wrong-doing before both parties (the perpetrator and the victim) and demands retribution. But instead of giving the criminal what he fully deserves mercy, instead, hands the perpetrator the noose of time.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” I believe these OT words from Psalm 23 accord with a New Testament (NT) response to man’s violence against his brother:  a perpetrator of a crime and the victim may both find goodness and mercy if they turn to God’s Truth – Jesus Christ. The eye for eye retributive justice of the Old Testament has been replaced by a NT call to a relationship with Jesus Christ:  goodness and mercy incarnate. 

The Sacrifice of Jesus on the cross showed God’s solidarity with victims throughout all time. Through His sacrifice the power of violence was renounced and the power of love and truth were advocated.  But not only has the self-giving God shown solidarity with the victims but He invites the perpetrators into the same divine circle of love with the victim. He does not abandon the godless to their evil.  “Christ died for the ungodly, the Just for the unjust.” He has loved our enemies when we could not. In a divine relationship with Him we are able to show mercy, repeated mercy and mercy again.

A life sentence should be given for a heinous crime such as murder.  Life in prison would be a just sentence.  It would allow for the possible redemption of the murderer. We don’t know whether a murderer will repent when he is given a life sentence but we do know from Scripture that the same goodness and mercy which follows you and me all the days of our lives also follows him all the days of his incarceration.  Giving a murderer a life sentence is merciful. Time is mercy for the condemned.  I now see capital punishment as being opposed to the Cross and the act of mercy

Two thousand years ago, two thieves, one on each side of Jesus, received capital punishment for their crimes. One repented.  One did not. The onlookers and the victims and accusers of the thieves had also been followed by the same goodness and mercy as were the thieves.  And like the thieves they would also have to decide where they stood in relation to the Cross of Christ. So would Barabbas. Time as mercy would tell.


The ‘new’ “Eye for an eye” justice:

 “For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.”

 Jesus as recorded Matthew’s gospel (7:2)

 “So what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak?”

 The writer of Hebrews (2:3)

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Portia in The Merchant of Venice


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