72. blessing

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This morning I was listening to This American Life from 29 July, a show in two acts about thugs and various kinds of thuggery. In the first act, a man in Egypt is subjected to the nightmare of beatings, torture, false imprisonment and then charged with being a thug, all because he wasn’t going along with the military coup before and during the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

In the second act, a social worker fights to redeem a young man who enters the criminal justice system who she is determined to save and believes in against all evidence to the contrary. As the story goes, he is eventually connected to a horrific murder, goes to prison, escapes, and kills two more people before he is finally caught and sentence to death row. Through it all, the woman maintains his innocence—until he finally confesses to the murder he was originally accused of, as well as another murder that he was never suspected of, because “he found God . . . and needed to atone for what he’d done.”

Later on, she goes to visit him in the maximum security prison where he will eventually face execution. He began to change, the story went, one day while flipping through the trial documents.

He looked at the photo of his victim, the girl he killed, alive and beautiful. Then he held it side-by-side with her autopsy photo and thought, I did that. He pauses and puts a hand over his face, as if he’s collecting himself enough to continue. But watching Kenneth relive this is like watching a bad play. The words are disconnected from his gestures. He makes a show of weeping, lowering his eyes, shaking his head, and covering his face with his arms. When he looks up again, I don’t see any tears.

The crime for which he went to prison involved robbing two female university students, then later kidnapping them, taking them out into the middle of nowhere and shooting both of them. One girl died; another survived and managed to get to help. “He went back, he said, let them beg for their lives, and shot them, over and over.”

Then the victims of his prison break. A farmer, the one with the truck, was trying to run away when Kenneth gunned him down. And finally, this. After the car chase in Missouri, state troopers made Kenneth walk over and look at the lifeless body of the delivery driver, thinking Kenneth would be remorseful. Instead, Kenneth says all he saw was the man who got in the way of his escape, and he spit on the body.

In one of the earlier episodes of the fourth season of Torchwood: Miracle Day, a child molester and murderer (Bill Pullman in a fantastic change of role for him) is executed by lethal injection, but due to The Blessing (the event by which everyone in the world stops dying) occurring just before his execution is carried out, he survives and is released since he cannot be tried or executed for the same crime twice. In the second episode, he is confronted during a TV interview à la 60 Minutes with the image of the girl he brutally killed. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he says, weeping, tears welling up in his eyes.

“What good is ‘sorry,’ Mr Danes?” the interviewer scoffs. “Is it going to do anything for Mrs Cabina every morning when she wakes up?”

What is it about “finding God” that is supposed to engender sympathy or forgiveness for even the most savage of criminals? As if praying a prayer erases a multitude of wrongs – if not on earth then in heaven. This is one of my primary objections to Christianity: that you could savagely murder a room full of people and then have a pang of conscience, ask for God’s forgiveness, be rightly executed for your crime, and go straight to heaven to be with Jesus for all eternity without a blemish on your soul. Because Jesus paid it all.

Quick primer in atonement theology. There are two main schools of thought here:

  • The Christus Victor, or ransom, theory: Humanity is enslaved to Satan on account of the Fall, wherein Adam and Eve imputed Original Sin to all their descendants. The best analogy here is in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Edmund betrays his brother and sisters to the White Witch (the Satan figure in Narnia) and becomes her slave since every traitor is her lawful prey. To save him from death, Aslan (the Christ figure) dies in his place, but because of the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time, “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [i.e., the Cross] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
  • The Penal substitution, or satisfaction, theory: Same premise as Christus victor; but here, God is the Righteous Judge and humanity is the Wretched Criminal. “Sin” is the inexorable debt to be repaid to God for Man’s rebellion against him, and Man is automatically found guilty by God, the only perfect being in existence; and so he is condemned to be separated from God for all eternity in Hell (e.g., life in prison). But Jesus, the perfect sinless Son of God (don’t get me started on trinitarian theology), is sent to serve that sentence and is born the God-man and executed, thus fulfilling the conditions of the sentence. And God declares the debt as having been paid in full.

Richard Dawkins responded to the theology of atonement, how Abraham and Isaac prefigures the Crucifixion, and Original Sin in an interview with Howard Conder this past March. Dawkins said: “The idea that God could only forgive our sins by having his Son tortured to death as a scapegoat is, surely from an objective point of view, a deeply unpleasant idea. If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them?

“If there’s something I can’t stand about Christianity, it’s this obnoxious doctrine of Original Sin, which I think is actually a hideous, and demeaning and a vengeful doctrine. It’s the idea that one can be absolved; that a sin by somebody else has to be paid for by a different person, which is a horrible idea.

“It would be persuasive if the judge said, you’re forgiven. That would be great. That would the kind of thing one could empathize with. But that’s not what he said. He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to hang somebody else for your crime’.

“I think it’s a horrible idea that – given that the judge is all-powerful; given that the judge has the power to forgive if he wants to – the only way he can do it is to sacrifice his son. I mean, what an incredibly unpleasant way to do it, given that you have the power to forgive, that you are all-powerful!”

So what’s so wrong with a murderer (or anyone else for that matter—liar, adulterer, thief, homosexual, or whatever else you call a “sin”) being forgiven and getting off scot-free? Or with Jesus paying your sin-debt for you? It’s precisely that—you get off scot-free. And let’s say that the people you killed weren’t Christians. Let’s say you tortured them—horribly—before you then murdered them, had that pang of conscience later after you realized what you did, prayed “the prayer” and were “saved.” The problem is that you sent however many into an eternity in hell (because they weren’t “saved”) while you yourself skip out of jail into a blissful eternity in heaven and Jesus pays the $200.

What kind of a theology is this? To borrow from Julia Sweeney Letting Go of God, it would be as though Hitler had a “come to Jesus” moment right before he died. According to atonement theology, if he was truly sincere, no one would sit him down and say, “You fucked up, buddy! Now you’re going to spend an eternity in hell!” Quite the opposite. His sin of having murdered millions of people (among other things) would be expunged, paid for on the Cross by Jesus.

Supposing an inmate who suffocated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz ran into the man responsible for their death in heaven? Or Susie Cabina running into Oswald Danes who raped and murdered her as a 12-year-old? Or Cecil Boren or Dominique Hurd meeting Kenneth Williams (the kid from the This American Life story earlier)? Or conversely, any of them going to hell and learning that their murderer had been pardoned by God?

Now, it may be fair to say that I just don’t like this arrangement because I don’t think it’s just. God sees all sins as equal, and if a sinner truly repents, who are we to begrudge God for granting pardon since we are just as guilty as the murderer? Does that make me the Unmerciful Servant whose debt the king forgave? Or a grumbling vineyard worker who resented the owner for paying those who showed up at the last shift the same as those who had worked all day? Possibly—to both.

However, as to the question of whether a murderer who “found God” should be worthy of our forgiveness, I say the only person who can truly forgive the wrong is the victim him or herself.

In Tony Kushner’s play Perestroika, Ethel Rosenberg returns to haunt Roy Cohn, who effectively killed her by pulling strings with the presiding judge to get a death sentence. As Roy lies dying of AIDS, Ethel stands at his bedside.

I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have born my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needle-sharp little star in the sky out of it. It’s the star of Ethel Rosenberg’s Hatred, and it burns every year for one night only, June Nineteen. It burns acid green.

I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: Better he had never lived at all.

In the scene that follows, Roy feigns reverting to a childlike state, calling for his mother, begging her to sing to him. At first, Ethel is bitter, angry, and refuses, but finally relents when he persists. She sings him an old Yiddish song, “Shteit a bocher.” Then, once she thinks he’s dead and turns to go, he suddenly sits up and exclaims, “I can’t believe you fell for that ma stuff, I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I WIN!” After which he actually dies.

Towards the end of the play, Ethel returns in a final gesture of forgiveness to help Louis say Kaddish over Roy. They end with the blessing, “Oseh sholom bimromov, hu ya-aseh sholom olenu v’al col Yisroel v’imru omain. You sonofabitch.” The Hebrew translates to, “He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel; and say, ‘Amen’.”

So in the end, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, a God who pardons the unpardonable and allows his son to be tortured to death for our sins is utterly offensive. On the other hand, what are the limits of forgiveness in light of eternity? What is the extent of forgiveness? And what is the extent of retribution?

Many friends of mine say that the criminal justice system should be restorative instead of merely punitive—that the purpose should be to eventually restore an individual to right standing in society (provided that there is no danger posed to society). But to what extent can a debt be considered “paid”? Does such a person deserve to walk free, or receive our collective forgiveness?

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3 thoughts on “72. blessing

  1. Our laws and subsequent punishments for breaking those laws are not based on what each victim feels should be done. The punishment given is (hopefully) based on the presiding judge upholding the law. We look to an outside source other than the victim to administer a just ruling, because what is deemed ‘just’ by the victim could be radically different from case to case. Of course, one has to be able to *trust* that judge.

    I don’t know…call me crazy, but it doesn’t sound like you don’t believe in God. It just sounds like you’re angry at the way He chooses to work.

    There are about 40 other things I could say (and I could flesh out each point for about 40 paragraphs), but my eyelids are drooping and my brain is shutting down. As always, thanks for the food for thought.

    • David

      I’d like to hear what else you have to say, Christy – all 40 paragraphs! But no, I don’t believe in God, and there’s not evidence enough to prove or disprove God’s existence so I think that’s a pointless argument either way. I’m aware of the weakness in the appeal to victim-centric sentencing, and I probably didn’t parse that out enough past positing. In those examples I was more trying to explore the possible outcomes of such a system, but definitely wasn’t trying to say that’s how God should do things.

      The question is the same as Dawkins’, and I’ve yet to hear an entirely satisfactory response: How is God’s standard just by applying it evenly, regardless of offense – or by saying, “We’re going to hang someone else for your crime”? And yes, I’m bothered how Christianity claims God chooses to work. It seems to come out in favor of the individual Christian (especially the Christian who hasn’t done much society might deem “objectionable”), and is certainly attractive in gaining converts and adherents. Who wouldn’t want to be spared from having to pay for their sins? But it seems awfully convenient to just say that sin ends with Jesus. It’s the ultimate Get Out Of Jail card.

      But where is justice for the wronged? I guess this has been something on my heart ever since reading Revelation 6 as a kid: I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

      The response never struck me as being terribly adequate: They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. Not only are they not given an explanation, but they’re essentially given a pat on the head instead and even told that that not only will they not be avenged (yet) but that more are to be slaughtered after them! People don’t matter in the Bible. They are pawns, human collateral to be used and disposed of at the whim of (as Dawkins puts it in The God Delusion) “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

  2. Just caught your reply to my own here. Thanks!

    In response to the Dawkins quote, Jesus’ words from Matthew 23: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” That is not a God (or at least a Son of God, whom God calls ‘Beloved’, if you don’t want to get into an argument about the intricacies of the Trinity) who seems to fit any of the terms listed above. That is not a God who adheres to the claim that ‘people don’t matter’. All of the above terms also seem to imply fear (most notably, ‘homophobic’, which contains the Greek root). I don’t think anyone, Christian or not, would attribute the characteristic of fear to the God presented in the Bible.

    Anticipating your response, I’m guessing you might say that God also mistreated His own Son, citing Jesus’ own words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Regardless, if you can at least allow that Jesus was the only perfect human to walk the earth, why would He not sense an apparant lapse of ‘goodness’ in this ‘God’ character and abandon following Him? It’s because Jesus’ truth and perfection wasn’t his own logic or own sense of justice, but His standard for truth and His truth itself was His Father’s ways. Jesus can’t be stupid and perfectly good and wise at the same time.

    We go back to the age-old argument: what is your standard for ‘justice’? Is the American goverment’s system of laws and consequences for breaking those laws adequate? Is any government’s system adequate? Is everyone using their own noggin adequate? What happens when noggins disagree?

    I can understand your frustration with the passage from Revelations. But you do allow that, later, God *will* avenge their blood. He hasn’t forgotten about them. They still matter. He responds to them. But getting vengeance for them isn’t the most important thing. It matters, and it will happen, but it’s a call to take the focus off of self and onto God.

    This isn’t as well-thought-out as it could be, and I’m also not sure of all of your current set of beliefs, so I’m trying to address a whole lot here, but I know I’m still making assumptions. Sorry for that.

    Thanks again for giving me something to chew on.

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