“Won’t you sing/these songs of freedom/’cause all I ever heard/redemption songs” — Bob Marley
This week I have been thinking a lot about salvation/redemption/forgiveness in various areas of my life. I was compelled to write this because I heard a man’s story that reminded just how far people can come in life and it got me to thinking. how little thought/belief we put into redemption. In short, if a person messes up, can they fix it? Can they heal? Can they get better? Does jail or punishment really work? Does it accomplish what we want it to?
Here’s the story I was inspired by: A client of mine, on-and-off for years announced he was getting married and settling down. She (his fiancee’) was going to make an honest man of him. At some point, she asked him, “You’re not going to do that anymore, right? You did a lot of bad things. You’ve had a good run. You’re not going back there, right?” He thought about it and said, “No. I’m done”. He went on to detail that the step-child he will be raising actually believes in him, and believes he can do all things, and it makes him smile.
Now when I say “bad things”, I mean bad things. This man, years before I knew him, was into gangs, was an enforcer of sorts, has some number of felony counts well beyond the “three strikes” rules we now consider a norm. He told me the other day that — over the course of his lifetime, he had more than one attempted murder charge brought against him. But that was him 8 or 10 years ago. In the time I have known him, his heart has always been in the right place and his children were at the heart of it.
His is the classic story of abuse, addiction, failing in school, learning to fight and living on the streets leading to his being paid by people to beat other people up by a criminal element that waits for kids like him to fall in with them.
Years ago, when I met him, his girlfriend was cheating on him, he was doing drugs, maybe selling drugs, I don’t know. His brother had died of an overdose or in a gang hit or something, but what bothered him was that his girlfriend wasn’t taking care of the kids. He didn’t want his kids growing up like he did. When he finally left her, she went into a spiral of self-destruction that is hard to imagine. Their children were taken away by children’s protective services.and that was the game-changer. When they were taken away from her, they couldn’t give them to him with any kind of logic. He was legendary among local police departments for being mean and dangerous. This left him heartbroken, this man who so many people didn’t even think had a heart.
He wanted to prove to DCF that he could handle the children, that he could stop drinking and drugging, that he didn’t have to be violent, that his children could go well beyond his life-style. And he had to do it while avoiding jail, because if he went to jail, he’d been told he wasn’t coming out. In the time I have known him he has fought against drugs, failed, and finally succeeded. He has had two failed relationships, but each was better than the last, and he now has a fiancee without a criminal record, who has never had trouble with the law because she’s a good person.. And she connects with him because he has become a good person. He now gets weekend visits with one child, has the other nearby and has managed to put his family back together again. He has made peace with his ex (the mother of the children) and apologized for not supporting her emotionally, because he always met his financial responsibilities.
Overlaying this was a meeting I went to early in the week where my friend Carrol was using the language of salvation and hoping to be commissioned as a Christian educator. She talked about “coming to Jesus” and “being saved from her sins” and “the authority of the Bible” and such things. The highly educated clergy and lay people around the table were uncomfortable with the language but were struck by her genuineness. She called something out of them called hope, I think, and they knew she would pass that on to any church she served. Still, at least some of them had to wrap their heads around her way of coming at the faith.
In the liberal church, we deal with salvation all the time, but the story of “God killing his only Son” as the means to doing it just doesn’t make sense. We don’t really get how doing that makes things better for anybody. but Carrol’s faith says it did and — however she got there — she has hope. In my frustration the other night, trying to bridge her worldview with theirs, I reminded them that, “There are whole sections of the UCC that believe in Salvation!” and all kinds of emotions exploded into raucous laughter. Of course they did, I realized, because all of the people in the room had some belief about how Christ works in the world and why we have hope, etc. For me, Jesus dying on the cross doesn’t make any sense to me, but there came a point in my life that I thought I needed salvation/forgiveness and, just in case that story was how it worked, I trusted God enough to believe, even if it makes no logical sense to me. So, yes, I had to suspend logic in order to believe.I didn’t suspend logic in the rest of my life, I just suspended it there and have become a better person because I believed it was possible to get better. “because the Bible tells me so”.
But forgiveness and salvation and redemption aren’t really logical propositions. You can’t un-harm somebody. When people do damage to each other, it’s real — and often-times long-lasting. There are millions of people, for instance, in 12-Step rooms who can recount the damage they have done. They understand that what they have done is unforgivable, and yet they ask for forgiveness from somebody, accepting the answer “no” on occasion because the damage is real.And yet, people do change. They do it all the time.
There are stories of the person who was a radical bomber years ago who fled the law and became a solid member of their school department with decent kids and so on. They lived decent lives for 20 or 30 years and now they are going to jail for some thing they did years ago. I always wonder what good sending them to jail does. They have done — on their own — the very thing that jail is supposed to do: redeem them. What’s the point?
Our ideas about the world are becoming more black-and-white every day: Once a pedophile, always a pedophile.Lock them up forever. Once a minister who hurt his or her congregation, always a minister who will. Take away their right to work in any other church. Once a criminal, always a criminal. “Three strikes and you’re out”. Lock them away for life. None of these are values we held 30 years ago. Many people today still don’t, in the recesses of their heart, because they want to have hope.
Without hope, life is not worth living. And yet, we don’t want to be naive and foolish enough not to protect ourselves from a credible threat. Pedophiles, pastors, criminals of all sorts shouldn’t be trusted until they’ve proven they can be. But what if they do prove it? What if they do grow and change? What if they do see their lives and change them? What if they refuse to pass on the horrible lives they been given? What of they swear to themselves that their children will not know the horrors they did?
John the Baptist and Jesus both called us to “repent”. We somehow misunderstand that. We think that “repentance” means apologizing.and saying we’re sorry. It doesn’t. The Hebrew word for “repentance” is “shoov” and it means, “turn around, go back, return to the right way”. Apologizing is a step in that process, but it is not the whole process. And yet, we in modern times, stop there. Why would be called to something we cannot do? .Let us have more hope than that. Let us demand more of ourselves and our brothers and sisters in humanity. Let’s ask for, and believe in, real repentance.
The other option — lock people in emotional jails of “you’re stuck” or lock them in actual jails for $80,000 per year — doesn’t seem to be working. Not when you know people like the man whose getting married.