Sunday Mornings

Sunday Mornings are nice. The family and I get out to restaurants before the church folks, so we can get a table without an hour wait. The unchurched have longer weekends, and on Super Bowl Sunday, that’s even better (I was tempted to say “super.”)

It’s one of the few times in the week when the four of us actually get to sit down to a meal together. In the past, I’ve used Sundays as a time to talk about religious topics, though of course, religion and God experiences are woven into our weeks by the people we encounter. The thing I have in mind to discuss today is an article on CNN called, A killing, a life sentence and my change of heart, by Jeanne Bishop. In 1991, the author’s pregnant sister and husband were murdered by a 16-year-old with a “history of violence.” The kid bragged about the killing, even attended the funeral, and the murder victim’s family was glad when the he was put away without parole.

We should be, too. One less violent criminal on the streets and in our neighborhoods.

But then Bishop had a change of heart—and this is not a new story—she repented and recanted her stance on juvenile life sentences. She thinks that her sister’s murderer deserves a second chance, and you have to wonder if juveniles who have been incarcerated, who have lived among our nations most violent criminals for the majority of their lives, even have the ability to be rehabilitated. Ever.

It’s this Christian ideal that “God makes people for a purpose” that is the impetus behind Bishop’s change in ideology. She, and others like her, believe in loving the killer, but not what he did. God wants his followers to forgive everyone, even the most violent, most innately evil people. In theory, it’s a wonderful idea. But I want to know this: if you have ever been in a loving relationship, what does it mean to love? Does it mean treating someone with kindness, speaking gently, taking care of each other? Can you truly love someone you don’t know, or are you just loving an idea, a concept, an image?

Why do I bring this up? Because statistics show that within 3 years of release, 67% of ex-offenders are back in jail. Do we really want kids who kill, who’ve never learned how to be good, who’ve been brought up in the violent prison atmosphere, to be released to live amoung us and our families? What good can come of it?

So Bishop—and others—believe that juvenile life sentences should be abolished because no one “is beyond the forgiveness and redemption and purpose of God.”

And it’s this logic that concerns me, because if a god redeems and forgives and gives man purpose, then why was this young man, as a teenager, forsaken by god to begin with?

It seems to me that this god makes people do stupid things sometimes. The idea that you have to forgive because HE wants you to: that defies common sense. How can you forgive because a stranger you’ve never met “wants” you to? People show who they are through their actions and their words and to assume they can be someone else is naive.

This is what I want to ask my kids: When and why should we forgive? What are the costs and benefits of forgiveness? Are some people irredeemably bad?

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54 responses to “Sunday Mornings

  1. I was pretty disappointed at the same story this morning when I read the line that “God makes everyone for a purpose”. It’s just another one of those excuses not to deal with things head-on, but instead to release the burdon on oneself and give it to an imaginary friend. It’s a flawed coping method that doesn’t do the rest of us any favors. It makes me lose my faith in humanity sometimes when I remember that this is the majority we live in but I’m full of hope again when I read your posts. I can’t put myself in the shoes of anyone who is a victim of a heartless crime like this so I will always give them a free pass to cope however they need to, but the rest of the ‘believers’ are what worries me.

    • @CC That’s true…I can’t imagine what it’s like to to be in their shoes. And I guess we all cope w/that kind of stress differently. But for all of our safety, hopefully, criminals like that won’t be released from jail.

  2. Forgiveness is something you give to yourself, a release from hate. Hate brews bad body juices (hormones, i.e. cortisol) which makes you sick with stress, wrinkles and cancer. For me it has nothing to do with the guilty person.

    • @Anonymous That is my view of forgiveness, too, and the reason why I don’t beleive someone else (god, your spouse, etc) can make you forgive.

  3. I am happy she is able to forgive her sister’s killer. But release? She doesn’t have the social right to do so. She would not be the only person that would be affected by this man’s release. I think people tend to forget the forgive and forget isn’t a realistic idea. Shoot, even god has hell for those souls that are unprenentable.

  4. I am a believer and I must say we all don’t have the same opinion about this subject. First, scripture says we reap what we sow. I think people who take the lives of other people should have their life taken away by a lifelong jail sentence. That doesn’t mean they can’t receive forgiveness from God. I believe the person who committed the crime has forfeited their right to be part of society permanently.

  5. I think this is almost the same as those who marry people on death row. I’ll never understand this.

    It has been a lovely sunday here too, I’ve been cross-country skiing today. My father went to church last sunday, he got invited to a worship service because they wanted to honor those who had died last month (my mum). He is no churchgoer at all, but went there, and saw nobody he knew! Only strangers. The priest wondered if he was a tourist… he has only lived here for the last 50 years or so… :-)

    • @metron…Sorry about your mom. I lost my dad this past summer, and it was a sad time. I guess your mum went to church, but dad did not, then? Or, in their town, they honor everyone who dies, regardless of whether they belong to the church?

  6. So by that logic, the two victims served what purpose in the grand design?

  7. This idea of forgiving because “God wants us to” allowed my mom to stay married to a convicted child molester for almost thirty years, including the fifteen he was in prison. There was more to it than that, but essentially her religious obligations helped her explain away or ignore all that he had done and all that he was. Her example taught me to do the same.

    I maintained a stilted, awkward relationship with him, even after he was released from prison over ten years ago – solely because I had been taught it was the right thing to do – but just a few months ago I finally decided that I needed to tell him how he had hurt my mom and me all those years and that I was no longer going to have a relationship with him. It wasn’t healthy for me.

    My mom still doesn’t understand, but this is the only thing that has allowed me to begin to heal from the years of hurt. I haven’t regretted it even once. I hope she can eventually do the same.

    • @MichaelB I applaud you for cutting the ties to someone toxic, no matter who they are or what others say. That’s a tough thing to do and requires a lot of emotional strength. But you’re absolutely doing the right thing. (And I know people, too, who use religion to excuse others for bad behavior…such a shame.)

  8. This is a tough one for me because I have mixed feelings about “forgiveness.” To me, it seems like a very religious term so I feel like it’s something that religious people do. I can’t say that I have ever felt “forgiveness” but I have learned to move on and heal. Maybe that’s the same thing. I also have mixed feelings about letting someone off the hook because that’s what God would want. Why do we punish people at all then? It seems like this is some kind of loose interpretation of sorts. How would one feel if they forgave someone for killing their loved one, gave them a second chance in the name of God, then this person goes out and kills someone else? It sounds like this is a likely scenario. Then someone else becomes a victim that might not have been had the person not gotten that second chance. Just because your forgive someone, it doesn’t mean that person will become a “good” person.

  9. I believe that some people who have murdered are not beyond the point where they could be safe enough to return to society. There are a lot of factors to weigh regarding their circumstance.

    On one end of the spectrum, I wouldn’t be too worried about releasing a person who killed someone who had been abusing them. On the other end you have people that are just clearly, dangerously violent, perhaps the young man in question here, and others like Brenda Spencer, a school shooter back in the 70′s who explained her actions with, “I don’t like mondays, this livens up the day.”

    That said, the idea that a person who commits an atrocity and then prays for forgiveness should be considered reformed is disgusting.

    • @Brad D. Thanks for writing. I agree. I think at the heart of the prison reforms, what you wrote here bothers me the most because there has really been no impetus (except a selfish one) to reform: “That said, the idea that a person who commits an atrocity and then prays for forgiveness should be considered reformed is disgusting.”

  10. Forgiveness has no place in our legal system. At it’s core, it is a personal experience meant to heal one’s self, not the person being forgiven.

    Incarceration on the other hand is a penalty for failing to follow the rules of society. Sometimes it’s 30 days, sometimes it’s life. And that time should assume ‘good behavior’. The sentence should be extended for the lack of it and not the other way around.

    That being said, sentencing a child to ‘life’ in prison should be a rare exception as the essence of who they are is often deeply connected to the society that raised them. A better solution would be to create an incarceration environment for these juveniles that gives them the opportunity to live and learn as they should have from the start. It may not fix them, but it shouldn’t leave them further damaged once their time is served.

    • @Andy I guess what bothered me most about this particular case is that the boy was 16. At 16, these kids drive. They know right from wrong. He thought it was funny to go to the victims funeral. I agree with you, though, that many kids are not that bad and need a better environment to live and learn…Also, seems like there should be some sort of payback to the victims and society in the form of good deeds or community service work…Perhaps. Also, good point in your first sentence about forgiveness is personal & not for the person to be forgiven…

  11. Having experienced something similar and yet having an even closer relationship to the people who committed the crime, I’ve come to realize that the act of forgiveness is more for ourselves than for those who commit the crime. It’s so that you are not holding onto to hatred for the rest of your life, I feel anyway. But while I have in a sense forgiven what the two people in my life did, I do not whatsoever feel they should ever be released from where they are at. And naturally, I won’t ever forget what they did and would certainly never just go back to feeling about them the way I did before the event. But I don’t hold any hatred in me towards them either. I also do not believe in the death penalty. Yeah, sounds kind of weird but I don’t feel that it actually accomplishes anything, not for the criminal or for the victim. I think healing can even be prevented by the death penalty. My husband disagrees entirely and it’s one of those topics we don’t really talk about because there’s just too much emotion behind it.

    There was actually a very interesting essay I was given about forgiveness and if I recall correctly, it was written by a priest. Forgiveness doesn’t mean to forget what the person did or to go back to how things were before they committed the crime. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself in order to be able to move on.

    • @Janeen I’m sorry that you’ve had to go through something like this…I agree with. Forgiveness is for the victims, so that anger doesn’t eat away from the inside. As another commenter wrote, though, it doesn’t belong in the criminal justice system. I agree with you on the death penalty. As a humane society, we can’t take the life of someone in the name of justice because it makes us killers, too. Also, if there is even one person mistakenly put to death (and there have been a few), that’s too many…

      • Oh I absolutely agree with you. I may forgive the people who commit the crime but they are exactly where they belong, harsh as that is to say, for they have proven that they cannot be trusted to be out in society and “finding God” makes no difference to me whatsoever in that regard.

  12. Yet, it doesn’t have to be about bibical forgiveness.  Look to Norway- a 72% atheistic nation which maintains their maximum prison sentence at 21 years (even for murder).  Their prisons are relatively comfortable and cushy compared to ours; however, their incarceration rate and their recividism rate are incredibly lower than ours.  Part of what works in Norway is the philosophy behind how they manage crime.  With bibical forgiveness, you are forgiven of any atrocity for simply accepting Christ- where is the rehabilitation in that? I don’t think our prison system is working here in America, and I do believe we need to look to other countries to see how they manage their crime rates so well.   

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/07/norwegian-v-american-justice

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/07/25/despite-recent-shootings-norway-is-a-low-crime-nation/

    • @jmrue I watched a show about the prisoners in Norway a while ago, and another thing they do is they have them pay their debt to society through work. They also all have jobs and receive counseling with the belief that everyone, even murderers, are capable of reform.

  13. I found the story by Ms. Bishop interesting until the religious aspect was brought up. Human beings are complex and we all have opinions and beliefs (even “non-believers”). Forgiving someone because you need to do this personally to move on (as @Janeen said very well), is not the same as releasing someone from Prison. What if “God’s purpose” for this kid is to be in prison the rest of his life? Generalities in thought cause class stratification, racism and prejudice (among other things).

  14. Doing anything (or not doing it) because God tells you to is an abdication of your responsibility as a thinking human being with free will.

    Regardless of her motivation, if Bishop’s forgiveness lets her sleep better at night, good for her. But as noted by someone else, it should not in any way influence the release of a murderer and the subsequent endangerment of others. The man owes a debt to society and the law. His incarceration has nothing to do with God or Bishop’s forgiveness.

  15. Awsome. I am so overwhelmed by the pure and simple logic of this site.
    Keep up the good work
    Tim

  16. I guess I have two comments/questions about this post. First, you worry a lot about the way religious people approach the concept of forgiveness, punishment and their God, but you really don’t propose any counter approach. You tell your kids to think about it, but you really present no concrete ideas.

    Second, I see little in here addressing the purpose of punishment. There are really two aspects of it, and the purpose and usefulness of both need to be carefully looked at. First, the purpose of punishment is to discourage others from performing similar acts. Second, the purpose of punishment is to encourage the person being punished to reform and not commit the act again.

    Now clearly you can solve both parts of these by taking anyone who commits any criminal act and executing them. Obviously the downside of this is that if we are wrong, and we frequently are, then there is no way to undo the punishment. The question becomes, what is fair and appropriate, and how do we judge what is fair and appropriate?

  17. Wow that was deep and right on. I am enjoying your blog more and more. Never felt right at home. Feels good to have Sundays with family which is most important in my life.

  18. Forgiveness is such a complex topic it’s hard to know where to start. Let me just begin to scratch the surface. For Christians it’s a core concept of faith. If we don’t accept the forgiveness that god made available by allowing his son to be executed, then we will be tortured in hell for eternity. And if we don’t forgive others then we will not be forgiven by god, leading again to our being tortured in hell for eternity. So any discussion of forgiveness is clouded with these beliefs that so many have been taught since birth. Yes, holding a grudge and wanting revenge and never getting over that will make us bitter and unhappy people, so I guess after we have dealt with the problem and tried to make things right, we should probably forgive. It makes us feel better. I know it’s a cynical position, but if you have very low expectations for the behavior of other people you will discover that you are not being hurt or offended nearly as much and hence the need to think about forgiveness is greatly reduced.

  19. Executions used to be public offering a very graphic demonstration of swift justice. People knew what the price was for their crimes and only those who were already “too far gone” didn’t get the message. Today we hide this away and like video game violence it’s all too easy for us to just assume the problem was dealt with and go on with our lives taking little or no responsibility for our societies ills. There are many cases in which the perpetrator is know to be guilty; take the case going on right now with the 65 year old man holding a 6 year old boy in a bunker. If he comes out of there alive there will be years of legal wrangling and psychological testing etc. By the time the court case wraps we will all have forgotten the whole situation. Time is funny that way. However, if they manage to get the man and the boy out safely and the perpetrator is summarily executed on camera, the image will burn a little deeper into our collective consciousness and it just may deter future nut-jobs.

    I totally agree about Sunday mornings. Good table for breakfast, sleep in, do laundry, group cuddle with the kids. So many alternatives when you aren’t chained to the notion of going to a church because an all powerful supreme being can’t here you from home.

    • @Hetkey…That bothers me how we fixate on crimes–like the ones in Newtown or Conneticut, and then in a matter of days we forget about and go back to reading People Magazine and buying useless stuff. As you suggest–we never address the real issues and we don’t deal with crime in a timely fashion….

  20. @PiedType Very well said.

  21. The fact that in America, a juvenile can be tried as an adult and receive a life sentence is a perversion of justice. The fact that this life sentence may be without parole is even a greater perversion of justice: there are countless studies by doctors showing that teenagers’ brains don’t function the way adults’ brains do and the teens, thus, may not be fully capable of understanding the consequences of their impulse-based actions.

    The the ultimate perversion of justice – and this is one of the reasons I despise Texas – is the capital punishment with which this state seems to be almost obsessed. But in the best traditions of hypocrisy, that oh-so-religious Texas is loudly yelling “Human life is sacred” and tries to suppress abortions. Apparently, a bunch of cells (sorry, I don’t believe the nonsense that life begins at the moment of conception) is more important that an already-existing life even though that life may belong to the worst of our species.

    I am a lifelong (and happy :-) atheist and to many religious people, “an immoral person”. One of my values is “human life is unique and thus sacred no matter what, period”. There’s no “but” in it for me. And while I don’t believe in life beginning at conception, I, of course, am and have always been against late-term abortions for there’s a moment after which a bunch of cells becomes a human being.

    • @skresla Hi. Yes, I totally agree with you about Texas and capital punishment. I was just talking with someone about this. It is hypocritical–and against everything Jesus taught–for us as a society, to kill another as punishment, especially knowing that our criminal justice system is so prone to mistakes. As for the juveniles, I do agree that the teen brain is not fully formed (and yet we allow them to drive and go into the military), but when we put that young person in jail who has already proven to have violent tendencies and they are raised with the prison culture, we create criminal adults. To let them out into society with the 67% statistic of returning to jail just seems to be dangerous for the rest of the society. We don’t reform in prisons.

      And I do have a problem with people suddenly finding the Lord, and thus they are “saved” and releasable or with the victim’s family finding the lord and realizing that the criminal deserves a second chance.

  22. Forgiveness is a funny word. My dad molested me as a child. No charges were pressed and he never spent time in jail for it. A few years ago when he was dying of pancreatic cancer his family was appalled that I wouldn’t go to him and tell him that I forgave him. I was quite offended by this. I am in my 30′s happily married to my high school sweetheart and we have two awesome kids. I have been to counseling and have put it behind me and moved on. BUT I DO NO FORGIVE HIM! What he did was unforgivable! I do not think about it, or him. It is not a part of my daily life. I’m not carrying around hate for him….I have NOTHING for him. He is nothing to me. As far as I’m concerned the man who raised me is my Dad, not him. Does that mean I forgive him?! Heck No! Why should I give him the satisfaction of dying in peace? He didn’t give me the satisfaction of a peaceful childhood!

    • @Anonymous The last couple of lines are a good way of putting it because he really did, amoung other crimes, rob you of a peaceful childhood. I have a gf in a similar situation, and I know it’s a long, hard struggle.

  23. See the movie ‘Saving private Ryan’ and have another take on penalties for forgiveness…..

  24. I really like the kinds of questions you propose. Coming from a Christian background myself, we are told this is right and this is wrong “because God said so.” But now I look for the explanation behind that. It’s easier to tell a child “God says turn the other cheek,” than to explain the effects of stress from harboring hatred and resentment. Or to understand things from the offender’s point of view. We are gettiing collectively “smarter” with each generation, and we want to know, “But why” and “What happens if I do or don’t do this?” We want to explain things without god, because we’re complex enough to handle it.

    • @AprilWolfe I agree-it is actually more work to teach our kids morals rather than just handing them over to the church. I used to teach, and I’d tell my students that, even though TX is falling behind in some subjects, our criminals are getting smarter….haha. As a whole, though, these past two hundred years have been amazing in terms of our intellectual growth.

  25. The larger problem in the USA is that we haven’t collectively decided whether incarceration is for punishment or rehabilitation. Chances are that, unless the juvenile is severely mentally ill, they could be rehabilitated if that was the primary focus. But forgiveness is irrelevant. Attaching a number of years (as if X years will make someone “learn their lesson” as opposed to Y) is also irrelevant and ill conceived.

    Forgiveness needs to be earned, just like respect. @dam thanks for the post!

    • @Trevor I agree forgiveness is irrelevant to anyone except the victim (to assuage anger). I think it would be hard to rehab a juvenile who grew up in a violent prison system…would have to separate the kids out from the beginning, I think…

  26. The dilemma you present here is a valid one and most Christians don’t recognize their misunderstanding of two key concepts that lead to the dilemma you point out. While they are right that people should not be locked away for life, their basis for this comes from misunderstood premises. Premises that you identify in your post, even if you yourself don’t recognize the flawed premise.

    First, Christians and all of us moderns as a whole, grossly misunderstand what was meant by early Christians when it comes to the statement, “God created us all for a purpose”. To understand what people meant when they said this you need to look to the Aristotelian concept of telos. In short, telos = functional purpose. So when people today say that “God creates everyone with a purpose” they are repeating what people have been saying for centuries, but not meaning what they say. The Princess Bride comes to mind here… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2y8Sx4B2Sk

    The other underlining premise that is flawed here is the concept of love. We as a society have confused love with lust, love with affection and love with desire. Traditionally love was willing the good of the other as other. This love is demanded by their inherent human dignity. That means that you CAN love another willingly even if you don’t like them.

    If we view this scenario in light of this definition of love, things are much clearer. We see that locking someone up may be the “good” for that person at that time. We see that letting someone out after suffering the consequences of their actions may be the “good” for that person at that time. And leaving them in jail longer may be that “good” for that person at that time.

    what we do see however, is that in light of this definition of love, locking someone up “forever” may not be the best “good” for that person or society down the line. Why should we make that decision when we don’t have to? Seems intellectually lazy to me in addition to not desiring the best for another as other.

    • @JoeK I guess I still don’t understand your definition of love and “willing the good of the other as other.” We seem to get caught up in the idea of love, when really it should be an expression of how you feel about someone through actions and words. Thus, I cannot love someone I don’t know.

  27. I fail to understand the flawed logic many of those “believers” use. They believe God has a hand in things that happen, and good or bad, it’s “God’s will.” But when you challenge them and ask them why God makes people do bad things, they say, oh, man has free will and just challenged God’s will.
    o_O Anyone else seeing the logic flaw there?

    It can’t be both ways. Either God causes everything, or man’s free will causes everything.

    If it’s the God causes everything (including natural disasters) argument, then WHY THE FRAK would you WANT to believe in a god who creates stuff like that???? WHY??? Why would you want to believe in such a petty, petulant, whimsical deity who apparently needs a pretty hefty time-out if he/she/it’s causing all the bad on this earth?

    And if man has free will, then man is behind good and bad and natural disasters are just flukes. So WHY believe in a god who lets people run amok?

  28. @dam … Your question directly makes my point. It is not my definition of love, it is the definition of love as it was understood by the giant’s shoulders we are jumping off of. Read Aristotle’s understanding of Love, read Thomas Aquinas’s. If those are too deep and you don’t have the time (I’m not saying inability I’m saying time please don’t be offended), read CS Lewis’ “the Four Loves” and you will see what their understanding was of love. We as a society no longer view love as, “willing the good of another as other”. That is, willing the objective good for someone because they are another fellow human being with inherent dignity solely because they are human. Because we have lost sight of that understanding of love, we no longer understand how we can “love” our enemies. To love someone is not to want to make them “feel” good. To truly love someone is to “will” the best for them. It does not mean you have to be attracted to them, it does not mean you have to make them “feel” good, and most of all it doesn’t mean you have to make them comfortable. I’m not trying to say people of religion can and people not of religion can’t. No I’m saying both groups have lost that concept and the loss of that concept is why we have the negative aspects of society we have today.

    • @Joe K…I have on my shelf and have already read, albeit 20 years ago, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Lewis.(In grad school I studied history of ideas.) I still don’t agree with your concept of love. I think we have to know and understand a person to love them (that doesn’t have anything to do with sexual love, although sometimes the two are tied together). I don’t think you can love your enemies or strangers.

  29. Ultimately, the issue boils down to who or what god truly represents. Believers in religious ethos are conditioned to never question. To question is akin to lack of faith. Faith will never be the problem. What one maintains faith in, the supposition, that’s the problem. When we know who and what god is, we’ll all understand why things are as they are.

    • @anonymous. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes. Faith means you don’t question what you don’t understand. You just just have faith. I don’t understand how doctors/scientists can go thru training and remain believers…

  30. I am a Steeler fan so it is almost a given that I don’t like the Ravens. Earlier this century, Raven Ray Lewis was involved in a fight that resulted in an indictment on murder and aggravated-assault charges. He ended up with obstruction of justice. I have listened to him talk about how great God is, how blessed he is, etc., and people (his fans) practically think of him as a saint. I want to hurl. But recently, I stopped to think that maybe he is sorry for what he did and he has changed. Maybe he has forgiven himself, if you will. Maybe he just threw a few punches and had nothing to do with the murder so he does not feel as if he did anything/too much wrong.

    I struggle with forgiveness and rehabilitation, and I am certain I would even if I did not have faith (though mine is not exactly rock-solid). I do believe that some (very few!) people can turn it around, but I have no idea how to determine if one has done that, because if you are wrong in that determination, the consequences can be deadly. As for forgiveness, I think others have said it best with forgiveness having to come within. Someone I love did a lot of bad crap. I did not so much forgive this person, but more just accepted it and moved on. It took me years to get to that point, but I am better for it.

    • @facie I like what you wrote about forgiveness and acceptance: “Someone I love did a lot of bad crap. I did not so much forgive this person, but more just accepted it and moved on. It took me years to get to that point, but I am better for it.”

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