I haven't blogged in a while because I've been busy but, recently an event that happened which perturbed me enough to pick up my sententious and pugilistic pen. The 20 year old son of a friend was recently arrested with drugs. Drugs are scary. Just as a drunk driver can hurt or kill themselves or others, drugs can hurt and kill. Well, most drug users use them in the privacy of their own home and are less likely to harm others but, they do run the risk of damaging their own bodies and creating issues in their normal day to day living. If someone has a drug problem, arresting them does nothing to assuage their addiction. It will be far from mollifying but intensifying any problem they may have. Punishment takes away his life. Only treatment and support from family, friends and the community will help unencumber him from the appetite of chemical dependency. People with support, mercy, compassion and purpose are more amenable to discipline and healing.
Take the scary and often moniker-ed "gateway drug" marijuana. Most everyone I know uses it or has used it and I bet that most everyone you know falls into the same category - or they're lying. So why isn't most of our population drug addicts? Because they don't have that addiction gene? I have alcohol in my house and I rarely consume it. I do drink but I don't have to. I have no need or strong desire to imbibe in it. I'm not a drinker but I enjoy the product on occasion with friends.
I have several fiends who admit to doing cocaine, heroin or ecstasy in their pasts (I work in the church. I run across these people a lot. What is the church for if not for sinners?). Once they got the fad of drug experimentation out of their systems, they went on to lead productive and professional lives, raising families and leaving drugs behind them. Would they like to indulge again once in a while? I'm sure but, they "grew up" and recognized that it affects their productivity and living a real life.
Many of our politicians and technological geniuses have indulged in temporary drug use: Clinton, Bush, Obama, Steve Jobs. If any of those men were ever caught and thrown into prison, none of them would be the men they are today for they would be convicted felons and not eligible to work in the professions they have chosen. Can you imagine what our world would be like if Steve Jobs was given a forty year prison sentence instead of freely practicing his craft in pursuit of genius and perfection?
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R) who is an outspoken state assemblyman who serves on the chamber's Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee — and had the effrontery to vote against medical marijuana — was recently busted for possessing pot. He was pulled over on the state Thruway for going 80 miles an hour in a 65 mph zone when a trooper detected a palpable odor redolent of pot wafting from his car. Katz was on his way to Albany to vote on legislation while under the influence, BTW. All charges were dropped against him. Hmmph. Membership has its privileges.
Even our best athletes in the world have smoked weed. "Disgraced U.S. Olympian Nick Delpopolo " is what the headlines read last summer after he failed a drug test. Why is he disgraced when so many other people use the drug with impunity? The Bureau of Statistics doesn't even research marijuana deaths each year because the number is so insignificant. Our government has lied and frightened the public for decades about this safe, natural medicine. Nobody beats their wife or kids, loses their job, gets in accidents, rapes or murders, or blows their paycheck on pot. Alcohol? That's a different story. Nick's life, career and dream of greatness in service to our country through sports is now ruined by societal prejudice due to the unjust prohibition laws of cannabis.
Here are just a few of the many highly motivated athletes who have used drugs:
* Usain Bolt, the 2008 World Record holder of the 100 and 200 meter sprint.
* Michael Phelps, the most decorated swimmer ever with 14 Olympic gold medals.
* Tim Lincecum, the National League baseball’s Cy Young Award winner for 2009.
* Santonio Holmes, the Super Bowl XLII’s MVP.
* Mark Stepnoski, two-time Super Bowl champion. "I'd rather smoke than take painkillers."
* Randy Moss, NFL single season touchdown reception record (23, set in 2007), and the NFL single-season touchdown reception record for a rookie (17, in 1998). Moss has founded, and financed many charitable endeavors including the the Links for Learning foundation, formed in 2008.
* Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leader in points scored (38,387), games played, minutes played, field goals made, field goal attempts, blocked shots and defensive rebounds. During his career with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers from 1969 to 1989, Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA championships and a record six regular season MVP Awards. He has a prescription to smoke marijuana in California, which he says he uses to control nausea and migraine headaches. He has been arrested twice for marijuana possession.
* "Most of the players in the league use marijuana and I have and do partake in smoking weed in the off season" - Josh Howard, forward for the Dallas Mavericks. Howard admitted to smoking marijuana on Michel Irvin's ESPN show.
* "You got guys out there playing high every night. You got 60% of your league on marijuana. What can you do?" - Charles Oakley (Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets)
* "I personally know boxers, body builders, cyclists, runners and athletes from all walks of life that train and compete with the assistance of marijuana," —WWE wrestler Rob Van Dam
* Some of the best cricket players of all time, like Phil Tufnell and Sir Ian Botham, have admitted to regularly using marijuana to deal with stress and muscle aches. In 2001, half of South Africa's cricket team was caught smoking marijuana with the team physiotherapist. They were celebrating a championship victory in the Caribbean.
Where would any of those un-convicted criminals be today had they been caught and arrested before they achieved greatness? Yes, drugs are bad and I would not encourage anyone to take or abuse them. However, are they as bad as we have been led to beleive or are we just not able to make money off of them as well as say, alcohol which kills tens of thousands of people each year? Are those deaths acceptable to our predominately Christic society?
My biggest complaint here is not drugs. It is the arrest of this twenty year old. Millions of people before him, right now and in the future will do drugs and not get caught. They will then go on to lead normal and productive lives without incident. They either lead a life so boring that they are easily enchanted or they lead a life so full of stimulus that are are easily bored so, drugs were a temporary experiment. This twenty year old will most likely become a convicted felon, do prison time, have the stigma of a conviction on his record, have difficulty procuring housing because of background checks and drug registries, endure numerous desultory attempts at finding a job, he'll have zero credit and he will most likely live off the largess of the social services and the taxpayer's dime. He will be judged differently from normal, phantasmagorical good people with a prepossessing Christian artifice. He will be labeled with the delineating modifier of "criminal" and his productivity to society will be a patent waste. His life will be larded with more problems than an algebra textbook. Most likely he is no different than anyone else. He just got caught.
Nobody is the worse thing that they've ever done. A conviction and doing prison time will not help this kid if he has a problem. It will certainly not help him when he gets out and tries to put his life back in order. If he has a drug problem, then he should be treated for it, not punished. Our entire justice system is designed for punishment and profit. Prisons should be for people who are a threat to others and not a warehouse for politicians, judges, DA's and law enforcement people to win elections and win grant money.
A story I often like to tell is about a friend who as a teen would ensconce himself on a bridge and throw pumpkins onto a highway below. Fortunately he never hit a car and he was never caught. Had he been caught or had he hurt anyone, he would have done many years in prison. He wasn't caught, he went on to college, got married, became very active in his church, had kids and now works for corporate America as a manager of a nationally recognized chain. Should he have been punished? I don't know. Had he been caught, his life would be drastically different today. With a felony conviction on his record, he wouldn't have gone to college, probably not be married and his kids wouldn't exist. He does more good for society today than society would have gotten out of him by punishing him.
Winston Churchill once said that “One of the most unfailing tests of a civilization is how a country treats its criminals.” Most criminals return to the streets in a worse state than when they were arrested. Prison turns good people bad and bad people worse. A better solution for crime would be a restorative justice approach.
In The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, Jack Kornfield describes an African forgiveness ritual: "In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe."
Too bad for those of us who profess to be Christians, that Jesus didn't show us another way. Maybe those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear, know that way. But, not to act is to act.
A favorite discussion topic of mine is addressing why churches across the country are failing or seeing diminished attendance with no sign of growth. I have seven theories and I'd like to share my thoughts on the first. So, keep in mind the old saying that the devil doesn't need to beat the church, he needs only to join it. St. Augustine once said of the church, "So many sheep without, so many wolves within."
Prayer is the least thing you can do for someone while still getting to grandstand like you are actually doing something. That may sound harsh and irreverent but, if I fall and break my leg, don't pray for me - call an ambulance. Then plan to come over for a few weeks to help with cooking and cleaning, then we can pray together in thanksgiving and praise for the gift of friendship, healing and ministry. After all, isn't that what church is all about, taking care of their, uhm, own?
Religion is a great comfort - to a world torn apart by religion because we confuse the wrappings with the goods. Let’s say Jane Doe walks out into a field one day and sits under a tree eating carrots. For whatever cosmic reasons she becomes enlightened and when she returns home everybody can see that she’s got a light around her the size of Manhattan. Within a week there would be thousands of us sitting under trees eating carrots. Once a year on that day there would be carrot celebrations and rituals, rules and recipes. That particular species of tree would become holy and we might even wear carrot pendants around our necks. We’d wind up killing people on the other side of the world who aren’t interested in hearing about Jane. Churches and pastors would spring up all over the place charging $200 per weekend to help us look and act more like Jane. But Jane’s enlightenment may not have had anything to do with the tree or the carrot or what she was wearing or her personality. Like the Buddha said, "Don’t follow in my footsteps, instead, seek what I sought." Jesus said "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God." Hafiz said simply, "Wherever God lays His glance life starts clapping and the myriad creatures grab their instruments and join the Song." We would go to the mall to purchase stuff to show off their Jane spirit.
Some of the most hate-filled, unforgiving, uncompassionate and merciless people I have ever encountered have been good church people (watch for my future "Mabel" blog). A lot of the aforementioned qualities fall insidiously neat under the banner of Christianity. I haven't been able to figure out why but I can only surmise that it parallels with what Shakespeare said, “Thou protesteth too much.” Maybe it is that we hate most in others what we fear in ourselves. Maybe we are afraid of looking into the abyss and seeing what is staring back at us. Maybe a vast number of church goers espouse that arrogance because they live beneath the mask of goodness. The only way to deny what they fear within themselves is to stand on the sins, failures and faults of others. Now, if your church is different, ask yourself if they would allow a murderer, drug dealer or sex offender to openly become a member of your congregation. Nowhere else does the query “What would Jesus do?” hold so much irrelevance when you ponder allowing undesirable and sinful lepers to sit in the pew with your family. All are welcome, except for those people.
We discourage people from the church in order to keep the gene pool, as it were, clean and, protecting existing members is more important than fighting sin. Many people who commit crimes and get arrested are good people who made mistakes, who got carried away with power and privilege or had a lapse in judgment. Does that make them bad people? Does that mean they can't learn, change or grow? Do they deserve second chances? Do we even know who is sitting in the next pew? Oscar Wilde, who was sent to prison for three years because he was gay said, "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."
Altemio Sanchez was a pillar of his community, trusted and professional. He was a church lector and Eucharistic Minister. He also raped and murdered over ten women during a twenty year period. He got away with it because the police arrested and framed the wrong guy. Case closed, bonuses for everyone. So, Altemio hung low for a while. Despite that, he was trusted, loved and respected every Sunday in his own community flying well below the radar of the other good people of his congregation until after a ten year hiatus he did it again and got caught. It was a shock. Nobody saw it coming. "He was such a good man."
Does a man change because you know more about him? The answer is no but the new knowledge about someone can bring to the surface of our personalities some latent prejudice, hate of fear which is often stronger than faith and has little to do with the person. It is easier to hate the gentle and child-like Frankenstein monster because you can label him than it is to face our own nascent monster within. We humans do protest too much especially when we can point an accusatory finger at someone worse. Remember, burning witches at the stake did nothing to resolve the witch problem, it just exposed more witches in our midst.
I once had a man come up to me after Mass to inquire about joining our music ministry. He said that he played the drums professionally and was looking for a church to belong. He told me that he just got out of prison and was looking for a church that kisses the leper clean. I told him that I would love a professional drummer and he could start with our variety show which was that weekend. He joined me and he gave our music new life. I never asked him about his past. We were a church. It was irrelevant. All are welcome. Cast the first stone, and all that.
After a few weeks of playing, the priest came up to me and asked me who that new musician was and without thinking I said that he was a guy who just got out of prison and was looking to get his life back on track. Fr. Leonard then approached him and told him that he likes to meet with everyone who is looking to join the parish and would like to set up an appointment with him. The drummer eagerly acquiesced.
The following Sunday, the drummer didn't show up for Mass. He didn't show up for rehearsal or for Mass the following week either. Since I didn't have a phone number for him there was no way to make contact so I asked Fr. Leonard if he had that meeting or if he knew why the drummer didn't come back. Leonard just said that at their meeting, they both agreed that this parish was not a right fit for either one of them. That was very strange because without knowing of his past, everyone made him feel welcome, loved, valued and respected and, he was eager to share his talent, faith, prayer life, witness and growth with us. I can only surmise that it was Leonard who didn't make him feel welcome.
A few years later, Leonard told me about a time when he was a priest at another church. There was a DWI accident where the intoxicated person was a state trooper. He crashed head-on into a van carrying a family and there were serious injuries. The trooper was unharmed and quickly whisked away from the scene by his cop friends in collusion to sober him up. There were no charges lodged against him, it was just an accident. Leonard witnessed the accident, knew that the trooper was intoxicated and was livid at the scandalous injustice so he decided to contact the DA and demand justice or he was going to go to the press. That same day, Leonard got a phone call from the bishop and was told that he had three hours to pack up as he was being moved to a new parish immediately. Leonard the ever obedient company man could take a hint and never mentioned the case to anyone. Shortly after the accident, one of the victims died from their injuries.
A few months later the state trooper completed suicide. Leonard said “Finally, justice is served.” He totally lost my long waning respect for him on that day. Social psychologist Ian McKee, PhD, of Adelaide University in Australia said that "People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status. They don't want to lose face. They must be right at all costs." The few people that I have known who desired revenge or justice, seem to base their justification on some presumed idea that they were owed something. Usually the "revenge" sought was somehow related to addressing a presumed injustice. The priest in the above story rests on the assumption that his personal standards should be accepted as universal. This viewpoint suggests that the individual has some secret access to the universal good. Such a viewpoint will eventually be unsatisfactory because it doesn't allow room for personal or spiritual growth. He felt that the suicide was justice and thus acceptable to him and right for society.
One of the flaws in our present legal system is the emphasis on punishment instead of restorative justice which would address the needs of the victim as much as the action and correction of the violator. Sending someone to prison only makes them hate society and when they get out they feel that society owes them so they look for ways to take - often gleefully living off the largess of the social service department and taxpayer. Instead of becoming a productive member of society they become a drain on its resources and a leper because we won't rent to them nor hire them nor let them into our good churches. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is just another way of arrogantly saying "We don’t forgive you."
Rather than providing closure for the victims and survivors, revenge does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh. I don't think revenge is really sweet. If it is, it's an artificial sweetener. It may feel good to get back at someone by sending them to prison for decades, but the feeling won't last. My priest friend continues this day as a bitter, hateful, spiteful, vengeful person who surrounds himself with others with as much venom and blackness of heart as he possesses. They spend a considerable amount of time at their men's prayer group meetings talking about other people and since a church’s most effective information source is its congregation, be it good news or gossip, they spread the word. That word reaps what it sows. Those with eyes to see, see and now his church is near death.
Leonard does however give great homilies and inspires many people. Sometimes when someone knows the truth and they don't live it, they protest too much, in this case at the ambo in front of an adoring audience, with great fervor. He is very successful at grooming them into thinking he is holy. I don't want to fall into the trap of Godwin's Law so I'll just say "Heil!" as an example of this phenomenon.
The people who choose to seek revenge perhaps do so because they think it will make them feel better and they don't care or haven't thought about how it could actually make things worse. Gavin Staulters operated a motor vehicle in an intoxicated condition and crossed onto the shoulder, striking and killing 14 year old Kari Liedel. Gavin was sentenced five years in prison and Kari's mother said that she wished the sentence could have been longer. The community and DA were outraged, too. Their anger, hate and thirst for revenge is going to haunt them the rest of their lives because they didn't get what they think they wanted and Gavin supposedly got off easy. In this case, nobody won. If they first practiced restorative justice, forgiveness, compassion and healing mercy, everyone could win. The tragic and avoidable death of Kari was because of stupidity, immaturity and weakness, not malice. Revenge comes at a price. Instead of helping you move on with your life, it can leave you dwelling on the situation and remain unhappy because the revenge or justice wasn't sweet. Meanwhile the offender goes on often unaware of the hurt the other person is festering with. How ironic that our justice system just perpetuates this victimization of the victims. Kari's birth into new life could have been the impetus of healing enlightenment for many.
Will more laws and more harsh punishment solve the DWI problem or bring Kari back? There will always be drunk drivers and they will always be with us as long as there are people, alcohol and cars. If I fall off a ladder and break my leg, you wouldn’t hate the ladder but you may compassionately heal me. Too bad, before we carried out the death penalty on that convicted felon, Jesus, who most likely, he and his friends would not be welcome in many of our churches today, that we didn't learn his lessons about restorative justice. I believe it was Gandhi who was asked,
"You are always quoting Jesus. Why don't you become a Christian?"
"When I meet a Christian who acts like Christ, I will become one."
Historically, there are two schools of thought on revenge. The Bible, in Exodus 21:23, instructs us to "Give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." Punish the offender. But more than 2,000 years later, Martin Luther King Jr., responded, "The old law of 'an eye for an eye' leaves everybody blind." Abraham Lincoln famously turned his back on some crimes because he knew that punishment would not benefit anyone. Hate begets hate. Buddha called it "Karma." Jesus said "Do unto others." The world says "What goes around comes around." The laws of physics are true even in our congregations: Every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Hate begets hate, absolutely.
I offered a church the opportunity to get involved in a prison ministry where I offer support, comfort and assistance out of my own pocket to the families of those incarcerated. The families are the collateral damage of our justice system and they are often too ashamed to even go back to church (they are a goldmine of new members and wounded healers). The church responded by saying that that ministry was not for them nor where they wanted to go at this time. They then organized great and lucrative fish dinners for the Fridays of Lent. Yay, praise Jesus (He likes fish and money).
So my first reason people don't look to join churches: Many churches lack vision for compassion and love; Many churches fear sinners; and many churches have apathy for people who are not good, like them. When looking for a church to join because you wish to be closer to God and make a difference in the world, would you join a church who first screens out the people whom you are looking to save?
Disgraced SC Governor Mark Sanford said "Don't judge any one person by their best day, don't judge them by their worst day. Look at the totality, the whole of their life, and make judgments accordingly." The highly effective cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer is unfortunately best known for his greatest failure. If Jesus hung out with and went where the people spit and swear, lie and cheat, kill, rape and do filthy things, then who was it that came up with the bright idea to make the church some kind of anesthetized clinical environment of only "good" people, that is removed from the rigors of everyday life?
In a world gone mad with mistrust and alienation, the church like never before must present faith as a dynamic and relevant force for change and enlightenment. It must be as yeast and unsettle the mass around it making the comfortable uncomfortable. As a weird Biblical aside, I don't think Christ advocated revenge or praying for things from a selfish position or to alienate undesirable people. I think churches that operate that way are doomed because church seekers with their hearts in the right place can see the hypocrisy and futility of the institution. Before praying, maybe we should get up and do something such as kissing lepers clean, then praise God for the gift of love, for one another and for healing action - even for the lepers. Some good people would vehemently protest - "That is well and good but, not in my church!" And that, is a church nobody wants to be part of.